Finding My Metaphor

Whiteout

I have never fancied myself a creative writer, but in trying to express how my illness feels right now, I find myself looking for the perfect comparison: The personal overhead storm cloud, the veil of sadness, the blinders – all good metaphors for depression, but I find, in trying to process my most recent spiral out,  these comparisons do not entirely capture all the small, painful struggles of this illness.

I was driving home from my parents’ house at nighttime in a blizzard. My mom had asked me to stay the night, but knowing I’m not a morning person and could not guarantee that I would wake up in time to get to work, I decided to start the 2-hour drive around 9pm. I’m a confident driver, a highway warrior. It would be fine.

It should come as a surprise to no one, that my mother was right.

I knew she was right as the all-weather tires fishtailed on the on-ramp to the highway.

I definitely knew it as I was white-knuckling the steering wheel at 30km/h taking refuge from the wind behind a transport truck.

She is always right.

Despite the windshield wipers flapping furiously and straining my eyes, I could not make out more than two feet in front of my face. Trundling through the whiteout, my side and rearview mirrors were of no assistance. My only goal was to remain on the tire tracks made by the equally idiotic souls ahead of me.

Every couple hundred yards I would feel the car slip beneath me, threatening to skid sideways and out of my control. I was exhausted but terrified to peel my eyes away even for a second. My shoulders and stomach and legs remained braced for …something – impact? An unexpected obstacle? A blast from the horn of a transport truck?

I held myself in this state of paralyzed concentration in complete silence for hours, for fear that any distraction would push me off the road. I’ll never know how many details of that drive I missed when I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the immediate road ahead. Save for a couple of transports that barreled by me at just furious speeds, it was just me and my wits on that road.

Rather unseasonably, I’m reminded of this experience and how helpless it made me feel. Yes, I could have stopped for temporary reprieve, but the drive remained ahead of me. All I could do was move forward cautiously and with very little control of my surroundings, despite how intently I concentrated. My muscles ached from tension.

In the thick of a particularly stubborn low, the sensations are familiar. Sometimes I can’t see past how shitty I feel in this moment, or more than two feet in front of my face, even though I know that this disease moves in cycles of highs and lows. I find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, the trick floorboard to disappear beneath my feet, to slip and skid sideways off the track. The aftermath of bracing for impact lives with me for days after, with physical and physiological costs, and while I’m so tired, sleep is not always a relief. I move forward, slowly, in the direction I guess I’m supposed to go, knowing full well that I do not have a confident grasp on everything I need to attend to, but doing what I can.

It looks like I’ve found my metaphor, so the English major in me is satisfied. But I suppose this is where the real work begins.

Turning Off, Turning Out

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I have a problematic relationship with my phone. Not only are the monthly data overage charges a cause for stress (sorry Mom), but my reliance on the device for personal comfort is downright shameful.

My 2011 MacBook Pro has essentially become an oversized paperweight while I use my smartphone for all of my activities within cyberspace: to connect with my friends and family, to check and update social media, to listen to music and podcasts, to take pictures of my life. I watch (listen) to Netflix to fall asleep, I send email, I make appointments, I pay for my coffee, all through one App or function or another. When I don’t want to be bothered in public, I’ll stick my nose in my phone. Have to stand in line? Check the phone. Wait for any amount of time beyond 10 seconds? I’m scrolling. Awkward moment in a group setting? Ah, a notification.

I am hardly ever alone with my thoughts, and the constant stimulation from screen time contributes to the noise already in my head. How many times have I turned to my phone for connection instead of engaging with the human beings around me?

Instead of reaching out to someone who cares about me either in person or through voice call (old school, I get it), I find myself turning to Google in search of answers and opinions, asking questions that I’m embarrassed to ask aloud. Often, the answers I find are not wholly comforting and I don’t feel much better after browsing through articles and discussion forums containing the key words I typed. The whole practice turns me more inward, invites more questions than answers, and I continue to feel alone in my worry.

Apparently, I’m not alone as I might think, as articles like this one from The Atlantic describe how Google has been tracking the search for mental health related keywords, noting that questions like, “Why am I sad?” or “What are the symptoms of depression” seem to spike in colder weather months across the world. Whether or not Google searches could reveal the actual prevalence of mental health issues, including unreported cases, it remains to be seen. What observing this information tells us is that people are interested in the topic, want to know if their symptoms are legitimate, and feel the need to be anonymous in the search for information and support.

Smartphones make us passive, and lazy. We don’t have to remember things, directions, phone numbers, birthdays, because all of that information lives in the cloud somewhere, or something. They say it saves us time but what exactly are we doing with our new-found time – other than filling it with celebrity gossip and videos of swimming pigs (omg).

It’s not always easy to verbalize what’s bothering you, but the act of expressing the troubling thoughts or ideas can neutralize them. When negative thoughts are swirling around your head unchecked and unchallenged, they can feel very real and true. Allowing another person to share the burden with you, even for a moment, can be a relief.

If you are apprehensive about engaging in conversations around your mental health or well-being, here are a few things that have worked for me, both when I am sharing my own thoughts and listening to others:

Preface: Starting a conversation by sharing how it is hard for you to talk about this, or expressing that it may be difficult to hear, can be a way to prepare the other person for sensitive subject matter and encourage a thoughtful response. It gives the other person the opportunity to recognize that you are looking to be heard and have trusted them for this role.

Sitting side-by-side: I can’t tell you how many difficult conversations I’ve had in the front seat of a car, and it works because this seating arrangement takes the pressure off constant eye-contact, particularly if you’re concerned about having the “right reaction” when someone is crying or upset. Sitting side-by-side in the car also allows you to make physical contact, like holding their hand, that doesn’t feel overly intrusive.

Get active: Similar to sitting side-by-side, doing an activity, like shooting hoops (who am I) or going on a hike, can again take the pressure off constant eye contact, but can also facilitate honest conversation, as you may be less likely to overthink what you say as you continue with your hike or game.

Embrace silence: We’ve heard it before – silence is not the enemy to good conversation. Silence offers time for the person to give a thoughtful response, can allow the person to collect themselves if they are upset and crying, and can allow space for other forms of support, like a hug.

It may be daunting to reach out when we are feeling down, and turning to our phones, Google, or other isolating sources may seem easier than involving another person in your troubles. We don’t want to be a burden, after all. But trust me when I say that other people want to be there for you – it’s up to you to let them.

P.S In an effort to practice what I preach, my very own $52 basic flip phone is on route to me as I write this. I’m sure I’ll be hit with waves of nostalgia as I relearn how to text using T9 and end phone calls with a satisfying snap of the lid. My iPhone will live on in semi-retirement, reserved for when and where I can hop on the wifi.

“I didn’t mean to…”

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Thanks, always, to Louis C.K, for providing thought-provoking brain snacks.

As a sensitive kid growing up, my feelings were always hurt. A sideways look from a classmate or seeing whispers between friends were enough to upset me and trigger the tears. Sometimes, my feelings were hurt on purpose (even before the Internet, children were cruel) but sometimes, no one meant any harm and I was being overly sensitive.

I’m still just as sensitive and thin-skinned, but I’ve developed some emotional armour in my old age that keeps me from being hurt all the time. And while I’ve learned to adapt, I still think that there is some responsibility to claim when we become aware that we have hurt someone.

Hurt feelings are often a product of mismatched expectations: I wanted him to do this, he didn’t do this, and now my feelings are hurt. And while the dynamics of the relationship will often dictate how candid you can be about your wants and needs, communicating your expectations can save you many hours (or years) of hurt feelings.

The good ones, the ones who care about you, don’t want to see you hurt, and will likely make attempts to modify their behaviour or make amends. The others will show you how much you matter by way of how much they are willing to address what is upsetting you. How someone feels about you and how they treat you are intimately related – you will get your answer to the former by observing the latter.

“I didn’t mean to…”

“You’re so sensitive!”

“That’s just the way I am”

For all you sensitive folk out there, don’t let these phrases make you feel dismissed. Your feelings are valid and are worthy of attention and respect, especially by people who claim to care about you. Communicate your needs, express your frustrations, and continue being soft – this world needs more empathy.