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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: depression

I deal with anxiety and depression, but not in the way you might think

Stephen H. Provost

I’m not a psychologist. I don’t even play one on TV. But I have had experience with both anxiety and depression, and I wanted to share some of those experiences so my readers can understand what it’s like – at least for me. It may be different for others, but if this helps increase understanding and strikes a chord with anyone, it will have been worth it.

Anxiety and depression can go together, or not. Either one be triggered by a specific event, but it’s important to realize that they don’t have to be. There may be no specific external cause at all. It may just have to do with being physically tired, or it may be a response to an accumulation of things that have happened over months or years or even decades.

I don’t always know why I start hyperventilating and my heart starts racing when I lie down to take a nap – or why I don’t. I can’t always pinpoint why I’m feeling unmotivated or down.

If there is a trigger, it can be helpful to identify and remove it. But if there isn’t one, going around and around in your own head – or in conversation with someone else – can only heighten the feeling. At least, that’s how it feels to me, because I’ve always been a highly solution-driven person. I want to figure things out and move on. I want to control my own destiny. I don’t like to feel “stuck.”

Yet for 15 years, even when I had a traditional job, I was spending more money than I was taking in, either because of expenses beyond my control or because I worked in an area where the cost of living outpaced my income. Usually both.

Then my favorite cat died, and I was “stuck” dealing with the grief of that. A few months later, I was stuck dealing with the death of my father, the only living blood member of my immediate family. Not too long after that, I lost the job that was providing me with not enough money to live on in the first place. The same company had laid me off once before. In neither case did it have anything to do with my job performance, which had earned me a number of raises and promotions. But that didn’t matter. And it left me feeling even more “stuck.”

Cause and effect

In fact, the feeling of being “stuck” is one of my biggest phobias: specifically, claustrophobia and a fear of being physically suffocated. I describe my experience of anxiety as being stuck in overdrive with the parking brake on. This feeling can be exhausting, especially if it lasts for a long time, and that feeling of exhaustion can morph into depression pretty easily. In fact, I’d go so far as to say my feeling of depression is emotional exhaustion.  

When I was in middle school, like a lot of kids, I felt alienated and was the target of teasing and bullying. I retreated into a shell of introversion until I figured out that, lo and behold, there was a way out: school. I realized that, because I was pretty smart, I could parlay that into classroom success. It was simple cause and effect. If I learned the material and figured out what the teacher wanted, I could provide it and (voila!) I could ace the class.

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This came very easily to me. After nearly flunking out during my freshman year of high school, I got mostly A’s and B’s as a sophomore. By the time I hit my senior year, I was a straight-A student, and I kept right on going into college, graduating summa cum laude. This might seem like a good thing, and in many respects, it was. But it also created an unrealistic expectation: If I did the work and performed well, I would be rewarded.

Reality check: As often as not, it doesn’t always work that way. A lot of things are subjective, and a lot of others are simply beyond your control. I’ve never been fired for cause, but I have lost two jobs despite solid-to-glowing reviews because of market forces and bad timing. This might not seem like a big deal. People get laid off every day. They figure it out.

But picture yourself as a depressed, bullied teenager who discovered his only ticket out of that lonely place was success. Now imagine that, in middle age, that ticket is ripped to shreds in front of his face, not once, but twice. Do you think that person might feel just a little like that ostracized, ridiculed teen all over again?

Maybe school wasn’t your ticket. Maybe you were good at something else: sports, music, acting. It doesn’t matter what it was. It gave you a sense of self-worth, a feeling that the jerks who’d belittled you in sixth grade about your acne or your hair or anything else they could find to poke fun at – that they’d been wrong. That you were worth something after all.

But you learned to rely on it and then, one day, the rug was pulled out from under you. Suddenly, people either started pulling away from you or tried to encourage you by saying they love you “for who you are” rather than what you can do. Some of them are probably sincere. Still, that doesn’t provide the kind of security you’re seeking. It can even be confusing because you’ve gone so “all in” on the cause-and-effect model that anything else feels phony ... even if it isn’t.

The model falls apart

For years, I received a regular paycheck for what I wrote. I felt valued, and the paycheck was proof of that. I felt like I was, to some degree, in control of my own destiny. Now, I don’t. Now, when I write, I never know what’s going to happen. Some people might buy my book, a lot of people won’t, and there’s no way of knowing whether the results are based on something I’ve done or sheer, blind luck (good or bad).

I’ve written a number of books, each of which involves months of work, but I hate sending out query letters and applying for jobs, even though I could do several of those in a day.

Here’s why: I know I can write a book. I can find my way to the end of the story and feel good about having told it – about having accomplished something. That cause-and-effect relationship is intact. But every time I send out a query letter, there’s a very good possibility I’ll be rejected. My fear of failure isn’t just an ego thing. It’s a feeling of having wasted my time; of being stuck. It’s also further confirmation that my old cause-and-effect model doesn’t seem to work. People can try to reassure me that it’s all “part of a process,” not an end in itself ... and that might make sense to me rationally, but my emotions don’t give a damn.

One of two things will happen:

“Dammit, I’m going to make this happen, come hell or high water!” or

“This is never going to happen. Why should I bother?”

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I don’t know how many times one side of my brain has told me, “Persistence pays off!” while the other side is reminding me of that “the definition of insanity is (supposedly) doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” I know it’s not exactly the same thing if I’m sending out requests to different people, but it feels that way – especially if the results are the same.

There’s a myth that people who experience anxiety and depression can’t accomplish anything. That’s not true. It may be true for some, but it’s a broad-brush statement that doesn’t fit with everyone. For me, staying busy can be an expression of my anxiety and a coping mechanism to keep myself from falling too deep into depression.

Because I’m afraid of being stuck, or paralyzed, that fear keeps me busy. But when that busyness fails to produce much in the way of concrete results (income, book sales, etc.), I start to feel anxious – like I’m stuck in overdrive with the parking brake on. I want to get somewhere, but I can’t, so I rev the engine even harder and wear myself out in the process.

Then I crash and, wouldn’t you know it, I’m stuck in the state of depression I was trying to avoid in the first place. And here’s what makes it even worse: The more often it happens, the more difficult it is, each time, to claw your way out of it. Because each repeated “failure” reinforces the idea that you’re no good, that things will never get any better, and that being “stuck” is just a fact of life you’re going to have to deal with for the rest of your days.

I’m not writing any of this in search of advice on one hand or pity on the other. Please don’t tell me to “get over it” or “buck up” or “shrug it off.” And please don’t suggest that I “get professional help,” either. I’m not saying that’s a bad idea, but it’s something people suggest as a stock answer because they feel like they need to provide some kind of answer and can’t think of anything else to say. Trust me: A person who’s dealing with depression or anxiety has already thought of it – and decided to pursue it or not – long before you mentioned it.

Others may fight depression and anxiety for entirely different reasons than those I’ve mentioned here, but I suspect at least some of you reading this know where I’m coming from. Maybe, like me, you’re not interested in pity or advice; maybe you just want people to understand, even if they can’t relate.

I know that’s all I’m asking.

What it's like to be a perfectionist

Stephen H. Provost

What does it mean to be a perfectionist?

It means second-guessing yourself. Continually.

It means procrastinating for fear that you’ll “get it wrong” and (worse) that someone might see you get it wrong. It means criticisms are evidence you’ve already gotten it wrong and that someone has seen it. It means that, because of this, you hate people looking over your shoulder or viewing your work until you’re sure it’s “done” or “ready.” Sometimes, it never is.

Perfectionism makes you snap at people when they interrupt you during a task, because you need to focus to ensure you don’t make a mistake. One that people might see; one that will give them an excuse to ridicule you.

It means being an introvert because you don’t trust others. But you don’t trust yourself, either.

It means thinking before you speak. And thinking. And thinking. Until your thoughts tie themselves up in knots that wrap themselves around your tongue.

It hinders decision-making and can leave you paralyzed.

It means expecting the worst because, at least that way, you won’t be disappointed.

It’s believing you’ll never be able to live up to your parents’ or peers’ or employer’s or partner’s perceived expectations of you, and it means adopting those expectations as your own.

It’s a reaction to believing you’re unlovable. Inherently so. But you can’t control that, so the only remedy is to control what you can by earning people’s respect and substituting it for the love you’ve convinced yourself is unattainable.

Yes, it’s controlling. It’s a desperate attempt to control a world that seems chaotic, hostile and overwhelming, but mostly it’s an attempt to control the one thing you think you can (or should be able to) control: yourself. Because of this, it controls you, and you hate that.

It means seeing everything as your fault because, at least that way, you can control it by “doing better the next time.”

It means you seek approval. But you shun it when it’s offered for things you don’t think you deserve ... and sulk when you don’t receive it after working very hard on something you’re very proud to have accomplished.

It means having a very, very hard time with the reality that life isn’t fair, because it feels like fairness is the only thing standing between you and despair.

It means taking breakups hard and layoffs even harder. At least you can rationalize breakups because they’re based on love, not respect. Love is unpredictable. Respect isn’t supposed to be. If you do a good job, you’re supposed to be rewarded. When it doesn’t work out that way, you feel cast adrift, deprived of the life raft you’ve been clinging to: your hard work and ability.

When you lose a job, you blame yourself for taking that job in the first place, because (of course) you should have known better.

It means Woudla, Coulda, Shoulda and What If are couch surfing on your medial temporal lobe. Regret and foreboding team up in an unending tag-team match against your reason and your serenity.

You feel the need to look in the rear-view mirror, peer under the hood and keep your eyes on the road, all at the same time. You have to be on top of everything. Otherwise, the unthinkable will happen. You’ll fail. And people will see it. And they’ll never let you live it down.

It means sleepless nights lost to anxiety and fitful sleep haunted by nightmares.

It means high blood pressure and low self-esteem.

It means you’re constantly asking yourself, “What have you done for me lately?”

It means playing the diplomat and getting slammed from both sides.

It means avoiding conflict and trying to please everyone.

It means thinking you’re never good enough.

It means loving spellcheck for saving your ass and hating it for making you look the fool.

It means always having to say you’re sorry: repeatedly apologizing for things that are your fault, and for things that aren’t.

Failure is the enemy. When you fail, you beat yourself up for it publicly in the hope that self-castigation will keep your critics at bay. But it doesn’t. They revile and ridicule you anyway, so you get beaten up twice over.

It’s being governed by worry and a continual readiness to shift into fight-or-flight mode ... if you don’t live there already. It’s a gateway to defensiveness, cynicism and, if you’re not careful, superstition and paranoia. But because you are careful to a fault you’re less likely to get there. At least that’s something.

It means you seldom stop to smell the roses, and you miss out on a lot of life’s beauty. That’s a mistake, too, and you beat yourself up over that. Another regret.

That’s what it means to be a perfectionist. At least part of it. Of course, this list isn't perfect ...

 

Is Twitter's downfall imminent? I sure hope so.

Stephen H. Provost

Twitter lost 2 million monthly U.S. users in the latest quarter – 3 percent of its total.

I’m not exactly doing cartwheels over this, primarily because, at my age, attempting such would be downright dangerous. It did, however, make me smile.

There are things you do because you want to, and there are others you do because you have to.

For me, Twitter has always fallen into the second category. I pretty much have to have some presence there because I’m part of the communications business. Journalist. Author. If you’re in either game these days, you need all the exposure you can get.

But Twitter is, to me, what eating my veggies was to my 7-year-old self. It’s something I do while holding my noise to avoid the bitter taste, because I’ve been told, “You must do this because it’s good for you.” Needless to say, that imperative makes it all the more unpalatable.

Veggies have grown on me but, unfortunately, Twitter hasn’t.

I’m not alone in my disdain for Twitter, even among writers and journalists, some of whom have dumped the platform altogether. For these folks, it’s just not worth it:

Last year, a fellow journalist, New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman, quit Twitter because he got sick of dealing with anti-Semitic attacks on the platform. It had become, in his words, “a cesspit of hate.”

Lindy West, an author and columnist, also bowed out, declaring Twitter to be “unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.” She concluded her piece in The Guardian with the words, “Keep the friends. Ditch the mall.”

CNN’s Aislyn Camerota realized she was “hanging out with people who find satisfaction spewing vitriol, people who spread racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism.”

The medium frames the message

Should we blame the messenger?

As Marshall McLuhan once said, “The medium is the message” (or “mess age,” as he sometimes quipped). I’m not sure I’d go that far, but the medium certainly frames the message, and Twitter’s 140-character format does just that … in a such a way as to discourage people from thinking. Or analyzing. Or conducting any kind of in-depth dialogue.

Why does Twitter attract the kind of people who ultimately alienated Weisman, West and Camerota? Maybe because it encourages hit-and-run attacks rather than reasoned discourse. Sound-bite politics does the same thing – and is, unsurprisingly, dominated by similar attacks. If you don’t like negative campaigning, you probably won’t care for Twitter, either, because Twitter is all about campaigning.

The platform is dominated by celebrities and wannabrities (along with their fans and sycophants), who are there to promote their name or their brand. Donald J. Trump, celebrity turned politician, is the ultimate creature of the nexus between politics and celebrity that Twitter has become.

Trump’s ubiquitous presence on – and reliance upon – Twitter has confirmed my opinions of both: of Trump as a simpleton who’s deluded himself into thinking he can tackle complex policy issues in 140 characters, and of Twitter as the platform that empowers him (and people like him) to do perpetuate such delusions.

High anxiety

This isn’t to say everyone who uses Twitter is a simpleton or a troll. My point is that the platform’s format attracts such folks, and like many others, I’m not comfortable in the kind of environment that creates.

As someone who’s generally unimpressed by celebrity, that doesn’t appeal to me. Besides that, there’s research that indicates using a large number of social media platforms just isn’t good for you. A study published Dec. 10 in Computers in Human Behavior found that people who used the risk of depression and anxiety in those who used the largest number of platforms was more than three times that of people used two or fewer.

That’s the last thing I need. At last count, I was active on Facebook (my primary platform), Instagram, Twitter and my blog. If I were asked to drop one, it would be a no-brainer to eliminate the one that seemed the most superficial, the least user friendly, the least interesting and the most, well, just plain mean.

That would be Twitter, folks. Where anxiety-inducing trolls and bullies are perhaps most prevalent.

Maybe other people are coming to the same conclusion, and perhaps that’s why Twitter’s user base – never remotely close to Facebook’s in the best of times – is starting to shrink. Maybe another part of it is Trump fatigue. Either way, I’m hoping users are sending a message by abandoning ship: It’s long past time for Twitter to change, and fundamentally, or die.