Y’all know my preference for Halloween over most things, and that’s just my personality. Contrary to popular belief, I do genuinely enjoy the Christmas season. I do. I love the decorations and the fun, cheesy movies and I love Christmas carols even though I’m not religious. I love spending quality time with friends and family and the giving spirit.
What I do not like is how gift giving has morphed into a really robotic rat race in my family. I don’t entirely know how it got this way and I don’t know how to undo it. It irks me every year and this year it’s irking me even earlier.
What happens is this: in my family and extended family, it’s customary for each person to send out their Christmas list to everyone else. Excellent, nice. Then what happens is that some family members go out and buy up all (or almost all. or a good chunk.) of the items on said list immediately, leaving little else for others to get. What also happens is that there is this flurry of a million emails from various family members calling dibs on items or just informing us that items have already been bought for so-and-so. There is often another flurry of emails from folks asking if such-and-such was already bought for so-and-so? and if not, can I buy it? thaaaanks. This leaves me with an inbox full of emails from family and a whole hell of a lot of anxiety.
Once all of this happens in rapid succession, I have some choices to make. I have to decide if I want to try and open family members’ lists right away in an effort to beat other people to the “good gifts,” whatever that means. I have to decide if I want to send those emails asking if this gift has already been bought or not, and to do that I’d have to wait for responses before being able to just buy the damn thing. I have to decide if I want to then be the sender of the email saying hey I just bought such-and-such for so-and-so FYI ok byeeeee. And once I start getting those emails from others, I have to decide if I am going to go through them all so I can keep track of what has already been bought and what is still available.
Do you see how quickly the innocent sending out of Christmas lists has morphed into something so…yucky? It’s ridiculous and it stresses me the fuck out every. damn. year.
I struggle with it because I don’t see my extended family very often and I want to get them gifts that they want and will genuinely enjoy, and so we tend to rely on lists for those reasons. I, in turn, enjoy getting gifts from my list. Do they all need to be from my list? No. But some I’d really like.
I’ve experimented with opting out of different aspects of this Christmas gift list negotiation over the years. I’ve tried completely ignoring the flurries of emails and just bought from the lists what I wanted. That meant that some people got duplicate gifts and I included return info just in case. Less than ideal, but okay. There’s been a few years now where I’ve gone completely off the reservation and – gasp – got gifts for people that, gulp, weren’t on their lists! Did they enjoy them? I honestly don’t know. Was that Christmas season way less stressful for me? Hell yes. Were those gifts given from the heart with each recipient in mind? You bet they were.
A part of me would like to just do completely away with the gift giving. Just get rid of it. While that would definitely be easier, I do enjoy giving gifts and I’m not gonna lie, I like getting them as well. Just not this way. Not like this. Somehow the Christmas spirit got lost and I have no idea how to find it again. What’s the number for Hallmark?!
Soooooo here I find myself at the dawn of a new fa-la-la-ucking Christmas season and I have those same decisions to make. Maybe, for 2020, we can all agree that the adults get booze (their favorite kind of booze!) and the kids get candy (again, their favorite!). Or maybe we could all just take a fucking peppermint chill pill and settle down with the damn emails.
You know how boundaries are on a spectrum, right. On one side it’s rigid, and way over here on the other side it’s chaotic. I was raised firmly planted on the rigid side of the spectrum, and it shows. Dinner was at 6pm, every day, never failed. The laundry was done on Saturday morning, every Saturday morning. You call your parents on Sundays. Put simply, we had clear, predictable routines, expectations, and consequences for violating those expectations. As a kid, I didn’t think anything of it. I assumed it was normal. For the most part, I liked it. I’m a person who likes to know what’s coming next, and whether that’s because of the way I was raised or happily coinciding with the way I was raised has yet to be seen. Perhaps it’s both.
Put another way, I’m a person who likes to be in control. Control, structure, predictability all feel viscerally comforting to me. I crave them like I crave my morning coffee. Feeling out of control, at the very least makes me feel cranky or irritable, and at worst makes me feel anxious and downright panicky.
I do things everyday to maintain my feelings of control over my little bubble. I make my bed. I choose what I put into and onto my body. I make lists and cross them off. I pick up clutter- constantly. I organize the fridge, the junk drawer, my kids’ toys. I plan. I think of everything that could go wrong with that plan and then plan for that, too. It’s a careful balance to make sure that I’m staying productive and healthy and not going overboard trying to make every little thing exactly how I want it. Some days are better than others.
They have a weird relationship, anxiety and control. They’re both illusions, to an extent. I don’t have control over very much in this world, and so there’s very little that is healthy and productive to feel anxiety about. Go figure. In an effort to squelch anxiety by trying to control everything, it often backfires and creates even more anxiety. Ugh.
So. What may sound counter-intuitive in my quest to try and control (or, as a healthier reframing word choice: calm) my anxiety is my charming habit to do stuff that I know makes me anxious. I still drink coffee because I likes it and I wants to. I still stay up late because I likes it and I wants to. And I still watch scary movies because my anxiety will not control my choices and I will not live in fear…all the time.
I make calculated choices and I have to decide what risks and consequences I’m willing to take. As a risk-averse person in general, I don’t like doing big, dangerous things where I don’t feel enough in control. Skydiving and bungee jumping are out, but rollercoasters are in! The perfect amount of fear/excitement and control/safety.
Scary movies also fall into this just right category. Surprising no one, I like the psychological thrillers that burrow under my skin and keep me up at night. Sure, they make my blood pressure rise but I get to make choices from beginning to end. Which creepy show do we watch? How often? Let’s take a pee break right now. Right now! PAUSE IT! Okay, now I need to turn on the lights. I don’t know why we started with the lights off because that was a shitty idea. At this point I’m going to talk my way through this scene so I can stay in the moment and not get sucked i-WHY IS SHE NOT LEAVING THIS HOUSE?! HASN’T SHE BEEN THROUGH ENOUGH? Where is her sense of self-preservation?!RUUUUUUN! Aaaaand oh look this blanket jumped right in front of my eyes before the Bent Neck Lady scrapes down the fucking hall again; all I hear is scraping, hissing, and screaming so I’ll let my imagination take it from here and assume they’re defeating the evil spirits and getting the hell outta dodge because who in their right minds would go back to bed after seeing a floating specter turn a kitten inside out and not tell their parents?! Fucking psychopaths, THAT’S WHO!
This is my idea of controlled danger-fun, dear readers. Who needs to jump out of a plane when all you need to do is watch children be tortured by evil spirits in the comfort of your own home? I tell myself it’s instances like these, and people like me, for which Xanax was invented.
Today, I was able to shut the world out for several hours in the best way – I read my book semi-uninterrupted.
I say semi because I have small children. People with small children, or who once had small children and maintain an accurate memory (read: not the kind of biased memory that leads you to grow old and senile and shout ENJOY EVERY MOMENT! at moms in the grocery store) know exactly what I mean. For those who have never had the intense pleasure, I’ll briefly elaborate: interruptions ranged from forced verbal admiration of random lego pieces pressed together to wiping butts to trouble shooting the online math platform to an obligatory distance high-five for getting 100% on the online math assessment. All in a day’s work.
What am I reading? Funny you should ask. Those who know me, or who have read this blog for long enough know that I have a terribly unhealthy habit of choosing varying levels of traumatic entertainment media, now being no exception. And actually, now is a classic combination of some poor choices mixed with some bad timing. See, for October I thought it would be fun to choose a spooky book to read because I enjoy Halloween more than most human contact and I was concerned that Covid would steal away my joy. In an attempt to capture some additional spooky Halloween spirit, I chose Bird Box by Josh Malerman. It was a great choice for several reasons: 1) There was no wait at the library, and 2) I had already seen the movie sooooo how scary could it be, really?
In the middle of reading the book, I was not-so-gently reminded just how vulnerable my nervous system has become since 1) giving birth to and parenting two small children, and 2) the anxiety rollercoaster ride of Covid quarantine, among other things. The book struck close to home because it’s a mom trying to survive with one daughter and one son (I have those things), and she’s doing it while wearing a face covering and trying to stay away from dangerous people and entities unknown. Add those real-world similarities to the forgotten fact that BOOKS ARE LEAGUES SCARIER THAN MOVIES and I was toast. I usually read books at night, in bed, with the red filter of my headlamp. For this book I had to turn on the light.
Fast forward to now. Because I don’t know how to quit you, I decided the sequel to Bird Box would be an excellent idea. And I’m not sure how it happened, (read: I’m lying and I know exactly what happened) but my friends started chatting about the Haunting of Hill House and I thought my husband had watched it and he’d only seen the first episode and was willing to see more. I was intrigued, and in my pre-motherhood days I enjoyed a ghostly horror flick from time to time but DEAR LORD (no spoilers, please, dear readers). I think we’re averaging 1.5 episodes per week because my nerves can’t take any more than that. And watch is a loose term, because the way I’m getting through these is by cuddling with my emotional support husband, with a blanket, and oh look it’s a scary part up comes the blanket over my eyes! And then my husband narrates what’s happening so I’m still included in the action.
Me: OMG! What’s happening now?!
Husband: She sees a hand.
Me: What?! What’s it doing?
Husband: Moving. It looks dead.
Me: Just a hand?! Is there more?
Husband: Now she’s scared, she’s backing away. She’s gonna escape up the ladder.
Me: Are you sure?!
Husband: No wait. More than a hand. It’s got her…it just pulled her tongue out through her anus…..aaaand now she’s dead. You can look now.
We’ll finish the series eventually, at the cost of my remaining sanity.
And so my motivation to sit and read for an extended period of time today was threefold: 1) I enjoy reading for long periods of time, 2) I wanted to shut out any and all election news and take a frickin break, and 3) For the love of all that is holy I need to finish this book because I can’t be reading a scary book AND be watching a scary series at the same time because my. nerves. can’t. take. it. but failure is not an option and I refuse to just up and quit. So there you have it.
Also, I didn’t intend for this blog post to become one of many lists, but now you see how my mind works so you’re welcome.
Yeah right. Like I had any cool to begin with. To rephrase, I’ve been trying to keep my inner monologue – which today is only the sound of my desperate, frantic screaming – where it belongs, on the inside.
On the surface, the day has seemed mostly normal. Mostly.
Unfortunately, my robot vacuum lovingly named Olaf woke me up at 5am with a distant jingle followed by a robotic female voice informing me that DO-DO. BATTERY IS LOW. DO-DO.
Dazed and confused, my heart leapt into my throat and I prepared to die. Even after I figured out what was happening and realized I couldn’t fix the issue through the app on my phone, I still woke my husband to help because there was no way I was going downstairs by myself at night because the bent neck lady was waiting and fuck no to that. (I’m only two episodes in, and while my nerves may not let me ever finish, no spoilers please in case I ever do.)
Anyway, the point is that my day started off with me being afraid for my life and that’s keeping with the theme of this year.
I made coffee, I began helping my kid with online school. I wiped my littler kid’s butt.
I decided one cup WAS NOT ENOUGH so I made a cup of tea. Caffeine tends to make me anxious, but I like the ritual and I like the taste so while this may or may not have contributed to my goal you can fight me.
I decided my mid-morning hobbit snack needed some ambiance so I lit a candle. My husband hates scented candles but I did it anyway. To avoid a fight I decided to tell him about it before he had the chance to notice on his own, but looking back I’m wondering if maybe I could have used more tact.
Me, as I burst into the room: I LIT A CANDLE AND IT’S CALLED PEACE+TRANQUILITY. DON’T HATE ME.
Him: …Is it working?
Me, shouting: OF COURSE IT’S WORKING! YOU WANT SOME TEA?!
After school and lunch, I ran out of the house to do my normal Tuesday errands, which involve the library and picking up our grocery order. Today, the order was a bit bigger in case election rioters release the murder hornets and I blasted my car stereo so I could no longer hear the voices in my head.
While I’m wearing suffragette white under my jacket and RBG earrings, I decided I needed to make a louder statement.
After returning to the house and getting my kids outside to run around, now the real nail-biting portion of the day begins as I turn on the TV and re-learn the fucking electoral college.
Like many Americans, I’m having some feelings this week. Lots of flashbacks to the last election.
Four years ago, I was pregnant with my daughter and I was excited. I was so sure my daughter would be born into a world where she’d be able to take a female American president for granted. To me, it seemed like a no-brainer: our country’s most qualified candidate in history was running against our country’s most unqualified, outwardly racist and misogynistic candidate. It should have been a slam dunk.
I believed the polls. I had faith that an overwhelming majority of Americans would not choose fear and ignorance and hate. Needless to say, the outcome was shocking and traumatic. The experience was definitely a loss of innocence.
That election day I attended a goodbye party for another mom-friend of mine. This was a sad occasion for my whole family since her husband was friends with my husband and they were basically the first friends we made after moving to Oregon. This party was also the last time I planned to leave the house for a while, as my goal was to potty train my 2 year old son as best I could before the new baby came.
We had election coverage on in the background while we ate dinner. We had to turn it off while my husband put my son to bed, and I remember sitting in my room on my phone, scrolling. My first indication that something was wrong was when Florida went to He Who Must Not Be Named. After that, we watched with growing fear and went to bed in shock and disbelief.
I woke up the next day in a daze and proceeded with the potty training plan. It was horrible, stressful. I spent a good portion of the day in tears, not knowing what exactly I was crying about. All of the day was spent elbow deep in piss and shit, one way or another.
I remember thinking that my daughter would be ALMOST FOUR before we’d have the chance to vote him out. Four years is a hell of a long time to do a lot of damage. And so much damage has indeed been done.
As I write this, it feels akin to how one might tell a story of where they were and what they were doing when the twin towers fell or when Kennedy was shot. It was a dark day; one I’ll never forget. Looking back, it spun me (us) into a crazy-ass couple of years. My daughter was born. My post-partum anxiety took off like a brush fire. I went back to therapy. I spent a good few years just trying to get ahold of myself and figure out who I was and how to leave the house with pants on. All this with a background of news reports on hate, ignorance, fear, anger, violence. Rolling back progress and denying human rights.
Fall of 2019, I finally started feeling better, consistently better. I, like many others, declared that 2020 was going to be my year. And it was…until the pandemic. And now the election.
So you can see (I hope) how I am holding my breath. I’m white knuckling this. I’m so angry and scared. I want to believe the polls. I want to have faith in people to do the right thing. But frankly, this country is not what I thought it was, and we’ve all been here before, on this abusive rollercoaster from which we can’t seem to get off. I’m honestly not sure how I’ll get through the next few days…or weeks…or longer, depending.
To those in power who are using that power for personal gain and to manipulate and spread fear: we see right through you. You might be fooling some, but you sure as hell aren’t fooling me.
Abusive people use anything at their disposal to have power and control over others. If they can’t control others, their power is gone. Abusive people try to stop others from voting. Abusive people try to sue for votes to not be counted. Abusive people lie and manipulate the system. Abusive people threaten violence. Abusive people intimidate (in this case, by bringing guns to the polls, or by blocking traffic, etc.). Abusive people gaslight others and deny any wrongdoing. All of these behaviors are coming from a place of insecurity, NOT love, NOT protection, because if these people knew they could be fairly reelected in a just, democratic system, then there would be no need for such devious theatrics.
Abuse is not strength. Make no mistake, we are in an abusive relationship and that is an incredibly powerless feeling.
I voted as soon as I possibly could. I even made sure my ballot was received. And now, I wait. Full of dread, fear…and some cautious hope.
I’m feeling pretty drained. That’s an understatement.
I’m trying to think of a good metaphor for how I feel that won’t make me sound suicidal – because I’m not. But I have no energy left, you guys. I’m just trying to make it through the days and sometimes I dare to hope and then other days my state gets set on fire or RBG dies and I find myself at a new low that I didn’t know was possible.
Three things happened all at once: summer [weather] ended, fire and smoke made it impossible for me to breathe or leave my house for ten days, and distance learning began for my 1st grader. It sent the precarious balance we had achieved in our household over the summer into a quiet, sluggish chaos.
In 2007 the fire alarm woke me up and my boyfriend (now husband) and I grabbed whatever was in front of us and ran out of our burning apartment building. For months after I would go to sleep and hallucinate the smell of smoke. That thick, putrid, choking scent that makes one’s pulse jump. My heart would race, I’d get a rush of adrenaline, and then I’d have to get up and check to make sure there wasn’t any actual danger. After that, it was pretty hard to calm down and get any rest. It was bad.
I was in my master’s program for counseling psychology at the time and I had started therapy for the first time as a client that previous year. When the fire happened I was on a break from therapy in an attempt to stretch my mental health benefits to last until the end of the year. American healthcare – you suck. At any rate, when I returned to therapy I mentioned the fire and the difficulty sleeping I was having. PTSD, you say? Oooh, crap. So this is what it’s like. It’s always so much easier to diagnose other people. Well, shit.
And, while definitely not as bad, it came back recently. Our sense of smell is so powerful, so tied to our emotions. And the smell of smoke is a warning to everyone – it’s supposed to be. But put that together with absolute terror and it’s a horrible combination.
Plus, the chest pains I was getting from the smoke signaled anxiety to my brain aaand cue positive feedback loop. Sore throat, headaches. I felt physically ill on top of everything else.
With my bucket being pretty freaking empty, I’m struggling to be a good parent, teacher, wife, and friend.
As far as the friend thing goes, I struggle to be social. Being social in person really sucks because I’m worried about Covid the whole time. Being social, while I still enjoy it, often requires energy I’m not sure I have. It’s hard to pay attention and remember details. I find myself so worried about my and my family’s health and safety that it’s hard to be concerned with anyone else’s enough to ask. It’s not that I don’t care- I do. Stress just seems to push everything else out of focus. I’m really sorry if I forget about that thing going on in your life. I’m sorry that I totally forgot to ask how your new job is going. Sorry If my texts come across the wrong way. I feel like my stress and survival mode make everything come out wrong, even more so than my socially-awkward normal. I still love and respect my friends, and I still want to be friends.
I worry that writing about my mental health issues sounds…wallowy, self-centered, whiny. Repetitive. Fishing for pity.
While it might be repetitive (and none of the rest), I decided that talking/writing about it helps me. It’s honest, it’s real. If it helps normalize mental health struggles – great. But this is mainly for me. It’s a journal, it’s documentation, it’s creative expression, it’s cathartic.
I pull the blinds closed, so I can’t see the smoke or the creepy orange sepia glow.
Now I can fool myself into thinking things are normal.
I stand in the shower and zone out while the water pours over me, in an attempt to wash off my grief. The dread. It’s so much that it clogs the drain.
I turn the TV on and eat sugar and numb out. Forget the outside world. Forget the trauma. I get to yell at characters who aren’t real. Consequences that don’t exist. I judge their choices because I know better. People I’ll never see. Places I’ll never be.
Why not stretch it out? It’s easier when the world is dark. One more show.
I go through the routine of getting ready for bed. Like nothing’s wrong. Next I huddle under the covers and read. Old favorites or new worlds. Vampires that sparkle or dystopian kids doomed to die. I judge their choices because I know better.
Eventually, sleep. Far too late into the night, but it’s comforting.
Anything to put off waking up to a world that is sick and burning. Glowing orange and choking on its own smoke.
This week, my family and I went camping it was exactly what we all needed.
My anxiety had been climbing the week before and it was getting to the point where I was having trouble managing it. The day before we left I developed a massive migraine that left me with this weird, horrible acid reflux and nausea combo of a hangover. I was barely able to finish packing and dragged myself into the car for the two hour ride.
Over the course of that first day, my symptoms faded away, my spirits perked up, and as soon as toes hit the sand on the beach I felt my anxiety start melting away.
There’s just something about the beach that is so therapeutic, so soothing. And that’s despite the fact that I hate wind and sand (or at least I hate that sand gets everywhere).
We were able to book a campsite at a boyscout camp and it was perfect. The actual boyscout camps had been canceled, and so the organization opened up the campgrounds to individual families. We were given a campsite that had 13 huts on it – enough to sleep 26 people – on about half an acre and we had it all to ourselves. Private bathrooms, private showers. We were often the only four people on the entire beach just a three minute walk away. We could see the ocean from our site and we went to sleep listening to the roar of the waves. Aaahhh.
Also, my phone didn’t have service at the campsite, which forced me to put it down. It was the first time I had really put my phone down for any extended period of time in about a year. It was long overdue and very needed.
The kids were able to explore and wander and play and we didn’t have to worry. We took our time and we got dirty and we ran and screamed and played.
We left the world behind for three days and I’m very thankful.
I have this bad habit of falling into negative thought patterns. Like, all the time.
I’m cynical. I’m sarcastic. It’s a defense mechanism. A maladaptive coping strategy. And it’s become a habit a loooong time ago, and old habits are hard to break, as they say.
Especially during a global pandemic, when the world is burning and my anxiety jumps out and says Yes! This is what I’ve been telling you about all along! Now it’s here; the end is near! BWAAHAHAAAA!
And while anxiety is my main squeeze, lately its cousin depression asked to come stay for a while, and I’m fresh out of room and energy and this is all too hard somebody make it stop.
(As an aside, I’m doing okay. I have good days and bad, and lately I am having more average-to-good days than bad, by far. It’s just that every once in a while I get slammed with a bad day and have trouble recalibrating. Rest assured, I am coping as well as can be expected.)
The point is that I am trying to break this bad habit, or at least learn to interrupt it so that it doesn’t take over and eat all my remaining sanity.
I like mantras. They are helpful reminders that not everything sucks. And language is so versatile that you can craft any mantra that speaks to you, at any time and for any reason.
Lately, when I find myself going down a negative spiral eleventy million times a day, and I actually remember to, I silently tell myself:
I’m just happy to be here.
This is the phrase I’ve used to describe my daughter’s personality. She was/is such a happy, easy-going baby, toddler, and now kid. While other kids would be whining or going into their dark places, she’d smile and ask me what we doing now, mama? She’s the kid in that story with the room filled with poop – the kid who gleefully starts digging through the shit and yells, THERE MUST BE A HORSE IN HERE SOMEWHERE! That’s her, and she certainly did not get her sunny disposition from me, but man I want what she’s selling.
As an aside, I want people who know me to know that I appreciate uplifting messages and I use them and think them…I just also have a knee-jerk reaction to want to make fun of them, too. Like, I remind myself to be extra kind and patient these days with people, but I’m more likely to wear a t-shirt with Pete the Cat on it saying I hate you all than one that says be kind. (Please know, friend of mine who wears these shirts, I like them, I like that you wear them, and please don’t take it personally when I make fun of them.)
At any rate, here I am striking a balance. I want to invite more positive energy into my life because goodness crap, we all need it now more than ever.
Readers, tell me – what are your favorite mantras?