What the hell even is this?

I haven’t written here in a while. A long while – five months to be exact – because blah blah busy season something something dark side politics whatever. The main reason I haven’t been writing here is that I’ve been vacillating between struggling in a dark place and barely mustering the ability to give fucks about anything, and . I have a good job, a loving family, a stable home life, and the thing about high-functioning anxiety and (recently diagnosed) Bipolar II-Depression is that none of that shit matters. When your brain chemistry is fucked up, things like logic and reason protect you about as well as those little paper cocktail umbrellas in a rain storm. If you’ve read any of The Bloggess’ posts, or Hyperbole and a Half, then you probably have an idea of what it’s like to wander around life while your brain tries to convince you that you’re a deadbeat and the world is better off without you.

Writing about mental health challenges is difficult. I’m going to just leave it at that. It’s difficult to describe the complex set of bizarre rules and rationalizations that your brain invents to get through everyday life, and it’s difficult because there’s a huge stigma around mental health – still. Where people wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg that they should just be positive and their leg would be fine, that they don’t actually need a cast or crutches, people have no problem sharing shit memes like this one:

I’m hardly the first person to comment on this, but I see a stupid ass meme like this almost every day. Who wants to be told that the treatment they’re getting that finally helped them live life semi-normally is bad and that they’re a bad person for accepting that treatment? Not me, and probably not many people. I won’t even get into the bullshit Happy At All Costs culture (mostly because Barbara Ehrenreich already covered it extensively in her book, Bright-Sided). GTFOH with that crap. But it perpetuates because who wants to be miserable? There’s a kind of peer pressure to be happy all the time, and that gets perpetuated on social media (which is where I see all these stupid ass memes) where everyone is looking for Instagram-perfect bodies and kids and yoga and whatever else.

Even without the stigma and the Happiness Cults all over the place (I’m looking at you, Instagram…), dealing with what’s going on in my head is difficult. I have the kind of anxiety where I am extremely sensitive to social rules and norms. Is my hair the right style? Did I put on mascara today? Am I dressed professionally enough? Will anyone notice that I’m putting on a facade and don’t actually care about this stuff, but okay maybe I care a little bit but I’m also antisocial and I’m just trying to get by…. Even a small slip-up can cause low-level anxiety and panic that lasts for days. The other day I was so focused on getting a report finished at work that I walked into the Men’s room by mistake – I had only just barely opened the door, noticed my mistake, and turned around, but a coworker was washing his hands and laughed. Now it’s all I can think about – OH MY GOD I WALKED INTO THE MEN’S ROOM! I HAVE MADE A GRAVE ERROR! Now I must concentrate heavily on how I can avoid making the same mistake in the future, even though all I can think about is making this mistake over and over and over again and mentally punishing myself for it.

Keep in mind, this is probably the first time I’ve done this in years – probably since I was a kid – and a) it’s not like I wandered in there and actually used the Men’s room blissfully unaware; b) no one’s privacy was violated; c) no one else saw me do it, other than the coworker washing his hands. I’m told that people do this shit all the time and it’s not a huge deal. But having anxiety means never forgetting a mistake, no matter how small it was.

So, unsurprisingly, it’s been difficult to muster the energy to write. When I feel good, I’m trying to catch up on all the mundane crap I’ve been neglecting while my anxiety was too bad to get laundry done or go to the post office. When I feel bad, I’m just trying to get out of bed and get to work so I can make enough money to pay for my psychiatrist who prescribes the drugs that keep me upright and functional. Recently, though, I’ve been forcing myself to do things that I enjoy – we have a local writers’ group, so I’ve started going to that; I went to see Roxanne Gay’s reading at Bayou Place; I saw Welcome to Night Vale when it came to town. It reminds me that I do actually enjoy things, and it helps keep me connected to those things so that when I do feel good I can do those things more often. I tasked myself with a writing project, and I’ve vowed to actually blog more (for real this time; seriously) or at least read more blogs and write some drivel here. Finding a reason to stay connected to this world is harder sometimes than others, but it’s usually worth the trouble.

Whatever, or something.

I guess it’s time to admit that I’m not just feeling weird, I’m experiencing a serious depressive episode. No, it’s not about politics. No, it’s not busy season anxiety. It’s more like I was sitting in a little boat looking at the scenery around me as I floated down the river and the scene change was so gradual that I didn’t even notice the landscape getting darker and more twisted. Now I don’t recognize my surroundings and I don’t know how to get back to where I was.

So what does this feel like? It feels an awful lot like nothing. I don’t feel anything. I’m not sad or mad or angry – when I reach down into the pit of my being there is literally nothing between me and the bottom, and the bottom feels much loser than it out to. It’s a frighteningly shallow emptiness. I WANT to care about things, but I don’t. I can’t. I don’t remember what caring about things feels like. It’s just an endless sea of empty feelings muddy puddle of meh.

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Depression is a funny thing. Not ha-ha funny, more like, “Wow, that’s weird and unfortunate, and I wish it would stop.” I’m on medication and I see a therapist, but sometimes the chemicals in my brain overpower my efforts and I just wake up with the worst case of IDGAF, but because I’m an adult, a professional, and a parent, I have to pretend I give a shit, but I’m constantly questioning my ability to pretend so most of my day ends up with an internal conversation like this:

Ugh, I have a meeting today. I don’t want to go, and I certainly don’t want to talk to anyone. But I can’t back out of this because I’m supposed to be leading the meeting. I hope no one figures out that I can barely muster the energy to shower, much less come to work. Oh god, did I remember deodorant? Normal people wear deodorant, right? Crap. No, wait, I think I remember deodorant this morning. Oh, but I forgot to wash my face. Oh well. No one will be watching my face. Wait no, everyone will. Crap. I’ll just walk to the store on my lunchbreak. Wait, is that weird? No, it’s normal to forget stuff. I’m sure it is. I mean it probably is. Does everyone realize I forgot to wash my face? I’m sure they do. Maybe I should wear makeup more often. No, then people would realize something had changed about me and the jig would be up. Shit, do I look like I’m talking to myself? I think people are starting to realize something is up. Oh god, someone is coming over to talk to me. Stay cool, man. Pretend you still know what feelings are like and you’re not currently a soul-less robot wading uncomfortably in a sea of feelings pretending you know how to experience life.

Most people think that you talk to someone, you take some meds, get a good night’s sleep, and then everything is hunky dory. That’s not how brain chemistry works apparently, and it’s frustration. I really want to be able to psych myself out and be well and cure my depression through forced happiness and magical thinking. But that doesn’t work either. It’s a struggle – sometimes you coast along feeling great, and sometimes you hit gravel on the track and you have to figure out a new plan. I mean, I SHOULD figure something out, but I’m having a hard time finding the mental and emotional wherewithal to do that.

So, you know, I reached out and told my friends what I’m going through because I think you’re supposed to do that kind of thing, and then I called my psychiatrist. So I guess, you know, whatever. Or something.

When your soul feels like a stranger

I’ve been struggling with spiritual issues and faith for as long as I can remember. I came from a mixed-denomination household–dad was Coptic Orthodox, mom was Southern Baptist–so developing a coherent theology was difficult. There were few Coptic churches around growing up, so I was distanced from the theology of the Coptic church, but I never felt connected to the Baptist church. It’s hard to feel connected to a church that tells you you’re a sinner and automatically have an extra hurdle because of the perception that your parents don’t believe in the same God. Worse, it’s hard to feel connected to God, Jesus, and Scripture. Growing up, it felt as though nothing I did mattered in a spiritual sense – I was a sinner, God didn’t love or notice me, and my prayers would go unnoticed, because I wasn’t ever going to be a “real” Christian.

We went to several different kinds of churches growing up – we went to special holiday services at the Coptic church in New Orleans and in Houston, but most of the weekly services were at a Baptist church until I was in Jr. High, then we went to a Quaker (or Friends) church for a while, we went to a Lutheran church once or twice, and for a while as an undergrad I went to an Episcopal church. When I got to grad school, I was attending University of St. Thomas here in Houston, so I started hanging out at the Chapel of St. Basil. I hung around Campus Ministry, and eventually one of the FSE sisters talked me into attending RCIA. It was life-changing for me – a church that encouraged and had a history of theological research? that encouraged asking questions? that didn’t tell you you were going to Hell because your parents weren’t from the same ethnic group? I was shocked. (Also, it was kind of awkward because it was also the church of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, a church that believes condoms and birth control is a sin, and for all the work Cool Pope has done to change the image of the church, it was also the church that appointed a former Hitler Youth as Pope. But I digress.)

So I’m a gung-ho Christian now, right? Church every Sunday, Bible study every day, can’t get enough of Jesus and the Rosary, right? Yeah. No. Not exactly. It’s not that easy to overcome 20+ years of predestination, believing that you’re a sinner in the hands of an angry God, and being a bright, intelligent woman in a community of people who believe that women in the workplace are what crashed the economy and ruined the American Dream for everyone. Hell, some of them even believed that allowing women to vote was what ruined the economy, and a smaller even older subset believed it was freeing the slaves and letting them work with the white folk that ruined America. (Yes, I grew up in the South. No, not everyone at church was like that, but y’all know if you grew up here you met people like that.) And then there was the feel-good non-denominationalists who believed that if you just smiled a lot and said Praise Jesus! often and put an Ichthus (not that they call it that – it’s the Jesus fish) on the back of your minivan that you’d get to heaven (see anything regarding Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church for evidence).

True Story – I had a Sunday School teacher for a 20-somethings class at a small Baptist church tell us that if you wronged someone and they wanted an apology, you should tell them that Jesus had already forgiven you and they should too. I asked for Biblical support and was labeled the class liberal and laughed at. True Believers don’t ask questions and don’t need facts or evidence – you know because you have faith. If you believe Jesus forgave you, then he did.

So I have a strained relationship with Christianity and religion. I’ve been living teetering on the edge of atheism and agnosticism most of my life, but with one foot still in the bucket of theological research and the occasional spark of faith (fun fact: Faith is my middle name). You know how sometimes you see a natural wonder so beautiful it blooms wonderment in you so powerful that it takes your breath away? That’s how I feel when I think about space, or when I look at photos of Old Faithful, or I hike up to a view at Elephant Rock State Park. The natural world is a huge source of spiritual wonderment and fulfillment for me, and I’m a natural skeptic, so yeah I’m naturally drawn to scientific thought. But there’s still that inclination of curiosity about What Comes Next, and that occasional fleeting spark of faith that keeps drawing me back to theological and theosophical questions. Marrying the skeptical, scientific part of my soul to the religious part of my soul has proven to be one of the most challenging parts of my life, and the result is that I often feel like a stranger to myself.

I don’t go to church, because I’m afraid of the rejection that happens, of the bias and questions people ask. I’m not a social person by nature, so I want to go in, get my fulfillment, and run before people can start crowding me with questions and introductions and Let’s Hang Out, or Do You Wanna Go To Bible Study, or Come To The Contemporary Service (No thanks. Contemporary services are for feel-good nondenominationalists who want God to fit into their pop culture box instead of trying to expand their brain to reach outside of their comfort zone). (Let’s not even talk about where I differ from most Christians on topics like gay marriage and other LGBTQ issues, birth control and abortion, and other hot-button topics.)

I want to believe. Mostly. But that feeling of being someone who would never be good enough for God so I should just stop trying is really hard to overcome. I’ve got shelves full of religious study books but you probably won’t see me in church, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.