What Video Games Taught Me about Real Life

mental health, inspiration, life hacks, video games, depression, bipolar, ocd, ptsd, anxiety, bpd, borderline personality disorder
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I played Super Mario Bros. on SNES when I was a kid. I played it over and over for years. I had Donkey Kong Country I and II, Tiny Tunes, and a couple of Disney games. That’s all I needed. As a teenager, my experience with gaming was racing games on the original PlayStation and Tomb Raider II, which I never beat. I didn’t touch any more games until a few years ago when Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare II introduced me to shooters…sort of.

From there, it was my gateway game into Overwatch, then Titanfall 2, Battlefield One, Horizon Zero Dawn, Destiny 2, Monster Hunter World, and beyond. I still play today, and it doesn’t look like I’m going to quit this time. Starting at 28 though, I struggle with issues that other gamers mastered years ago–aiming, reflexes, understanding game designs and mechanics without in-depth tutorials, extreme nausea and headaches.

However, I maintain it as one of my favorite activities to do, despite maybe not being very good a lot of the time. The experience has been exciting and fun, plus a very social way to engage with friends. My boyfriend and I also hang out a lot by playing games together online. I also realized that you could take away many life lessons from it, if you really looked.

Here’s what life lessons video games have taught me.

Patience

I’ve heard this one is a virtue. Also, something about good things come to those who wait? It’s because the early bird catches the worm. Ah! I can’t stop talking in cliches! Video games require a certain level of patience for a variety of different aspects. Learning fighting combos, battling difficult bosses, or navigating a jumping puzzle will teach you in a hurry to slow down and accept your fate. If you want to succeed, you have to be patient. Angry fits of frustration rarely make it happen any faster (that hasn’t stopped me from trying that route a time or two).

It’s a good skill to have in life, too. Take your time when doing important things. After all, haste makes waste. Ah! I’m doing it again. But I do have to remember patience when I’m trying to rush through something. I’ve seen the sloppy results of my rushing, and it’s not pretty. I also do this with BIG IMPORTANT LIFE DECISIONS that I should definitely take my time on. I just like to have things marked off as done, instead of waiting around. I have to remind myself that it’s not just “waiting” around though. Being patient can help you make a better decision and help you tune into your rational side, if you’re prone to impulsiveness like me.

I’ve also had to apply this to my mental health. For example, using a DBT skill or a breathing exercise for the 1000th time. It feels so repetitive sometimes and it’s hard to feel like it’s working. Just remember: it’s not about mastery; it’s about maintenance.

You don’t need to have everything figured out

When I picked up a certain popular, massive RPG for the first time (The Witcher 3), I was intimidated by the overwhelming amount of things to explore and do. It deterred me enough to put the game down. I feared I had done it wrong up to that point and had missed out on something. I later watched a video that said not to worry about some of those bigger things and just enjoy the game until you level up. It made me feel so relieved. Why did I focus so hard on having everything perfect, instead of just playing?

This correlates perfectly to the same feeling I get in my life–planning my career, figuring out meal prep, wanting to have a linear progression for mental health recovery. Like that same video game though, I don’t have to have it all figured out. I don’t have to have my entire meal plan charted out for a week to start eating more healthy. I don’t need to be the master of a new industry to apply for new and better jobs. Things just do not have to be perfect in order to get started or to reap the benefits.

I’m detail-oriented, but I like to look at the big picture. Maybe too much. You can take that first step, even if you’re not sure what the whole picture looks like. Ah! Now I’m just mixing metaphors.

Don’t forget to have fun!

I admit I struggle to have fun playing video games sometimes. I play to win and to be good at the game. I’m very focused on my personal stats because that’s what being good at the game is to me. That’s what having fun is to me: empirical data with a measurable way to improve. So when I do poorly, I don’t enjoy playing so much. How else am I supposed to measure my self-worth, if not numbers on a TV screen? Wait, do other people think that’s fun?

That’s when I have to change my approach. Do something less serious. Go work on my form in a practice area. Or just take a moment to chill out. I don’t want to play if I’m not having fun.

I think life should be similar. Not the exact same. Like, don’t go quit your job because it’s not fun or fulfilling. You still need that bag, girl. But start looking for a new one! Build skills for a job that you really want, even if you have to do that on the side for awhile. Keep your dreams alive. Say yes to more fun things. Say no to more things that weigh you down. Don’t do everything out of obligation, instead pick and choose what’s worth your time.

If people judge you or criticize you for not being a “team player” or being too selfish, remember that these are your boundaries and mental health at stake, not theirs (if you’re accused of not being a team player in a video game though, probably should listen to that a bit). You are not responsible for everyone else’s problems or feelings. It’s a crazy concept for someone like me, who took years of adulthood to figure out to put my needs first. It’s not selfish; it’s self-care. You can take care of your needs, while also being a compassionate, empathetic person. It’s about boundaries. That doesn’t sound like “fun”, but setting limits can give you space to have more time and mental energy for fun.

That’s right. You can order yourself to have fun.

Know who to talk to

Knowing the right NPC to speak to can literally be a game changer. It can move the story along or give you valuable items. I admit I’ve been stumped while playing a game until I realized I needed to speak to the right person or do something in a specific order, in just the right way, to get it done.

The same principle applies in real life, too. Know when to ask help, know when to reach out, know who your resources are. It feels awkward and uncomfortable though to someone like me. This big ole world feels small and lonely far too often. But you do have those who care and who will listen and support you. There’s always internet strangers in various forums all over the world, too, right at your fingertips. It can feel weird to just reach out to someone and say, “Hey, I need to talk to someone,” especially if you don’t feel like any of your friends are “that kind of friend”. So the internet is a perfect solution to this problem! I’ve used it myself many times.

This can be applied to other things as well. Knowing who to talk to you at your job when you want to move up the ladder or get a raise. Or perhaps, like me, you fancied a career change and you needed outward advice and opinions on what to do next. You could ask people who are in that field or who have made similar moves and seem knowledgeable about the job market as a whole.

It all comes down to knowing who is in your corner. I’ve found it useful to communicate with people on Twitter, as I’m learning the blogging world and what’s “meta”. Just like I do on Reddit when I’m learning a new game.

All that matters is you get through it and you enjoy it

My boyfriend has told me repeatedly that a game he loves, Bioshock, would be enjoyable to me even if I played it on “easy” mode. Playing on easy is sort of taboo among hardcore gamers because it means you didn’t earn your way through it properly. It’s almost seen as cheating because you aren’t of the same skill level as other people. To this, my boyfriend offered: “The point of the game is to have fun. If you have to do it on easy, then who cares? It’s a video game. That’s what it’s for.” He’s right. I hold myself to such high standards when gaming that I hate using any crutches or advantages that might make me look “less legit”. It’s all compensating for the fact that I’m not very good. But what he said really clicked with me.

Similar to the point about having fun, all that matters about your choices in life is that you’re getting through it and doing what you want. If you like it and you want to do it that way, what else matters? Who else matters? It’s your life.

You don’t have to do things “the right way”, like I mentioned above. There’s not always a right way.

You can do or not do what you want. Your decisions are not set in stone. It is not too late. You’re not too old. It’s not impossible.

I say this, not as some successful person with an extremely fulfilling life, but as the total opposite. I’ve made good choices and really, really bad ones. I’ve done things I’m proud of, and seemingly far too many things I regret. Nothing really sticks for too long, it seems. I find somewhere I belong and then I’m gone when it no longer fits me. I haven’t let that stop me from having a passion, from having goals. I still cherish experiences and connections above all else, and I can look at those moments from my past and present life as things that warm my soul the way nothing else can.

I sometimes do feel like it’s all over. It’s too late. I suck at life. Wallowing in that sentiment will not help me feel better about it though. It won’t change anything. I try to focus on the positive, great memories, while also keeping my eyes firmly on the future. I am always in the pursuit of that which fulfills and enriches my life. From people and connections, to experiences and events, to passions and hobbies.

That’s what my 2019 is going to be about–people, passions, and a lot more video games.

What other lessons can we take from video games?

Comfort Vs. Pleasure

In my pursuit for better mental health, I’ve found a lot of self-help and recovery resources that recommend comforting activities for when you’re having intensely negative emotions or massive anxiety. The purpose is to calm you down and distract you from the negative or uncomfortable situation. I’ve also seen mental health tips like, “do something that you love” or “take up a hobby,” to encourage emotional happiness and decrease stress.

These both sound great and all, but it can be frustrating if you don’t see any practical application, or if the given examples don’t actually do anything for you.

When I tried to create my own list of comfort activities and pleasure activities, I realized that I was confusing comfort and pleasure. I’m not very good at self-care, and it became difficult to connect to someone else’s generic list, much less find the difference between comfort and pleasure. I decided to sort out the differences so that, when I needed it, I’d engage with the proper self-care technique.

So in order to better serve my mental health, I have to distinguish between comfort and pleasure. It looks something like this:

Comfort is soothing, distraction, calming, and healing

While it can certainly be enjoyable, the main benefit is that it is soothing and calming. It will both comfort me and distract me from any harmful stimuli (especially negative thoughts). Something can be distracting, like Facebook, but not necessarily comforting though. Or it may be comforting to stay in pajamas and underneath the covers, but that isn’t distracting you or helping you with your difficult situation.

I also realized that other people’s definition of comfort, like reading a book, might not match mine. I had to figure out from experience what things actually calm me and heal me.

Some comforting things to me would be:

  • Listening to soothing, relaxing music, especially with headphones. Instrumental music can be really helpful for this (smooth jazz, chill EDM, lo-fi beats are some of my go-to’s).
  • Breathing exercises.
  • Journal out my feelings and thoughts, even if the thoughts are “I don’t know what to say or do”.
  • Petting and playing with my cat.
  • Funny videos/compilations on YouTube.
  • Lighting a nice-smelling candle.
  • The smell of printed magazines or books.
  • Taking a bath with Epsom salt or Eucalyptus oil.
  • At-home facial spa masks.
  • Opening the blinds during a sunny day or stepping outside for a moment to absorb some sunlight.
  • Going on a walk, if I’m able to.
  • Looking at the stars/galaxies (outside or pictures online).

Pleasure is fun, enjoyable, rewarding, exciting, and fun

Like I said before, pleasure and comfort can cross paths, but the main benefit of seeking pleasurable or enjoyable activities is ultimately about increasing happiness. Seeking hobbies and interests which you’re passionate about gives your life purpose and fulfillment–or they can just be an enjoyable way to unwind and have fun.

Here are the activities that really light a fire in me and make me happy (or something like it):

  • Connecting with people who make my heart happy, who make me laugh. Friends, family, or strangers.
  • Writing–purposefully for this blog (and my other one) or creatively, for fun.
  • Playing video games, usually with friends.
  • Mindless, fun mobile games to pass the time or procrastinate.
  • Learning new things. From math to matter in the universe, I think it’s interesting to learn about topics that interest me.
  • Working with people on short film or other video projects.
  • Doing yoga.

When to Use These Activities

Now that I know the difference, here is when I like to utilize the items in each category:

Comfort:

  • High anxiety
  • Dissociated
  • Stressed
  • Frozen/crisis mode
  • Emotional dysregulation

Pleasure

  • Bad mood
  • Depressed
  • Bored
  • Feeling listless or restless
  • Being in a rut

What are some things on your comfort list or pleasure list?

When You’re the Toxic One

“I hate drama,”I tell my friend, dramatically. “I’m just a chill kind of person” (I’m not). “I just can’t stand all the negativity around here,” I tell another friend on another day. “It’s just so awful. No one knows how to do their damn job!” I keep complaining and slowly lose the will to give anything beyond like 60% effort. “Have you heard about ole what’s-her-name? She did something subjectively terrible, and even though I don’t even know her, I’m going to judge her harshly and say nasty things about her. Yeah, she’s the worst. I’ve never made any mistakes.”

While this fake dialogue may be just slightly dramatized, it does represent a problem I’ve noticed with myself. Far too much negativity. I’ve been the reason someone has rolled their eyes. I’ve been the person that maybe has been avoided because of my attitude. I’ve been guilty of being the type of person I complain about.

Venting and complaining are necessary outlets and I engage in them frequently. However, I’m still victim to my own feedback loop of commiserating and the “high” that it produces. After all, dopamine doesn’t care if it’s a positive or negative emotion.

So what’s the answer?
Be positive and happy and shit, right? Wrong. I think the opposite of negativity and toxicity is empathy and compassion. Understanding where someone else is coming from before writing them off as a fuck up. The ole “walk a mile in their shoes before you judge” kind of thing. I certainly know I’d like some empathy if the situation were reversed.

I think I’m a pretty empathetic person in general, but why is it at work, or with family, or with close friends, I can be so negative and judgmental? Shouldn’t I cut people some slack, especially those I am closest to or those I’m around the most?

That’s what I’m working on. Empathy when I want to complain. Saying something nice, when I want to say something mean. Not saying anything when I can’t be nice (there’s an old adage in there, too, you may have heard of it). I’m obviously completely imperfect at this, but it’s a start. I’m aware of it now, at least, and I’ll keep getting better.

Are you guilty of being toxic sometimes? What do you do about it?

I Faced My Fears in 2018

fear anxiety mental health

I am afraid of fear itself. I’m afraid to feel negative emotions in any situation whatsoever, afraid to encounter something that I can’t handle, afraid to face the unknown. I fear just feeling fear. But I’m always fearing something anyway.  What am I afraid of? Everything. Nothing. I don’t know. Should I be afraid of something? That’s anxiety’s mantra: already afraid, so you don’t have to be. 

There are many sources now that show how facing your fears can actually help reduce anxiety. It’s called exposure therapy. It’s proving to your brain that there actually isn’t a threat when you’re safely secure on a bridge, looking down. It’s showing you that you can get through a crowded DMV and handle your business there without having a breakdown. It’s putting fear back in its place for things that are actually threats to your well-being.

So what fears have you faced recently? Here’s some of mine.

  • Drove to Kansas City (8 hours away) for a gig in a highly competitive industry for little money to do a high-pressure job during a huge event.
  • On a number of occasions, I was able to address issues with coworkers without lashing out in anger or cowering behind guilt and shame for feeling how I felt.
  • Was able to ask for help at work and not feel afraid, or if I did feel afraid, I stood my ground to get answers/clarification in order to properly do important tasks.
  • Moved into a new place that I had never seen with roommates I didn’t know.
  • New living situation forced me to reevaluate my expenses and work harder to keep up. It’s extremely intimidating and I put off this change for a long time due to fear.
  • Initiated friendly conversations with strangers.
  • Made calls that I needed to make, to leasing offices, to renters, to doctor’s offices, to customer service help desks.
  • Spoke up when my order wasn’t quite right.
  • Asked for help with a couple of things in my personal life that were difficult to ask.

These are just a few of the fears I faced. Some are specific and only happened once, while others are broad and recurring. The ones that I had to face multiple times lead to me mastering that fear and I never had to feel–oh, wait, no. That’s not how that works. I still feel fear. I’m still an anxious person. I probably always will be.

That’s the biggest thing I learned. Facing my fears, even a list like this that I’m proud of, didn’t make me some master of conquering my fears. I’m not a whole new person who courageously knocks down every obstacle that comes up because I feel no fear. Rather, I learned how to handle scary situations, despite the fear. I can survive even with the knot in my stomach, even when my heart races, even when I feel the pull of dread dragging me the opposite way. That’s what bravery is–not the absence of fear, but standing up to the challenge when you are afraid.

What fears did you face?

The Guide to Recalibrating Your Priorities

I’m already looking forward to 2019. By that, I don’t mean I’m eagerly anticipating it. I have my sights set on the future. In 2019, I will be in a new apartment with new goals. A sudden change in my life forced me to shift my perspective. It shattered me at first, but I bounced back and now have taken a good, long look at myself.

Therefore, I’m focusing on what my priorities are–and figuring out what they even are now. I feel like I’ve sort of lost myself along the way and though I’ve attempted many times to right the ship with minimal success, this change in my life is forcing me to follow through. I refuse to just be swept up in the madness of all these transitions. I can still enjoy myself and fulfill my desires.

So if you want to reflect on yourself and what you want for your future, you can use these points that I used!

What Gives You Light

This is about what makes you “you”–something that both gives you contentment and peace, but also energizes you with passion and fire. For me, it’s 3 specific things. Connection (with close friends or a nice stranger), expressing creativity, and helping others.

Commit to doing what gives you light, even if it’s the smallest opportunity. Happiness as a mood and state of mind isn’t very attainable. But moments of joy–the things that give you that light–that is very attainable.

To read more about this, check out my article for Medium: Do What Gives You Light

Self-Care

Self-care for me, like I imagine it is for many others, is difficult. I didn’t really “get it”. I thought it was about pampering yourself and living up the “treat yourself” motto. To a degree, it can be. But it’s all about what works for you. At first, I didn’t know how to take care of myself. It was a startling realization that I didn’t know what truly relaxed me and nourished my soul. There’s quite a difference between things you enjoy and things that are good for your physical or mental health.

For instance, while I love to write and have several fictional works that I enjoy writing, it doesn’t relax me or make me feel “taken care of”. Accomplished? Sure. Excited about possibilities? Absolutely. It’s fulfilling, but not exactly soothing. However, I found that I love baths and face masks. Simple, relaxing, rejuvenating. I enjoy being outside, too, even if it’s just for a light walk. Listening to music is another tactic I use to just zone out and decompress.

This kind of self-care can put you in the right frame of mind to continue on with your day, especially if you feel frazzled or overwhelmed. It’s also a great way to wrap up a busy and full day. You just have to find the right way to take care of your mind, body, and soul.

To read more about my self-care discoveries, check out this article for Medium I did: The Bare Minimum Method of Self-Care

What You Need to Improve On

This one is less fun, but it keeps in perspective what you can do to grow and change. It may not be your favorite thing to reflect on, but it’s necessary sometimes. There are plenty of workbooks and resources online to help you tackle almost any issue, like self-confidence, self-esteem, anger management, or establishing healthy boundaries. I also find going to specialized forums helpful, too, because you get a lot of great anecdotes and personal advice. I especially like the ones that are mental illness-specific (I’m talking about Reddit and Facebook, but there are some online forums dedicated to mental illness).

Hobbies/Interests

I literally have a list of hobbies and interests in one of my journals. It’s important for me to see it in writing so that I “remember who I am”, so to speak. I tend to get swept up in stress or depression and drift along. It’s nice to remember the things that are fun for me or interest me because honestly, the haze of a mental illness can make you forget so much. Sometimes I search for classes or workshops regarding that interest (even if I can’t take it at that time), other times I will look up videos or articles. It doesn’t mean I’ll pursue it at that moment, but it’s fun to learn more about it, at least, and see the possibilities. If it’s a hobby I can personally engage in, of course, spending time actually doing it can make me feel more connected to myself and overall more fulfilled.

My big obstacle here is mental and physical energy. It’s in short supply lately. Surprisingly, the list is comforting. It’s nice to know those things will be there for me when I’m able.

Priorities

Taking all the above into consideration, what are my priorities? The facts for me are as follows:

  • I’m moving (which is super stressful and very involved)
  • I have little energy when I’m home
  • I know what I like to do, what fulfills me, what nourishes me, and what I need to work on.

So with all this in mind, what is feasible for me in order to feel more rejuvenated, more connected, more alive, even during a time of stress?

  • Start volunteering again, even a very minimal commitment.
  • Make one “friend date” and go through with it before making any other social plans (in other words, don’t overload myself with a bunch of commitments in one week).
  • Make more of an effort to connect and network online with other mental health bloggers.

That’s it. These are the small, short-term goals I’ve decided to make for myself. Anything else is a bonus. But these are the things I can work toward in my current state, without feeling overwhelmed by all the things I should or could be doing.

I’ve certainly had my ups and downs this year. I just hope I can make the ups last a little longer next year.

What are your goals for 2019?

A Guide to a Crisis

I have stumbled upon a mental crisis. I’m talking deep, dark place, code red, talk me off the ledge crisis. Thankfully, I didn’t do anything destructive or harmful, aside from some yelling. What pulled me back down to earth a little from my downward spiral was the thought that if someone else were in this crisis, I’m sure I’d piece together some solid advice to at least help them de-escalate. I figured I should do the same for myself.

This is a guide for a time of crisis, when you feel overwhelmed or pushed to your limit, where you think you might break something, hurt yourself, or just scream and cry and wish for the cold, eternal embrace of death. Well, it’s the guide I used.

How to Deal with a Mental Crisis

  1. Cry
  2. Seriously, just cry a lot when you need to. Let it out.
  3. Embrace any and all emotions, like a wave washing over you. Don’t hide from them or repress them. In fact, listen to music that enhances this feeling. Angry music, melancholy music, whatever underscores that emotion.
  4. Can’t solve your problem immediately? Drink a lot of water. Like chug a bunch. Yay, you’ve accomplished one good thing!
  5. Speaking of water, splashing your face with cold tap water is very effective at helping you reset your emotions temporarily. There’s something about the shock of cold water that just recalibrates your brain. It’s science.
  6. Reach out to someone, if you can. Maybe you don’t have a ton of close friends, like me, and you feel awkward reaching out to someone and saying “hey, I’m struggling. Can I talk to you about this?” If it’s too uncomfortable and you don’t feel like you can do it with your current friend group, there are plenty of internet strangers willing to lend a helping hand (or a listening ear). There are free chat sites available out there for talking about this sort of thing, but I’ve always found the mental health community on Tumblr to be very supportive and willing to talk to complete strangers. There are also some great specialized subreddits on Reddit and support groups on Facebook that are for specific mental illnesses. I’ve found each of those communities to also be supportive.
  7. Distract yourself. Right now, you don’t need to have it all figured out. You need to relax and take your mind off it. Your mind and your body will be better off if you can decompress for a bit and then revisit it. You can’t solve anything when you’re tense, frustrated, overwhelmed, or on the brink of a nervous breakdown.For me, distraction isn’t just mindless scrolling of social media on my phone. At least, that’s not positive distraction to me (maybe it is for you thought). I like to completely immerse myself in a hobby or interest, like writing or video games. I also distract myself easily by learning new things (watching a documentary or reading an article), looking up classes for things that I am interested in, even if I have no intention of going, or just playing around on vocabulary.com or Duolingo. Another good distraction is diving into some big, unpleasant task that I’ve been putting off, like cleaning out my dresser drawers or my closet (usually involves some deep cleaning). Probably the best and greatest distraction though is watching something that makes me laugh. I love vine compilations especially, but a good comedy special is great, too, or an episode of my favorite show.
  8. Finally, when you’ve done all these things, try to get some sleep. Throw on a podcast or ASMR video, if you need help. Take 3mg of Melatonin, or half of that, if you need to. You can see things with a fresh perspective tomorrow. It’s that simple. There’s a reason that the phrase “sleep on it” became so popular. The brain can reorganize all the thoughts and information it received throughout the day. Maybe it all can’t be solved with sleep, but it definitely will help.

I hope you get through your crisis and feel a little better. I hope we all do.

Step Two to Pulling Yourself Out of a Rut

All the way back in February, I talked about how to pull yourself out of a rut. It’s a discussion I’ve had with myself numerous times. Battling mental health problems is repetitive like that. You think you’re on a good path and it’ll be smooth sailing. But the truth is, like anything, self-improvement takes discipline, consistence, and perseverance.

A few months after that post, I bought a journal to help me focus on the next step. Often times, I get lost in the muck and mire, overwhelmed by the big picture. I sometimes feel I’m drowning in the details (the devil is in them, you know) and it all feels like too much. I feel like I’d rather give up than just try.

So I started breaking it down into doable steps in my journal. I have four major categories that I like to track: mental health, physical health, careers and hobbies, and giving and helping. For each one, I write a goal, and then, what the next step would be. It’s just a practical, simple way to visualize what you can do to achieve your goal.

For example, physical health.

Goal: make a workout routine
Next Step: 
research yoga channels and beginner videos.

Goal: Eat healthier, plan meals
Next Step: research foods to incorporate and those to avoid; look up recipes (For me, I’m going for anti-inflammatory foods).

Another example, careers and hobbies.

Goal: Secure more freelance work
Next step: check all my online resources for gig listings

Goal: Spend more time doing enriching hobbies/learning skills.
Next step: one lesson on Vocabulary.com, one lesson in Duolingo, two paragraphs of creative writing.

It’s all about the next step. Actually, it’s all about doing the next step because the idea is that taking a step toward your goal will help you feel more accomplished, fulfilled, and overall happier. The doing is the hard part sometimes though. I know some of the things on my lists have sat there for months. But if I’m serious about pulling myself out of the rut, I need to continue to look at the list and push myself to do a small part for one of my goals. I’ve been better about some of the steps than others.

I encourage you to think about your goals and what your next step would be to get there, no matter how big or small. All goals look the same size when you break them down into small steps.

Can I Learn Anything from Nostalgia?

I drove through my hometown recently. I had just gotten done running an errand in the neighboring town, one I have rarely visited since leaving the area. I had the Black Crowes’ new album playing. I was still in my work clothes, ready to be done and back home, which was over an hour away. I hadn’t expected my GPS to route me through the small town of 1,500 people that I grew up in. I also didn’t expect the feelings that came up when I did.

I’m not a nostalgic person. I try not to indulge in memories of the past because, if I do, I become “homesick”, per se, of a time I used to live in, a person I used to be, a place I used to live. It hurts to feel that sort of sickening in your stomach that can’t be alleviated. I don’t see much use for this feeling. Memories are nice, but they don’t do much for me in a practical sense, and I have trouble appreciating them at face value.

Despite my aversion to nostalgia, I was hit with a strong wave of it as I drove through Chapel Hill, Tennessee. It was still the same in many ways–advertising the tractor pull, a few mom and pop shops amongst the name-brand franchises, 2000s-era, vinyl-paneled houses sandwiched between clumps of much older, country-style houses. More retail stores had popped up, much to my surprise. How much could this small town be demanding in the way of goods and services? I wondered.

The people of Chapel Hill sure hadn’t changed. Old folks in old clothes with old routines. They probably were born and raised there. They’ll likely die there, too. I don’t know who chooses to move there, but like my family when I was little, it was probably because it was cheap. I don’t know if it’s still cheap, but it doesn’t look like the kind of place I would choose for myself. Too slow, too small. I had the privilege this day of driving straight through. No reason to stay.

My family had moved there because my dad was a pastor. I didn’t know what that meant at age 5, but I grew up in church, essentially, and spent my life with those church folks until 2008. I drove past that church on my way through. It has a new fluorescent sign. Moving on up in the world, I thought to myself. There were more buildings around it though now. I nearly didn’t recognize it as I drove by, aside from the outside looking exactly the same. My memory of it was having a huge yard, including a slope in the back and a big oak tree–or was it maple? There was a lone storage shed and that was it. A little backroad, Blackwell, I think, ran off the side of it. The trailer I lived in for so many years was in the adjacent yard.

I felt so many different emotions and images crashing my brain, nearly short-circuiting my memory. I didn’t know which thought or feeling to chase.

Playing outside for what seemed like hours after service, coming up with crazy schemes (“We should build our OWN bus for traveling! We can use anything in this yard!”), getting scolded for scuffing my shoes or messing up my hairdo, chasing the boys, gossiping with my best friend, teasing my brothers, sitting in my parents’ van listening to the Top 40 with Casey Kasem on Sundays. Rolling down the slope in the backyard. Hearing stories of how it used to be a pond that would outlet at Duck River. I remember someone telling me that if you put a duck in the pond out behind the church when it rained, it would end up at the Duck River. I remember thinking, how could it do that when there was no drainage? The old parsonage that we tore down on the lot is where I stepped on a nail. I didn’t start crying until I saw I was bleeding. I still remembered how that old building smelled inside. Since we were the pastor’s family, we spent a lot of time there at the church (and it helped that we lived next door). We had a lot of potlucks at church, which was good, because I was always hungry.

What do these disjointed memories mean? Effective to my current life and situation, virtually nothing. However, my experiences throughout childhood, including these seemingly inane details shared here, helped shape my personality, my mind, and my views of the world. Everything in our lives, for better or worse, impress upon us different lessons or truths.

I don’t assign special meaning to memories just because I associate them with a feeling. A memory making me feel nice or good in of itself is not valuable to me. I cannot recreate the situation in those exact circumstances, so it is in vain for me to feel attached to it for too long.

What it really comes down to though is that I am almost 30. The little girl who grew up playing by that oak tree would not have imagined the life I had now. She may be sad or confused or upset in some way. Would she think I failed her? Would she forgive me? Would she even care? I remember pitying certain people as I grew older because I didn’t want to settle; I didn’t want to “be like them”. Complacent, unchallenged, lazy.

Now I find myself with a college degree, pursuing a career that has been difficult to sustain. I have no goals that feel reachable due to waning energy, high levels of fatigue and chronic pain, as well as recurring mental health issues. Sometimes I feel like I’m sinking. Sometimes I feel like I’m climbing a mountain and having a grand time doing it. Other times, the mountain looks more like a chore than a fun challenge. Sometimes I think I’ll just one day die and this will be the prevailing mentality–that everything is a chore and I have nothing good to look forward to.

How foolish for me, a 29-year-old, to feel that my life is basically over! Ah, I’ve done everything I’m capable of. Might as well die.

Except I’m obviously not going to do that. I do get tired of this same song and dance. The pattern of highs and lows. Not being able to sustain a normal, or at least balanced, life. Coping with a mental illness isn’t like following some linear path of treatment or recovery. It’s messy and frenetic and disordered. You have great days, then mediocre days, then awful days, then worse days, then a good day, a second good day, a bunch of meh days, and then a great day. Lather, rinse, repeat. Forever.

I get so sick of it, honestly. Like just sick to death of it. I haven’t updated this blog regularly because I don’t have solutions. I don’t have anything blog-worthy to share and to inspire. And what would be the point of wallowing, self-pitying, depressing entries with no solution or inspiration for other sufferers? That’s part of my problem with the blog and myself in general: I’m losing my direction. I keep falling into this same rut and I’m having trouble staying out.

Nostalgia makes me yearn for the days when this stuff wasn’t an issue yet. I don’t like remembering those days because I don’t know how to be like that anymore.

I don’t have an inspiring answer or motivational send-off for those who maybe feel similarly. But I will give this advice: don’t stop trying. There’s always a next step. You may not fix all of your problems or cure your mental illness, but focus on your next step. That’s what I’m doing. It might not seem like it in this post, but I am trying. I haven’t stopped. I won’t stop. I can’t recreate my childhood memories or feel that same glee and freedom, but my life isn’t over. There’s still many years to come. So what’s next?

I encourage you to ask yourself the same thing.

Do What Gives You Joy

My personal journey of growth and self-improvement has been bumpy, to say the least. Everything I post on here is about that journey to find happiness, stability, and a healthy mind. It’s not been a linear journey, either. Some days, it feels like I’m moving backward. Some days, it feels like I’m completely stagnating. I want to feel at peace, I want to feel happy. Why is it so hard?

I make all these efforts to find resources and feel like I’m actually “doing” something for my mental health. I mean actually doing it, too. Not just thinking about it or saying what would be a good idea. Real life effort! But often times, I get frustrated with the results, or lack thereof. Maybe I need to stick with it more. That’s one potential problem.

I realized something else was missing, though, from my mental health repertoire. Things had to be simpler than I was making them out to be. Sure, worksheets and self-help books are great, but I still felt I could simplify things.

I decided to take on a radically simple approach. Simpler than practicing DBT skills or finding the right self-help app for myself. Instead, I’m focusing on making time for more joy in my life. Long-lasting happiness and being in complete control of all my emotions and reactions seems a little too far-fetched some days. But moments of joy–that’s attainable. I can achieve a moment.

Well, first of all, what gives me joy?

  • Connecting with people. Whether it’s friends, family, or even nice strangers–online or in person. Even through text is nice. The only criteria is that they are warm people who light up my life. People I can laugh with, people I can trust in, people I feel comfortable with. This can be my best friend or a customer at work. I like interacting with people who make me feel that light inside. Maybe I’m just a filthy extrovert trying to dress it up as something more meaningful. Maybe it doesn’t need explanation. I like to connect with others, for a moment or for a lifetime.
  • Creating something of my own. File this under writing and video work. I want to do more in video production that’s MY work–my ideas. I love helping on other projects, but I have my own ideas. I got into video production because I wanted to tell stories. I’ve cast aside all my ideas in favor of…what? Nothing. What’s stopping me? And regular ole writing–I have two blogs that I don’t keep updated regularly. I can change that.
  • Helping others. As cliche as it sounds, there’s a reason so many people say that they want to help others. I’ve volunteered in the past and loved being able to do something good outside of myself, while getting nothing in return. I recently got back into it with a local animal shelter. I love doing something for the greater good. I would extend this also to doing kind things for others, be it just a compliment, paying for someone’s meal, or going out of your way to do anything for them at all. Again, strangers or friends.

Okay, this a nice list! But I have to actually make it happen. That means “doing”. This blog is not about theory. It’s about practice. I try to showcase when I actually do, not just when I have some pretty platitudes or pragmatic bullshit to spew.

The doing is the hard part though. We all have trouble with the doing, I can say that pretty confidently. There may be a Thing you want to do that will give you joy, but it requires some effort. Effort is hard. Your time, your money, the mental and physical energy you exert are all valuable resources when it comes to doing. So valuable that you may not do The Thing because parting with those resources means more than any benefit you can get from it.

Did I just overcomplicate that? Okay, so, for example: volunteering seems like a great effort to make in one’s life. For me, it’s about giving back in a way that can help the community. But to help the community, I need to sacrifice time and gas money. It can be hard to part with that additional time on a day off or after work, when you feel your free time and energy are precious. Overcoming that obstacle and realizing the reward of volunteering is greater than the sacrifice of time and gas money is essential to achieving this goal.

There’s no way around this. You will either hem and haw on the fence about committing, or you’ll do it. We make time for the things we want to do. After all, do or do not, there is no try. And if you’re waffling about it and have reservations, that’s basically a no. Until you make it a YES! And that’s what I’ve had to do–get off the couch, stop mulling it over, stop wallowing in self-pity and excuses, and just do it.

I still struggle with the doing. Maybe something on the joy list isn’t always accessible or practical, but I’ve talked about other quick fixes for feeling a bit more energetic and productive. Anything to decrease the amount of time I feel like crap. It may not solve all my problems and immediately give me a level 10, top tier, first class mood, but it can make me feel less terrible. Some days, that’s all you can even hope for.

My goal is to do more things that give me joy, more often. If I only make one little step toward it on one day, that’s fine. At least I’m working on that Thing. There are days I don’t feel like doing any steps. That’s okay, too. It’s all a balance and imperfect science. I’m figuring it out on the daily.

So, what gives you joy? Why can’t you do it right now? What’s a step you can take toward it right now?

Be well and take care.

Work(sheet) Your Way to a New You

In my journey of self-help and trauma recovery, one constant has remained: my incredibly low self-esteem. I often use other coping mechanisms to mask this fault, or I ride the highs when I am falsely full of self-confidence. Neither or healthy. So I’ve been trying to build up my self-esteem. I found this worksheet online, but I’ve copied and pasted it for ease of use. I did mine in a google document.

The first table includes the following prompts:

  1. 10 things that brought me peace today were:
  2. I felt empowered when:
  3. I had fun when:

 

The prompts in the second table are as follows:

  1. My loved ones are proud of me because:
  2. 5 things that went well today were:
  3. I feel happiest when:

 

The third table includes:

  1. My best quality is:
  2. 3 things that make me unique are:
  3. The best part of today was:

 

In the fourth table, the prompts read:

  1. I’m looking forward to:
  2. 10 people or things I am grateful for are:
  3. I feel strongest when:

 

The final table lists these three prompts:

  1. I feel best about myself when:
  2. My greatest accomplishment today was:
  3. The 3 things I love most about my life are: