ryan melaugh via Flickr creative commons

Photo by Ryan Melaugh via Flickr Creative Commons

Possibly one of the most frustrating things about mental illness is never being able to trust your perceptions and reactions to stimulus. Never knowing if a reaction is due to your mental illness or an appropriate response to stress.

There will always be this little voice asking whether or not someone “normal” would be reacting this way to X. Which is really a fruitless exercise because a) what does “normal” mean, b) there isn’t really a way to know the answer, and c) I have the brain I have so better to learn to work with it instead of wishing I had a different one. Which doesn’t stop the question, mind you.

Perhaps life is just difficult and there will always be stress in it. Maybe there is no utopia where all one’s ducks are in a row and nothing bad happens for a while. It’s possible that this idea of managing the stressors in my life is not even the right way to think about things to begin with. On the other hand, if I am under less stress in general, then the random stress life throws my way will be easier to handle because it’s not compounding existing stress.

And I think I’ve gotten better about dealing with certain kinds of stress. When anxiety visits alone I can work with it. And even if I do get to panic attack level, I am more skilled at calming myself back down. I’ve gotten better at prioritizing self care, even if sometimes that means sacrificing social interaction.

But when anxiety brings along depression or PTSD? That’s a whole different animal entirely. At that point there are too many voices shouting in my head and it’s harder to find “me” in the mix of it.

Thinking through the mechanics of drama therapy and role theory has helped me some in navigating ways to manage my mental health. The idea is that part of the purpose of therapy is to help the client develop an inner parent/therapist/guide to facilitate navigating back and forth between different aspects of what we call the Self. I think everyone understands the concept of having an inner child. In some ways, every facet of ourselves is like that. My anxiety is not “me.” My depression is not “me.” Just because they tell me something doesn’t make it true.

That said, I know some kinds of stress are more difficult than others to deal with. I have triggers around driving that I’ve mostly overcome, but which still pop up in heavy traffic or bad weather. I have triggers around the idea of ending up homeless. Money trouble can also be very stressful – especially having to ask anyone to lend me some or feeling like I am not able to be financially independent. So looking for a rent house and putting my car in the shop for major repairs (which mean I have to take out a line of credit) in the same week? That’s a doozy.

It’s been a rough few months of roommate/housing trouble, and the pressure is on because the three of us will end up renting both house and apartment for the month of April due to having to give 30 days notice before moving out. I’m feeling stretched thin. I owe so much to the IRS and now on my car. Not to mention my student loans which are just sitting there earning interest while I’m too poor to pay them off. I got a better job, but I have to have a car right now for it. Maybe in the fall if I can get a school assignment close to where I live that will feel less pressured, but I have no idea how much say I get in that. And my car is 16 years old. I don’t know how much life it has left.

In some ways, I’m so lucky. I’m typing this on a borrowed laptop until I can find someone with enough Linux smarts to fix the Internet connectivity problems on mine. I borrowed my roommate’s car all week until I could get mine into the shop. I have good enough credit to be approved for the credit card at the auto shop so I get six months to pay off the repairs with no interest. My sister can send me a chunk of money for the next few months to help me get by. If I had to, I could cash a few savings bonds from my grandmother early. I have another interview for summer work this week, meaning there will be three options for something working out, and which means that I do have marketable skills if I know where to point them.

But all of that is hard to see when my anxiety is shouting that we’ll never get approved for a good house and I’ll have to live way out of town (which presses on car stress and driving stress and social stress) or in a crappy apartment. When my depression chimes in that I’m a total failure and a fuck up and no matter how hard I try nothing will ever get better so what’s the point.

When all I want to do is lie in bed and cry and sleep and not have to think about anything. When I don’t know if I’m over-reacting or whether I’m having a legitimate response to stress. When at some point it doesn’t matter because even thinking that I’m possibly over-reacting just makes everything worse. When I hate myself and just want to shut off my brain but I can’t.

Today I’m trying to think one step at a time. If I think of the next six months or year or the rest of my life all at once it’s too much. Even thinking about the next month feels too hard. So just think about today. My car is in the shop. I’m writing this blog and then another piece to submit to a call for papers. I’m going to do a phone interview this afternoon. Schedule a payment on my credit card. Baby steps. One step at a time.

And if my anxiety or depression try to chime in about two weeks or a month from now, I will do my best to politely ask them to shut the fuck up. That’s not on today’s agenda. My depression is not “me.” My anxiety is not “me.” My PTSD is not “me.” Every thought that enters my head does not deserve equal treatment.

I don’t know how anyone else would react if they had to move twice in three months, owed $1K to the IRS, and had to get an $900 car repair. And my brain wants to tell me that matters. But maybe it doesn’t. Maybe I just focus on how I’m reacting and how I can react better, instead of shaming myself for not meeting some imagined benchmark for a “normal” reaction. Even just typing all that out makes me feel like I want to throw up. So breathe, and think about what I can do today. And try to muster up some gratitude for my privilege even in the midst of a difficult situation.

I’m trying not to think about the fact that even if we get this house, I just might have to move all over again in a year and do this whole thing again. Because that’s a year from now. Not today. That’s not on the agenda. It can be hard to maintain control when the voices in our brain are used to running the show. It takes practice. But I can see the progress I’m making, and situations that I’ve handled well which in the past would have lead to a meltdown. Start small, and maybe someday I will be able to handle even major stress with grace and finesse.

But for now I’m going to stop thinking about all of this and move to the next item on the list.

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