Sunday, March 9, 2014

What It's Like In Here

Things have been difficult lately.

The medication problem still hasn't been sorted out-- I've got a doctor appointment on Tuesday to discuss a new approach. Ugh.

But I've also been working on being more engaged-- with people, with the present, with the moment-- and it's leaving me triggered and scattered and struggling to focus.

The opposite of engaged, really.

This is something that's going to take a lot of practice. It is not something I'm used to doing. But as I push myself to do it, I'm getting a glimpse of the gymnastics my brain is willing to do to keep me from doing it.

I was struggling to describe what it feels like to Dr. Oz the other night, and she seemed to know what I meant and was able to give me the language to use to describe it to you. I hope this makes sense:

It's as if my brain is refusing me access. It won't allow me to think about certain things-- why I disengage, how I do it, how to slow my automatic responses down and stay with the moment. I can't even hold these thoughts in my head for a moment, let alone put in any time thinking about them. I try, and my brain skips right off the surface like a stone on the surface of a pond.

It won't let me go there.

That sounds crazy, doesn't it? Not being allowed to think certain types of thoughts, or have certain types of inner dialogue, because your own brain refuses to let you get a grip on the idea for more than a second?

I can describe it to you like this, but I can't actually do it. It's like I try to reach for the thought and it disappears before I can wrap my hand around it. 

What's more, I've learned this week, if I try to push the matter and keep bringing myself back to it, my brain starts to go into "don't go there" overdrive, and I get pushed further and further from what feels like my intellectual center and more to the outer surface of my consciousness. 

Meaning: I become unable to concentrate on anything. 

It's the strangest feeling, to feel locked out of my own brain. I feel like I can't think about anything for more than a few seconds, like my thoughts are so scattered that I can't gather them back together again.

Disengage, my brain seems to be telling me. DISENGAGE!

And it's true: the only way to stop this scattering process is to find something innocuous to distract me from what I'm trying to do and lull me into complacency. 

Facebook. Fan fiction. Stupid TV.

Instantly calming, soothing, and clear in a way that my thoughts refuse to be.

Escapism at its finest.

"You're being triggered," said Dr. Oz, "and you're going into the fight-or-flight response. Your brain is switching off the processes it deems unnecessary, and throwing you into flight mode. You feel like you can't focus because your lizard brain has taken over and is pushing you away from what it sees as the source of the threat."


That makes sense. I mean, it works as an explanation for what this is. It feels true, to the extent that I can hold the damn concept in my head for a moment and judge its validity.

It sounds true. Let's say it that way. It sounds true.

What I don't get is why I can't stop it from happening. This is MY BRAIN we're talking about. It's not like I'm trying to have a conversation with someone else and can't express my thoughts coherently. 

I'm only trying to hold a thought in my own fucking brain for a few minutes and have a dialogue with myself,  and it's still impossible.

To feel out of control of your own brain, not just on an unconscious level (which, lord knows, I am quite used to by now), but on a fully conscious one?

That feels... crazy.

Words disappearing before my eyes. Disappearing from my own mouth. Disappearing from the theater of the brain. The inner lizard (as I've begun to see the amygdala-- a green, sleeping dragon within) throwing up obstacle after obstacle, force field after force field, until I sound my own retreat and give up the fight.

I step back from the work-- because that's what this is, it's the work that I need to do in order to get to the next phase of recovery-- and I look for what is soothing instead.

Don't push, I decide. Just float.

It so much easier just to float.

All of this, as you might imagine, makes me feel farther than ever from getting to the bottom of this thing.

I've torn down plenty of walls along this journey, but right now I'm bashing my head against a big one and I see no way in.

Is awareness enough? If I'm aware of this phenomenon and keep chipping away at it, will I gain access at some point?

Will the right medication help? Will I find a drug that will help me to hold my focus and actually have these conversations with myself, so I can get some of this work done?

Is it the medication that is causing this disconnect in the first place?

I don't trust my brain chemistry. I don't know what's working and what's not, in there. I don't know which reactions are true and which are affected by too much of this chemical or too little of that.

IT'S NOT RIGHT IN HERE, is what I'm saying.

I'm sort of afraid to post this one, because I don't know if what I've said makes any sense.

This makes sense, though: the things I usually choose to to to distract myself from the discomfort and exhaustion of trying to find a way in-- the mindless, soothing things that make me disengage further from the moment or the person or the presence of mind I seek-- aren't helping to reduce my anxiety or strengthen me for the next battle.

Mindless reading, Facebooking, TV-watching... those things aren't fortifying. They're not recharging my batteries, the way I've let myself believe they were. 

In fact, they tend to make everything worse, because then not only do I still have the original problem, but now I've managed to create new ones by insulating myself from reality and letting everything else slide, too.

The truth of the matter is that my brain gets recharged by creativity, thought, and action, just like everyone else's, and if I'm not engaging in others, I'm not engaging in any of those things, either.

So I end up taxed, unfulfilled, exhausted, and no closer to a refueled tank than I was before.

I've been thinking, all this time, that disengaging was the only way I could recharge.

Turns out, disengaging is just as much a drain on my resources as fighting. 

What I thought was a refuge from the battle has been a battle in its own right, and I never understood that until now.


I used to have a post-it note on my computer screen, years ago, that said, "THE OPPOSITE OF "STRESS" IS NOT "NOTHING."

Because that was my counter-weight for the stresses in my life: come home, shut down, disengage, retreat.

It didn't help me. I couldn't figure out why.

And then I noticed that there were times when I felt recharged. After I'd engaged creatively with something. Written something, made something, done something productive and satisfying. I began to push myself to choose those things, rather than continue my trajectory of permanent retreat.

It's time to choose that again.

The opposite of stress is not nothing. Stop turning off completely in response to threat. Turn instead to creative work, and come back stronger than before.

Hard to do in the moment, when things are as they are right now, but worth the challenge, in the end.

Does this all come down to breaking a habit? Instead of choosing the easy path to the couch, choosing the more difficult path to the creative spark?

It might. It might just be habit. And breaking the habit might just be as simple as repeatedly forcing myself to choose a new reaction.

Has this made sense to anyone? I'm not sure I can rewrite it any more clearly than this, right now. Does anybody else have stuff like this happen, where you can't get close to an idea in your head without being forced into distraction mode?

Well. Incoherent as this post may be, I guess it's a faithful representation of where I am in my head: locked out of the part that knows how to make sense of things.

I've done my best. I'd love to hear your comments if you think you can tackle what I'm trying to say here and shed some light on it for the rest of us.

Apropos of nothing, I thought I'd let you know that I just applied for the Amtrak Residency for Writers program, which grants up to 24 writers a 2-5 day round-trip "residency" with their own private sleeping car, desk, and inspiration from the changing scenery out the window. Just because.

Cool idea. Wish me luck!


  1. Kate,

    I've been mulling over your post, trying to think of how to reply because I very much wanted to. It's tricky for me: I don't have anything like the difficulties you've faced and are facing, but so much of this spoke to me, especially in the latter parts where you discuss your desire to withdraw and the ways in which that exacerbates the problems rather than alleviating them.

    In my case, the odd thing is that the part of me I am trying to access is, in fact, the creative part: my desire to write, to produce, is fierce, but whenever the opportunity comes, I shy away. I don't know if this is a combination of fear, laziness, perfectionism, or what have you, but I spend most of my time longing to create, and when the chance arises, I will do almost anything to avoid it. Television, video games, internet articles on pop culture: all offer a pale, dull shadow of enjoyment for almost no effort, and it's so much easier to plug into those than to do the work which would result in real, full joy later on. I get through the amusement and never feel any better, and despite the memory of contentment and satisfaction that has come from creative accomplishments in the past, they don't seem to move me forward to do more--I only lament that I'm not doing them now. It's a human condition in some ways, I suppose, but it's so much easier to see the paltry pleasures before us than the great joys that require effort. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we're children happy playing with mud pies in the slums only because we cannot conceive of the idea of a holiday at the sea. In this case, it seems so remote that I feel like I'll never get to the sea, so I might as well enjoy the mud.

    I'm not certain that makes sense, either, but it's taken me so long to get on here and respond (dithering as I was over how it could be most eloquently expressed) that I'm plowing ahead.

    The other comment that pinged with me is your mention of habit. Can I highly recommend a book? "The Power of Habit," by Charles Duhigg is not only a fascinating read, but really altered the way I look at my own actions. (Actually, I probably need to read it again to remind myself of some of the points that I've already let slip.) I've spent so much of my adult life trying to change my actions and falling back into poor choices in a seemingly endlessly repeating cycle that I despaired of ever feeling more than the most fleeting of happiness. The psychological insights and practical ideas in the book were really eye-opening.

    At any rate, thanks so much for posting: your blog is one of the most honest and affecting things I read. And thanks for wading through all this. Godspeed, sister.

  2. KateTheGirlWhoLived13 March, 2014 23:16

    Thanks for this, Professor Errant. As much as it sucks to bond over our various miseries, it is enormously helpful to have things like this normalized. Human condition, indeed.

    I think you're on to something with the perfectionism thing. Perfectionism and shame go hand in hand, I've found, and procrastination is never far behind when those two get going. I tend to feel-- and you might, as well-- that the creative work, and the writing in particular, is more than just an enjoyable endeavor than gives me pleasure and purpose. It cuts much closer to the bone than that. If I let it (and I let it, of course I let it), it becomes a measure of my worth as a human being-- a judgment upon myself and my descendants.

    There's a whole lot of self-identity wrapped up in that stuff, is what I'm saying, and under the right (or wrong) circumstances, it can feel more oppressive than freeing to undertake, because I'm not just sitting down to make something creative that brings me joy, I'm sitting down to DEFINE MYSELF AS A PERSON IN BLACK AND WHITE FOREVER.

    I don't know. Maybe it's just me. I know that I can let my creative endeavors join the team of the evil oppressors if I'm not careful, and then they become just as overwhelming as everything else.

    It's as if there's a part of me that it determined to turn everything into drudgery; a death march to nowhere.

    And it's silly, because it really does seem as though it's only a matter of habit (and I will check out that book; thanks for the rec!), and it really is true that I never regret pushing past whatever it is that holds me back and indulging in the art.

    We've been given a great gift, and somehow, we've allowed ourselves to fear it. I'm reminded of that Marianne Williamson quote: "It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us."

    In your case (and in mine as well, I admit), that light is considerable. Why do we allow ourselves to indulge in this pointless fear? And how do we kick its ass?

    No, really. I'm asking. HOW? ;)

    (Thanks for commenting. I hope you'll keep doing it. This is a conversation I'd love to continue!)

  3. "I try, and my brain skips right off the surface like a stone on the surface of a pond.

    It won't let me go there."

    Yes, yes, yes, and so much yes. I have this experience so much these days, and it's maddening. It often happens when I sit down to write-- I get a line out, and then.... nothing. I'm not sure if it's self-censorship as much as that there are new words that need/want to be expressed and I haven't quite let them surface yet. Sometimes I think it's that it's not words at all-- something beyond or beneath words, and it's a sensation only. Ever since I've become more intent on "healing" and becoming happier, my ability to write has nearly evaporated. Weird, no? Sometimes I think that it's a process I need to go through; other times, that it's proof I'm heading in the wrong direction. I describe it as standing on a precipice, or straddling a chasm... like there's something right... there... that just eludes my grasp, and I'm not sure what I need to do to make it accessible, to grab it.

    The semi-conclusion I've come to is that I need to just hang out there, and do and feel all the crazy uncomfortable sensations that come with it. Just, get more comfortable being uncomfortable, if you will. If I try to write when I'm there, it needs to be in an un-black-and-white sort of format possible. Like, I need to be writing in pencil on a napkin or something-- just getting stuff down and out in a way that creates as little perfectionism and self-censorship as possible-- mental diarrhea-like.

    Or, I don't write when I'm there, because writing suggests that there's a finality to it, a right-or-wrongness to it, and I need to just BE there and not DO anything.

    Anyway, thank you-- your blog still continues to make me think, and keep inching down this path.