Despite how busy summer has been I have found myself doing very few of the things I wanted to do. I’m fully aware that feeling helplessness doesn’t look good on me, so I decided to try a few things outside my comfort zone in an effort to feel more in control of my own life and to pep up a potentially dangerous sense of boredom.
For better or worse, my sense of curiosity has always been able to steer me into the mindset of, “well let’s try _____ and see what happens!” Sometimes the results have been wonderful and sometimes they have been devastating, so when I went to work trying to decide what new thing to try I wanted to be a little conscientious of that fact. Ideally trying something new and maintaining whatever scrap of emotional and mental stability I have is the goal, but knowing that living with treatment resistant symptoms of bipolar disorder means that any little detail could potentially rock my brain-boat is challenging. I have often found myself opting to do nothing at all because doing anything is potentially risky (in terms of creating instability in my mental health) but, tired of doing nothing, I decided the reward was potentially worth the risk.
I have been described as having an “overactive imagination” and more than one therapist has told me that when things are perfectly fine my mind has a tendency to imagine problems that aren’t really there… these days I would consider this description to be something like a cute version of saying, “psychosis”. For a time I thought this might lend itself well to writing fiction, but back in 2007 when I tried my hand at writing a novel I found that I lost track of where the novel ended and reality began. The problems in the story became the problems of real life, and I abruptly vowed never to venture down that path again.
All this time I’ve been writing nonfiction instead, and while I’ve enjoyed writing for this blog the past five years I feel like I am constantly moving toward the point where I wont have anything more to say without being redundant. I’ve been learning a lot about myself and writing in the process (and I don’t expect to stop any time soon) but part of me has wondered if I could write about something else. Anything else, really. I admit there are times where I don’t want to think about my own mental health. I want the freedom to think of other things, of other problems, and for the love of Pete, to talk about something other than myself.
With a little experimentation I found that while writing fiction that takes place in a modern setting (like my writing in 2007) is too close to my own life for me to separate myself from it, writing about situations on other planets or in places I’ve never actually been seems to create enough distance to keep my mind from getting the two confused. It seems that following an odd story down a rabbit hole makes perfect use of my (previously useless) problem-generating brain because stories need conflicts to be interesting.
Writing any fiction at all certainly took me out of my comfort zone, but in the past few weeks I decided to take things one step further and I joined a local writing group. Frankly just getting out of my apartment to meet with them was a huge step and even though I was anxious as heck to make my first appearance I did my best to remind myself that they’re strangers, so who cares if they like me anyway?
It turns out they are all quirky, imaginative, and intelligent individuals and just passively listening to them share about the different projects they are writing was both interesting and encouraging. Within an hour or two I found myself holding conversations with people casually and I left knowing that I wanted to go back again.
Of course, I put it off a little. Since it is a critique group I knew that at some point I would have to share something I had written, and when I’m working on something I’m typically very private about it until the final version is completed. Even though I don’t like sharing something unfinished because of how vulnerable it makes me feel, I have had a lot of questions that I knew would probably be answered if I just powered through my anxiety and shared my work.
So the thing I did this week to step out of my comfort zone was to read something I had written in front of a group of people and listen to their feedback. I had a knot in my stomach all day leading up to the group and every five minutes I could feel myself changing my mind, thinking, “well… I’ll print these read along pages and bring them, but I don’t have to read them.” Then, “well… I will tell the moderator I have something to read, but maybe they wont get to me before the group ends.”
Finally, that night at the group after an hour and a half the moderator asked me, “do you want to go next?”
I knew that if I left without reading I would feel twice as anxious the next time around and I knew I couldn’t handle a double dose of anxiety driven irritable gut another day. I had already gone through 5 or 6 tums and it seemed there was little to do but press on.
I decided to take a leap of faith and even though it was wildly uncomfortable, even though my hands were shaking and my ribs were contracting as I powered through a panic attack while I read, I reached the last page in a triumphant (and slightly dissociative) stupor.
I never used to have problems reading aloud, not when I was in school. I gave so many presentations, so many speeches (even publicly at the state fair) that I never expected to feel so overwhelmed when speaking publicly. I know my anxiety is much worse these days, but I also think that the unfinished nature of my story and the effort I had put into it were huge in informing how nervous I was.
I also know that my Achilles heel is judgement. I’ve never taken criticism particularly well, never felt good about the idea of being examined and torn apart. I feel like I can say that I generally feel good about who I am, but there has always been the fear of judgement present in some form in my life. Fear of God’s judgement as a child, fear around the judgement from my peers in school, fear around critiques in college, and fear around the scrutiny of Social Security and the government as a disabled adult.
By the time I stumbled into the critique portion of the reading I had catastrophized the whole situation so much that it inevitably went much better than I expected. Some of my concerns were confirmed, some new issues were brought to my attention, but for the most part everyone seemed excited about what I had written, which acted as a cork in my odorous anxiety bottle.
My boyfriend, sweet as he is, went to work right away when I got home to remind me that I don’t need to take any of the advice I was given. I don’t need to change anything I wrote if I don’t want to. I know he has continuously witnessed the way other people’s opinions have acted like quicksand for me in the past. The defiantly obsessive portion of my brain loves to latch on to those statements without letting go, and I immediately found myself wrestling with them as they echoed (ironically) in my mind, “redundant, redundant, redundant…”
The difference now comes from the knowledge that has come from my DBT group. I know that when I’m closed in with the garbled echoes of disappointment or disapproval or judgement I can open the windows in my brain-house and let that stuff escape. I don’t have to be hosting the equivalent of a mental dinner party six years from now and set an extra place setting for “redundant” because it’ll be long gone. That’s the hope, anyway.
Having said that, I don’t know if I will read my writing aloud again any time soon. I need time to practice letting go of these comments, time to sort them out of the “terribly important, don’t stop thinking about this,” pile into the, “backlog” bin. If I can manage it without much incident I expect to have another go, because having the opportunity to practice letting go of, “this sentence is redundant,” is infinitely easier to me than having to let go of considerably more cruel and pointless scrutiny. Anything I can do to help myself learn and grow is good, but anything that also helps me learn to be less reactive and less prone to destabilization is a serious win.