Blowing Bubbles with My Dog

Recent events have me, like many of us, feeling untethered. I was making good progress on my depression. I was getting out more, volunteering, talking to people at the dog park, all things I can’t do right now. It’s an additional element of the pandemic that sprinkles more discouragement on top of the physical and financial fears that so many are facing globally. So, while I don’t feel like I’m making much progress, I’m proud to say that Stella has come a long way.

When I adopted her, Stella had a LOT of fears. Bags of potting soil, kites, people wearing big hats, bicycles, snowmen, car rides, piles of rocks, the list goes on. For the most part, she’s faced them all. The neighbor’s animatronic Halloween decorations were just too much for her and we had to cross the street, but those are meant to be scary, after all. She tends to be afraid of things that look unusual (to her) or regular things that are in unexpected places. But as long as I put on an air of confidence and stroll up to the scary thing, she can pluck up the courage to approach and give it a good sniff. Our most recent endeavor has been… bubbles.

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At first, she was uneasy. She backed away from them and skirted around their path to get away. Then, she crept up to one that had landed on the ground without popping. She leeeeaned in close, and- pop! Her head flinched back and I could almost see the gears turning as she tried to comprehend where it had gone.

A few more bubble-blowing sessions and we have successfully conquered her fear.

She is now completely indifferent to bubbles. No joy or delight whatsoever. She can be so playful when it comes to other games, but she just doesn’t care at all when it comes to bubbles. They’re almost an annoyance to her, popping on her fur while she’s guarding the backyard. I mean c’mon, bubbles are the most frivolous, fun thing ever! Ah well, I’d call that at least halfway successful.

 

 

COVID-19 and Loss

I haven’t been able to bring myself to post much lately because everything I write feels out of place, especially without acknowledging recent events. My family recently lost someone to a COVID-19 infection.

The mundane feels surreal. A lawnmower hums in the distance. The neighbors’ girls are playing hopscotch in their driveway. The dog pokes me with her nose, begging for another walk. We spent last week waiting for phone calls. Our tension was evident when the ringing drew us together in the house– “Another telemarketer.”– and then we dispersed. Waiting for phone calls was the best we could do.

Picking up the pieces must be done differently in a pandemic. You can’t hop on a plane and be with your loved ones. You can’t hold each other in your loss. You can’t have a funeral. You can only sit in your house, listening to the words that come through the phone. It’s not the same as a hand on the shoulder or a long, tight hug. Human touch. Most of what we do to create ritual and familiarity during crisis is dangerous now. We have to make new ways to find comfort. I’m enjoying photo albums, warm cookies, and afternoons in the grass, watching butterflies and house finches.

I know that consuming content not related to COVID-19 is an important distraction for many of us, myself included. I’m hoping to put my writing brain to work again soon.

Hope you’re all staying safe and well.

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How Running Helps My Mental Health

I really wish that my dog, Stella, was a good running buddy, but she’s just not. First of all, she refuses to do the entire 3.5-mile loop that I run. She’ll reach a point where she turns around and sits on the path, facing back the way we came. I’m jogging in place, pulling on the leash and cajoling her into moving, to no avail. If I start to really put my weight into her harness, she’ll lie down so that her center of gravity is low and I can’t tip her towards me. She then begins her slow army crawl towards home, belly in the dirt. She looks so pitiful that I often give in.

Keep in mind that Stella is a healthy, almost 2-year old cattle dog mix who sprints in giant circles in the dog park and wrestles for an hour every day. She’s not out of shape. She’s not opposed to running in the park. She’s just not interested in running with me. Not to mention that she’s compelled to investigate every smell we run by, so I’m constantly tugging her along or getting my shoulder yanked so that she can traipse into the grass. It’s ok– if I were a dog, I’d rather explore with my nose, too. Jogging is boring compared to 300 million olfactory receptors.

Suffice it to say, Stella is not a good running buddy. Maybe when she’s a little more grown-up she’ll like it more, but I’m not holding my breath. It would be nice to have the motivation of having a dog to run with, but I’m actually pretty well into a running habit these days. On days when I’m not feeling it, I do the regular loop. Frequently, I add more distance with the other paths on the mesa, and sometimes I even do the loop twice!

Every time I take an extended break from running and then start it up again, I find that it’s easier to regain my endurance. I’m always worried that I won’t be able to get back to the part where it’s enjoyable, but I’ve found that part at the beginning where you’re lifting cement shoes off the trail and breathing through a straw to be much shorter than I remember. Once my body readjusts to the requirements of running, I’m always happy that I did it. I notice that running helps my mental health in more ways than just the release of those precious endorphins. It also gives me a routine to plan my day around and something to look forward to. When I get home from a run, I often feel grounded and capable, and noticing my tired muscles is an exercise in mindfulness. Plus, there’s the simple fact that I’m not looking at a screen while I’m outside, running.

I really enjoy the sense of accomplishment that it brings me, although I have to be careful not to connect this too tightly to distance. Otherwise, I find myself disappointed if I don’t run as far or farther than my current limit. (Curse you, perfectionism!) It’s much better to feel accomplished for the act of running itself; I got out of the house, breathed some fresh air, and got my heart rate up. That’s all that matters.

Anxiety and Doing New Things

In an attempt to fill my time with things that will keep me from slipping back into severe depression, I’ve started doing New Things. One is volunteering and the other is taking a neighbor/friend up on her offer to teach me how to ride horses.

I really want to quit and crawl back into my hermit cave. I am way outside of my comfort zone, which, for me, always leads to near-constant worrying and ruminating. I can’t help but laugh because when my new therapist asked if anxiety was also a problem for me in addition to depression, I said “hmm, no, not really.” She later disagreed, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that yes, yes it definitely is. Now that my depression is easing, I think that anxiety is coming to the surface. (Additionally, when I tell people about this anxiety realization, they look at me like “you…didn’t know that?” So, that’s cool. Everyone knows about this but me.)

When I’m really depressed, I’m so numb and slowed down that I don’t even worry about saying “yes” to new things; the answer is automatically “no”. But when the depression lifts, my natural tendency to overthink everything and fall face-first into crippling indecision has room to become obvious. Because I feel capable of doing more than I did while depressed, I feel like I should say “yes” to new opportunities, even if I’m on the fence.

Rather than deciding to just get out there and demolish the boundaries of my comfort zone, I get…stuck. Really stuck. I want to do new things in general, but when an opportunity comes along, my worry and fear keep me from making a confident decision. It’s tough for me to decipher whether I don’t want to do something because I’m feeling overwhelming New Thing-anxiety or because I won’t like it. And, since I know that this is a problem for me, if I think there’s a chance I might like it eventually, I tend to make myself push through and do it no matter what. Of course, I do that while also continuing to worry about whether or not that’s the right thing to do.

An additional layer of this terrible cake is that I do not like quitting, even if I really want to bail. And even if this hypothetical New Thing has very natural exits where I can decide it’s not for me and stop, it still feeeeels like quitting. This makes me even more indecisive because not only do I need to know if my anxiety is coming from a dislike of the Thing or not, but I also need to know if I can be committed to the entire Thing. No quitting. Approaching opportunities like this is not fun, and I do not recommend it. 0/10.

I imagine the goal is to take each new opportunity and be able to decide, quickly and simply, whether I want to do it or not. I just don’t know how to do that without taking all of the stuff above into account and getting hopelessly tangled up. I guess step one is to remind myself that I can say “no”, changing my mind is ok, and that in many cases, it’s not that big of a deal.

Much easier said than done.

 

Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature

Two weeks ago, while trapped in the ill-fitting, damp denim jacket of depression, I slipped into the airy expanse of the Denver Art Museum. We were there to see a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit that is visiting nowhere else in the U.S. besides Denver. It’s called Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature. While an art exhibit is not enough to cure my mental malaise, it certainly helped.

Monet’s art is just up my alley: nuanced, filled with light, and nature-focused. I could not choose a favorite if I tried. To some extent, each room was dedicated to a particular time period in Monet’s life. There were some parts that compared paintings of the same subject done at different times, but for the most part, the chronological organization helped show the progression of his style from something close to realism into distinctive impressionism. We saw the poplar trees, the haystacks, the waterlilies, and so much more. We saw the ice of the frozen Seine and the roses of his beloved garden. We saw the paintings up close, inspecting the details and sudden colors, and we saw them from far away, brushstrokes blending into a strikingly clear image.

monet roses

I was particularly taken with his ability to render water and reflections. At mid-distance, there is an overwhelming illusion of depth in the water he painted. It’s like you could just dive right in. Upon closer inspection, I marveled at the sheer number of colors and shades he used to achieve that effect, and the shapes that brought the water together. From a distance, I lost sight of the intricacies but was captivated by the image as a whole.

Monet was driven by a desire to capture specific moments in time, and to represent them as true to nature’s beauty as possible. Part of that beauty is how it looks, but part of it is how being in nature makes you feel. Monet’s art is about how afternoon light is different from morning light, and how the same scene makes you feel at different times. It’s about atmosphere: how ripples in water convey emotion, how cliff faces can be sinister, and how perspective changes everything.

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While in the exhibit, I overheard a mother and her young daughter discussing a painting. The daughter asked if there was glass covering it, to which her mother replied “No,” there wasn’t.

“Then why is it shining?”

“That’s just his painting.”

 

It was tiring but well worth it. I’m thankful that I got to immerse myself in this exhibit, and that my brain allowed me to enjoy Monet’s shining paintings.

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woman running shoes running up concrete staircase

December Resolutions: Mid-Month Update

Last month, I decided I’d get a head start on my New Year’s resolutions by treating December as a sort of trial run. I set myself four goals:

  1. Start volunteering
  2. Run regularly
  3. Re-establish skincare routine
  4. Begin relearning German

We’re roughly halfway through December, so I thought I would check in with my progress. Currently, I give myself a 2.5/4. I have been running almost every day, persisting despite the weather. I think I’ve surpassed my goal of establishing enough endurance to (somewhat comfortably) go five miles, so maybe I should aim higher for the end of the month.

I’m diligently maintaining my skincare regimen with topical steroids, a giant light, and a lot of sarcastic jokes about how great I look in UV-protective goggles. I’m not seeing much benefit yet, but it’s not an instant fix.

My efforts to begin volunteering have been temporarily halted; it turns out the organization I was interested in has recently moved (still nearby) and stopped their volunteer orientations until mid-January. I am signed up for the first orientation in January, though, so I think that counts for at least half credit.

That brings us to number four: begin relearning German. I have not started this yet, and I’m trying to decide if I want to push forward with it and see where it takes me by the end of the month, or replace it with a different goal.

All in all, I’m feeling pretty satisfied with my December resolutions.

 

Week 25 of Working on Us: Thankful and Grateful

Working on Us is a wonderful series over on Beckie’s Mental Mess, where each week has a new prompt meant to get people talking about mental health topics. Check out the original prompt for week 25 and click around to find participants of previous weeks’ topics!

This week, the prompt is loose; just write about something you’re thankful/grateful for.

I joke with my family that my life basically revolves around the dog park, and although it’s funny, it’s also kind of true. I adopted Stella when I was in a really tough place, mentally, and her sweetness, affection, and persistence are what have gotten me out of bed and outside over the last year.

black dog with pointy ears laying in grass between person's outstretched bare legs

When I think about how grateful I am to have Stella, I also think about my family’s support and patience, and how willing they were to care for her when I was in the hospital. I’m thankful for the people I meet at the dog park, and the sense of community and routine I’ve found there. I think about the resources I have to be able to provide for Stella, and the fact that my body allows me to walk, run, and play with her.

IMG_4092black dog with pointed ears panting while lying in shade next to concrete structure

When I think about how grateful I am to call Stella mine, it ripples out to every aspect of my life with her. I think that’s a powerful quality of giving thanks; you cannot be thankful for one thing without also being thankful for what contributes to it and leads to it.

I’m also incredibly thankful for what comes from my responsibility for and love of Stella. I’m thankful for long walks with frequent sniff stops and short walks around the block. She gives me stories to tell and reasons to get out of my comfort zone. I’m grateful that she makes me laugh every day.

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I’m thankful that she is instantly joyful when I buy her toys, but is also amused with a simple piece of cardboard. I’m thankful that I can tell when she’s tired because one ear flops over.

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I’m thankful for my pup because she makes my life more joyful, she connects me to other people, and she demands that I take care of her and in so doing, myself. I hope that everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving, and if you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope that you had a great week filled with all of the people, pets, and things you’re thankful for all year long.

 

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How I Learned to Advocate for Myself

I’ve been enjoying all of the content online for Mental Health Awareness Month, and I thought I’d contribute my own story. Here’s my own experience of why advocating for yourself is important.

I have severe psoriasis, an autoimmune skin condition that makes itchy, flaky plaques where my skin cells regenerate too quickly. During my recent hospitalization (for severe depression), I let my doctors know about this in a brief, it’s-not-that-relevant-but-you-asked kind of way. When the psychiatrist asked if I had any physical conditions, I informed him of my psoriasis.

A few days later, I was meeting with my social worker to discuss my treatment plan. Under “diagnoses”, Major Depressive Disorder and psychosis were listed. Before I even said anything, my social worker quickly brushed it off and said “don’t worry too much about the psychosis- it might just be that you were confused when you came in”.

Now, I’m the kind of person who will eat the wrong food at a restaurant rather than speak up and point out a mistake. I’m the kind of person who willingly takes the middle seat on an airplane because my neighbor explains that she has to pee a lot. Seriously. I am not assertive.

However, diagnoses are a whole ‘nother bucket of fish. When I saw that on my treatment plan and heard my social worker minimize it, I made it clear that I was confused by it and wrote my concern in the questions portion of the form. The next time I saw the psychiatrist, I steeled myself in preparation to ask about the mysterious psychosis that I definitely didn’t have. Before I could bring it up, he sat down, sighed, and said “it turns out that they couldn’t read my handwriting and thought I wrote ‘psychosis’ when really, I wrote ‘psoriasis’. It’s all fixed, now.”

I laughed about it at visiting hour that night and for many nights after. Really, we’re still laughing about it. We’re getting some serious mileage out of that one.

The important thing is that I spoke up for myself and that it got remedied. I almost had an incorrect diagnosis which could have caused more confusion down the line. So, speak up! If something doesn’t look right or feel right, let your doctor know. They’re people too, and sometimes mistakes happen.

Also, handwriting is more important than you might think.

Relapse: A Poem about Self-Harm

black and white painting of woman with furrowed bow and eyes closedThe remnants

were there all along-

wrapped inside my skull,

twined around every neuron.

 

In spring,

it awoke from its dormancy,

stretched its vines

to suffocate me further.

 

I’ll prune it back

and pull

what roots I can.

Maybe this time

 

I’ll get them before

late summer,

when the poison berries

are full,

 

bursting with

rotten propagation.

Waiting to sow the blight-

again.

 

Next year,

I’ll be clean

 

Love,

Your brain