Sunday, August 31, 2014

On Faking Happiness (or Energy, or Excitement, or Surprise, or...)

During one of my therapy sessions, my psychologist asked me if I was as animated at work as I was when we'd start out our meetings. The short answer is yes...and also no.

I interact with people on the job a relatively small amount of the time. I see people in the morning, which is when we do most of our socializing: before our shift starts. I ask people about their night, their plans for the weekend, and we talk. We hang out. It's great. It also lasts less that fifteen minutes a day.

During our daily team meeting, I try to be as peppy and upbeat as I can. This has always been the way I present myself: fun, energetic, ceaselessly amusing, always, always smiling. I wear happiness like a second skin that I don't quite fit into. The meeting is relatively short, and we spend most of it listening.

Sometimes, I have lunch with one of the girls, and we get half an hour to talk while we shovel food into our mouths. It's nice! But, most days, my lunch breaks work out so that I'm eating alone in a room. 

At the end of the day, we pretty much just say goodbye to each other as we run out the door while the next shift is coming in. I'm really lucky, because I get along well with the person who shares our desk, so I get to spend at least a few minutes chatting with him. It's a nice way to end the day, getting to talk to someone who's just starting his day but understands how the job can suck the life right out of you by the time eight hours are over. 

So yes, I am animated at work. For short, constrained periods of time. And then I get on with doing my job, which is inherently pulling me into my own little world of focus and concentration, and I don't have to be anything anymore. I don't have to be funny, or friendly, or social, or lively, because I'm by myself, and everyone else is, too. I can recover for the next time I have to be those things.

This is much, much better than last fall and winter, when I was so depressed I couldn't pretend anymore. Co-workers who'd known me only a few months told me I'd changed, that I never smiled anymore. My manager recommended the employee helpline and told me to take a sick day, or a vacation, or anything. So it's very, very important to me that I be able to keep putting on my second skin, day after day, so it looks like I've gone back to 'normal.'

The truth is, I haven't all-the-way recovered the range of emotions I had at baseline -- which is what I call my normal 'functional' level of moderate chronic depression. I don't feel happiness like I used to: it seems to come around now without a spark, without that sparkle. But I can feel something, and I have worked as a receptionist so I know how to look cheerful even when you want to yell at someone. I don't feel excitement like I used to: I really can't get enthusiastic about anything, although I'm learning how to perform excitement socially so that other people are satisfied and pleased with my reaction. I don't have the social energy I'm used to: interacting with people and pretending to feel things I don't feel takes it out of me more than I expect. 

A lot of feelings are just blunted, or missing, or layered with something else -- like I'm grabbing at them through a filmy fog. I just, somehow, don't feel like myself. In small ways, like the way I haven't planned for or gotten excited about Comiccon at all this year. I'm trying to keep doing all the things I used to do, but it's hard, because I just don't feel the same way about them anymore: I don't feel the same passion, the same drive, the same intensity, the same pleasure anymore.

I betray myself in little ways, like when I say I'm planning to do a certain thing when I'm feeling better. But the thing is that there's no guarantee that I will, is there? I never fully recovered my cognitive abilities after my last major depressive episode in 2009. Likewise, I never recovered my full energy levels after becoming acutely ill in 2006. Maybe, this time, it's my emotional range that's getting the short end of the stick. I hope and I pray that this isn't true, that I'm just having a slow recovery. I have a lot of hope, and with the grace of God a lot of patience to ride this thing out. But I am still afraid.

I feel scared because I don't want to let people down: people get a lot of pleasure from seeing others' excitement, especially when you're involved in something together. I worry about how this will affect some of my relationships, the ones that are grounded on things that I just don't feel right now, and the ways that might change my bond with the people I love and who love me. I am afraid of what my life will look like when this is over, and who I will be, and whether or not it will allow me to be who I want to become.

The psychologist and theologian William James believed that we can behave our way into emotions, and in many ways by choosing to fake happiness what I'm really doing is trying to bring it back into my life as something I really feel. Of course it's also about looking 'normal' to the people around me. But it's something I choose to do for myself as well.

I'll take it one smile at a time.    

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Oh, Hello Failure: On Sucking at your Job

To be fair, I am excellent at half of my job. The half that involves me typing things into a computer all day, classifying documents at light speed, and verifying that the numbers the computer has lifted are, in fact, the correct ones. (In unrelated news, the computer could not spell the name 'Robert' if its life depended on it. Seriously, sometimes it thinks there are j's in there! But I digress.) I think I got good at this job by going to graduate school and learning to read things quickly without really reading them: looking at forms and documents all day is really not that different from skimming 17 articles on short-term spatial memory in order to figure out which ones will be helpful for the experiment you're designing.

It's the other half that I suck at. Part of my job involves removing claims from their envelopes, flattening and un-stapling all the papers, deciding whether or not anything needs to be taped back together again or shouldn't even be in our office, and then putting it all on a roller conveyor belt so that it can be 'scanned' into image files by this big-ass machine. The images are then dropped into our proprietary computer programs so we can manipulate them, which is what I do the rest of the time.

The machine jams. It hates cash receipts. Sometimes it randomly rips things in half as it's depositing scanned items on one of its trays. It gets dirty and scrawls ink lines all over documents. God forbid you have to change the imprinting cartridge and planned on having ink-free hands that day. Machines will sometimes stop working for no apparent reason, or refuse to start at all. If you're me, you'll drop the back door of the machine on your own hand while trying to pull a stuck document out. Occasionally they'll make annoying or horrifying noises that refuse to go away. People swear smoke was coming out of the back of one once! 

Sometimes people fold their mail up as tiny as possible, while others staple every document in triplicate. Setting up the documents to be scanned is the longest part of the job. Unfold, un-staple, stuff into machine, repeat.

I've gotten a little better at controlling my frustration when the machine is acting up. I do all the right things: I take the oldest mail first, I share the gigantic envelopes so one person doesn't get stuck with them all, and I move as fast as I possibly can. This is a production environment, so every task we do is based on numbers and speed. I work my hardest all day, and leave the office exhausted and aching from making the same motions over and over. But the numbers don't lie: I just don't measure up.

On Thursday, I put 5,772 pieces of paper through my machine. 5,721 count as scanned: the difference comes from documents I had to scan more than once either because a processing error occurred, the document got jammed in the machine, or I put it in badly and it looked horrible. My average jamsort time was 2 seconds, which means when something went wrong between the machine and a document, that's how long it took me to fix it. This doesn't take into account envelopes I opened that turned out to be in the wrong department, the entirely wrong company, or contained 3-D objects or x-rays.

On the face of it, that doesn't seem too bad. But we measure our production by envelopes, or what we call 'transactions.' An envelope with three documents stapled once is one transaction. An envelope with 50 documents stapled a million times with coffee spilled on them is one transaction. I scanned 846 transactions. The daily target for each person on scan is 1,000. A thousand! I've never made the target, not even once!

I can't tell you how bad it feels to be hopeful all day about how well you're doing, going your fastest, trying to make every image look its best while staying a step ahead of yourself, swallowing painkillers during your break to try and decrease the upper-back-ache that goes along with scanning, massaging the stabbing heat in your un-stapling wrist, and then pulling up your stats at the end of the shift and seeing how you failed.

I'm the kind of person who doesn't inherently believe I'm good. Either that I'm a good person in general, or that I'm good at specific things. I need that feedback. I can't seem to generate it on my own. The part of me that pats myself on the back has gone on vacation and gotten lost.

I am always so hopeful that today will be the day I scan a thousand transactions. Today will be that day. But then I get my numbers, and it never quite happens. It doesn't matter how good the mail was, how much of a rhythm I felt I got into, or how little I had to take breaks to go pee: I just can't seem to make it. Every day, I get the feedback that I am not good at my job, that I am failing. And the next day, when I'm back at the computer where I have a chance, I'll get my error messages informing me of how many mistakes I made the day before. A document might have been folded. It might have gone in crooked so information got cut off. It might not have supposed to have been scanned at all. The error target is 4 per month. I can do that, and more!, in a bad day.

I'm not used to constantly failing because I tend to quit things that consistently make me feel bad -- yes, I am a quitter! I've quit relationships, hobbies, and sports because they made me unhappy, and a lot of the time that unhappiness came from just not being suited to the tasks. But I can't quit my job, even if I suck at it. 

I'm not sure why I'm so bad at it, but I hate the feeling of wanting to not care, of wanting to quit trying my best, of failing to succeed when so many people have assured me I can do it. At the start of another day, there's nothing left to do but take a deep breath, turn on the machine, and try my best knowing that it won't be good enough.

And it makes me sad.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I Like Small Spots and I Cannot Lie: Remembering a Childhood Spent Hiding in Things

Last week's post about visualization made me think of all the time I spent hiding -- or practicing hiding! -- in small spaces as a child. It wasn't always snow tunnels, you know. For one thing, they have a tendency to melt when the weather starts warming up. For another, it's good to have as wide a variety of self-concealment skills as possible if you're planning on living a life centered around paranoia, self-hatred, and regret.

Some of the most vivid memories I have of hiding aren't of hiding at all, but of playing at hiding. Like everyone else I knew growing up, I would drape scarves and blankets over tables, chairs, and assorted furniture in order to construct a private space for myself where I could play unobserved. I could read in there, hug a stuffed animal, play with my toys, or just be comforted by the muted quality of the light filtered through knitted scarves and thin blankets.

With other children, and sometimes adults, I built pillow forts and snow forts, indestructible precisely because they could so easily be rebuilt.

Although I don't remember it, I have many pictures of myself as a child where I've crammed myself into laundry baskets, boxes, and tubs from laundry detergent. I've played hide-and-seek and fit myself into hampers. And, of course, I know as well as everyone that if you cover yourself completely with your blankets, nothing bad can happen to you during the night because you are invisible.

This kind of hiding is more like playing at hiding than actually hiding. For one thing, most of the time you're only partially hidden. For another, sometimes people can actually see you. It's fun, and the whole objective is to have fun. It's enjoyable. You aren't hiding for any reason other than the pleasure it gives you.

As a child, I would sometimes spontaneously hide, and I'm not really sure why. Occasionally I would hide under my parents' bed, amid the boxes and dust, thinking that no one would ever think to look for me under there. Playing by myself outside, I would hide behind the shed, within the lilac bush, inside fur trees, high up in the maple, crouch down in window-wells, and below the driveway retention wall.

Inside the house, I would hear my father's footsteps coming down the carpeted hall and crouch down flat behind the end of my bed, or behind my brick-red stuffed chair, desperate for some reason that he not see me.

This kind of hiding wasn't really a game. I'm not sure what it was about, but I know I wasn't doing it for enjoyment. I didn't feel good, or happy, or relaxed while I was doing it. I just know I was gripped by this sudden intense fear and felt compelled to hide. Hiding made me feel...not so much safe as less bad. It helped take the edge off. In a way it wasn't really hiding either: as a child in a confined space like a house or a yard, it's likely that someone will find you sooner rather than later if they're really looking, and that they'll be pretty pissed off when they do. I think most hiding, in the end, is not like this.

This is the kind of hiding that's followed me into adulthood. I'm not sure why, exactly. I know that sometimes I feel driven to hide because I'm under a lot of stress, or experiencing other peoples' conflict around me. This has been worst when I am at my most depressed -- naturally, I've felt most compelled to hide when I've been hospitalized, thereby making my hiding habit super problematic for the psychiatric team trying to help me. It makes me the most annoying patient in the world.  

Back in St. Jerome, I hid in the closet that was in my room, eventually leading the staff to start locking it. I hid under my bed. I hid in the shower. One night, I caused a code white that had the hospital searching for me for an hour after I'd run past the (glass) nursing station unobserved to hide behind a chair in the games room. I hid in the elevator after running past the nursing station in the middle of the night. The night I escaped into the basement but couldn't get through the connecting tunnel to flee from the main building (which would be less suspicious) because it turned out you needed a code, four orderlies eventually dragged me away from where I was hiding among lockers (and clinging to them).

At St. Mary's, I hid behind a door. I locked myself in showers and curled up under their benches. I hid in my own bathroom, and under the covers. I eventually settled on routinely cramming myself into the cubbyholes in the wall that once held fire extinguishers. Some doctors thought it was hilarious. Some people thought I would fall out and hurt myself. One doctor walking past commented that he could still see me. My own psychiatrist thought it was an ingenious solution because I had somehow combined my need to be small and concealed with the staff's need to know where I was and what I was doing. I liked it because I could fit myself in there without the staff coming to unlock the door and extract me.

Now that I live alone, when I'm very distressed I still find myself hiding, especially when I wake up during the night. I hide on the balcony, under the table, in the shower, and any small corner I can wedge myself into. I have no idea why I would hide when I'm completely alone, but I guess it just goes to show that wherever you go, there you are.

As a child, I also used to practice hiding. I would climb into my closet, get as deep and as far into it as possible, and pull the clothes and boxes around me so that it looked like nothing had been disturbed. I remember how it felt to be in the dark with the doors mostly shut, the light only a thin sliver muffled by the clothes hanging softly around my face. I would pull things out from under my bed, crawl into the space under the headboard, and pull the stuff back in again. In the total darkness, I felt safe. Nothing could get to me here; no one could ever find me. I practiced breathing in the dust without coughing or sneezing, being as still and as quiet as possible. I would come out of my hiding spots after carefully listening for several minutes to make sure no one was around to discover where my spots were by seeing me emerge, dust-covered and prepared.

I don't know very much about developmental psychology, but I'm going to go ahead and assume that all these forms of hiding are completely normal for a child. The fact that I still try and hide as an adult, however, is somewhat more problematic. Since I don't know why I'm doing it, I don't have any idea how to fix it, either. Suggestions?

On a completely unrelated note, I've printed out 25 pages of the crappy book I'm writing. If anyone really loves reading incredibly drafty-drafts that end in the middle of a sentence, you're welcome to borrow it!

Friday, August 8, 2014

How to Get to Your Happy Place: Visualization in the Face of Difficult Emotions

Like many people who live with chronic and major depressive disorder, as well as trauma (lucky me!), I struggle with intense sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, terror, helplessness, and a host of other difficult thoughts and feelings about both myself and the world I find myself inhabiting.

I haven't always dealt with these feeling productively. That probably goes without saying! Before you can begin to process and resolve painful feelings and memories in a therapeutic setting, you should probably have better coping skills than cutting yourself with knives or trying to kill yourself. Probably. I mean, I'm taking a guess here, but I think that's the general idea. I seem to have somehow skipped this step in my previous decade-long attempt at therapy, which might partially explain why, in crisis, I return to harming myself, sometimes severely.

Anyway, this time we're approaching things a little differently. One of the tools I learned in therapy this week is called visualization. It involves thinking back about a time in the past when you felt completely calm, safe, and at peace. You then immerse yourself in the memory by recalling it through the five senses: sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell. You try and find as many aspects as you can for each of these senses, which helps to really activate the memory and give it depth. Once you've put yourself in that space, you rest there until the sense of calm starts to suffuse you and you find the difficult emotions you were experiencing begining to subside. This will keep you from doing anything rash and stupid, like eating all the dish-washing soap thinking that will stop the memory from endlessly replaying itself in my head while I run the scanner at work: problem solved!

For me, my happy place is hiding in the snow.

From the time I was a young child to the time I stopped wearing snowsuits -- so around the start of Junior High -- I loved to go outside and play in the snow. Of course, I had snowball fights, and built snow people, and forts, and went sledding and cross-country skiing, all with other people, but I regularly played by hiding by myself.

Due to the fact that this happened in the past, we used to get a lot more snow in winter than we do now. (Also, everything was uphill both ways, but I digress) When we shoveled our front walkway, the snow would pile up to the living room window where we dumped it against the side of the house: it was so high! It was also perfect for building a tunnel. I'd dig with my hands in the center of the pile, beginning at the driveway and working my way into it parallel to the window, digging myself a Kat-sized hideaway. Once I could burrow all the way in, I would make my way head-first into my snow tunnel and hide there for as long as I could, usually until frostbite started to set in or my mother called me inside. I liked to take naps in there. It was warm enough from my body being in such a small space that the cold didn't seem to work its way inside me so much. I loved the solitude, that no one could see me, that I had created a world for myself that was only mine and where I could be safe. I used to think about what it would be like to go to sleep in my tunnel and never wake up. It was just so peaceful.

Inside my space, I could see the dark outline of the snow around me, its closeness to my body. I could see the darkness in the middle of the day where very little light penetrated. Sometimes I could vaguely see an icicle I'd brought in with me from off the eaves-troughs, and the outline of my woolen mittens. I could see the inside of my eyelids as I began to nap, and the patterns of light and color from squeezing my eyes shut.

I could feel the rough wool of my hand-knitted mittens, and the string pressing against my back beneath my coat so I wouldn't lose them. I could feel the cold of the snow on my mittened hand, and the icy smoothness of my snow hollow when I took my mitt off to lay my hand against it. I could feel the end of the tunnel pressing gently against the top of my head through my hat. I felt the warmth of being enveloped by warm clothing and snow, and the chill of crisp winter air on my uncovered skin. I could feel my scarf against my mouth, and my breath against my skin, the dampness of my scarf where I had breathed on it in the cold. I could feel the length of my body supported by the packed snow, and the closeness of my snow walls around me.

On my tongue, I could taste the coldness and sharpness of the air, and the lingering coolness of an icicle if I'd eaten one. I tasted the inside of my mouth, and my lips where I had bitten them. I could taste the dampness of my scarf pressed against my mouth, and the anticipation of hot chocolate with marshmallows.

Inside my tunnel, I could hear the silence of winter, and the distant sounds of children playing. I could hear the muffled footsteps of someone walking by my hiding place. I could hear the slow deepening of my breath as I grew sleepy, and my soft heartbeat. I could hear the snow gently settling, and the sound of the breeze. I could hear my own movements against the snow, the swish of snowpants and the scrape of boots. Sometimes, I could hear the soft wisp-like falling of gentle snow, or the scrape of a shovel against pavement, the short thump of snow being thrown on snow.

I could smell the winter in the air, that smell you grow up with in the cold and never forget, and the way that it freezes inside your nose and smells clean and new and pure. I could smell the woodsmoke from fireplaces in our neighborhood, and the distinctive smell of packed snow. I could smell the dampness of my scarf from my breath, and the snow-dampness of my woolen mittens.

Inside my snow tunnel, I felt safe, and peaceful, and alone. I felt enveloped, enfolded by a space I had created that seemed like it could last forever but was really quite fragile. Enough snow piled on top of it, especially heavy damp snow, and it would collapse. But I knew I could always build it again after the next good snowfall. I felt content. I felt the closest thing I can remember to an uncomplicated happiness. I believe I was happy.

When I bring this memory vividly back to mind, I feel all these things again, and as I stay in the space, recalling it, I start to feel calmer, and the chaos and pain inside me ebbs away to where it becomes bearable. It also gives me back a vibrant piece of my childhood that I had all but forgotten, because I almost never take the time to sit and think about it, though declaratively it is always there. That's the magic of visualization.

I hope that the next time you're anxious or depressed or scared or homicidal you take a moment to find your happy place, go back there, and spend some time visiting with your own precious memories.