My Adventure Begins

I had an epiphany.

No, wait, please don’t go! I promise it’s not as lame as it sounds.

Last week, I got on a plane and flew hundreds of miles to see 15 people I’ve known via World of Warcraft for just shy of two years. As someone who struggles with social anxiety, it was terrifying and exhilarating.

But my epiphany began on the plane, specifically when it first started to move away from the gate, and my carefully crafted facade of calm shattered into a million shards. We were merely taxiing through LAX and I felt like I was about to have a heart attack as the stewardesses were finishing up their safety routine. My face had that queasy, loose feeling you get when you know all the blood’s been drained out of it.
I was at a crossroads.

As I clutched my armrest, wondering idly if I’d get tackled by an air marshal if my panic broke and I started screaming hysterically during takeoff, I thought of the night before, when I was laying in bed waiting to fall asleep. I’d felt…nothing. Not scared. Not excited. Not hopeful or worried. Like so many days when you live with major depressive disorder, I was experiencing simple existence in its most beige, bland incarnation.

And it occurred to me, as that plane wove its careful way through the maze of runways…that even being terrified was better than that feeling of nothingness.

Depression and anxiety have been facets of my life as long as I can really remember, so I have no solid recollection of what it’s like to have one and not the other. But in that moment, it seemed like my anxiety was akin to a dog that’s never taken out for walks. When it sneaks out the door, it loses all control and runs wild, staying out of reach for fear that capture means a return to it benevolent prison. Even though I know logically that anxiety doesn’t work that way, part of me still clings to the idea that the anxiety part of my personality is the part of me that can’t calm down when it briefly escapes the depression jail cell.

I had two choices, sitting in my seat in a super-discount airplane the size of a sardine can. I could whimper and fret and be miserable as that plane took off, or I could embrace the too-fast pounding of my heart in my chest. Somehow, I chose the latter. I swear I’m the last person to subscribe to that “power of positive thought” crap, but I spent the whole wind-up to take-off repeating over and over in my mind how fun and exciting it all was. I thought of flyboy pilots and dragon riders and starfighters and how they must crave that surge of adrenaline on takeoff. I made myself come as close to enjoying it as I could.

I feel like I’m obligated to make an effort to word my thoughts so they don’t come across as a cliche, but I honestly don’t know how, so I’m not going to worry about it. Simply, on that plane ride, I thought to myself for the first time in so very long, “It really is good to be alive. This? This feels great. I feel like a person today.” I was almost crying, the feeling was so intense.

And the funny thing was, I wasn’t even remotely “cured” of my anxiety. I still felt it. I just…felt it somewhat differently.

The trip ended after a few short days, but I don’t want to give up that feeling of elation. I don’t want to lay in bed and feel nothing. I don’t want my adventures to be once every few years; I don’t want them to be minor blips on my radar that begin to slip away so shortly after experiencing them.

My followers might be confused by the title of this blog. I originally launched as Red Tulips and Yellow Wallpaper, a cliche and self-pitying homage to other stories about women struggling through mental health issues. While I know the lows and depressive episodes are a part of my life, I decided to rename the blog as part of a commitment to taking a more proactive and positive approach to tackling my health problems. Here’s to the beginning of new adventures.

Not The Me I’m Supposed To Be

I’ve been feeling introspective these past few months, which admittedly is to be expected during the holiday season.  It’s always misery for retail employees, and my high school reunion was at the end of November, so it just hit me a little harder this year. The fact that my life somehow derailed and ended up in a place I never could have dreamed has been wearing on me. The shitty retail gig that was supposed to be a brief interlude to save up money for books and tuition became my life. It was never supposed to happen that way.

I feel like my mental health, my ability to heal, is hinged upon two conflicting ideas.  Is the old me gone forever, and do I need to accept that and move on as best I can?  Or is she in here somewhere, in which case I’d be voluntarily giving up on her by accepting the new me?

While social anxiety and depression have almost always been features of my life, they didn’t always own me.  I used to be ambitious.  I used to believe in my ability to build a successful career in one of the most competitive industries in the world.  I could direct a full crew for a live half hour show, bark orders at 20-3o people without missing a beat, and bulldoze slackers into shape.  I could create a concept from nothing and make others help me turn it into reality through force of will alone. It’s been years but I can still remember what a heady feeling that was, and the certainty that I was destined for greatness.  I took it as an undeniable fact that my name would be scrolling across television screens in 10 million homes someday.

I used to be funny and interesting. People sought out my company. I want to grab the people who know the current me and shake them and scream at them until they understand that they’re seeing the wrong girl.  I want to find the right words to explain they would have liked that girl so much better than the blank, gray, uninspiring wallflower they call by my name. Mental illness has robbed me of everything that made me a person worth knowing. All I want to know is if I should keep hoping that it’s all out there somewhere, waiting to be recovered, or if I should just quietly go about the business of picking new bits of me out of the psychological discount bin.

The other me was always a nerd, but back then she could set aside the goody two-shoes persona and do crazy shit in the name of guerrilla filmmaking. She could run from security guards with a camera in one hand and a hastily revised script in the other on a hot, smoggy Los Angeles night. She could hang out the window of a moving vehicle to get the perfect shot and convince the class’s aspiring stunt man to jump onto the hood at speed. She could write scripts that made her notorious among classmates for their raw violence and black humor. She could sneak in and raid the theater department’s prop shop with the borrowed keys from the instructors that doted on her.

This sad, shy, whiny, weepy girl who stole her life and her clothes and her car and everything else was never supposed to exist. It’s identity theft that I can’t even report.

Loneliness And Social Anxiety

Edit: I’d like to thank everyone who has commented so far, and apologize for the fact that it took me this long to respond. I had no idea I was Freshly Pressed, and as I’d only received about 5 page views, 2 likes,  and  no comments in the several days I checked my stats, I never expected so many comments to get jammed up in the moderation queue.  

It occurred to me the other day that it’s been about 7 years since I’ve had someone in my life that I could hang out with, and 9 years since I’ve had a close friend. How does time get away from you like that? I can’t quite explain it, except that in my depression I’ve learned to ignore the big picture in order to survive day to day life. I tell myself Tuesday was ok because my manager talked to me for a few minutes about Star Wars, and I got to read a book I like on my lunch break, and then someone favorited one of my tweets that night.

On the day to day scale, it seems ok (well, it probably seems pretty bad to people who have friends, but for me that’s an example of a really good day). But when I think about how long I’ve subsisted on such tiny scraps of positive human interaction, it’s kind of amazing in a way that I haven’t completely lost my mind. 99% of my social interactions come from either customers or managers telling me what I’m supposed to do. That’s not an exaggeration meant to inspire sympathy. It’s simple math. I have no friends, I only see my family maybe one day out of every four months. I work 40 hours a week in retail. Almost every conversation I have in any given week is either with customers or bosses (of which I have 5). When I’m really lucky, I get to exchange a few sentences with coworkers I like. Simple things, like, “How are you today? Busy, isn’t it?” That’s what passes for an exemplary conversation for me these days; we don’t have common interests or anything, so simple pleasantries suffice for me as a meaningful conversation.  I haven’t talked about anything major, like what I want to accomplish in life, or what I want in a romantic relationship, in close to a decade.

Part of me wonders if I even know how to have that sort of conversation anymore, or if it somehow withered away and died in the intervening years. Sometimes I wonder if this is it, if I’ll never have a heart to heart chat with anyone again before I die. It seems dramatic, but if you asked me when I was in my late teens if I thought I’d go almost 10 years without friends or actual conversations, I would have said you were crazy.

I suppose at this point any normal readers who don’t suffer from crippling social anxiety are wondering why the hell I don’t just go out and meet some people. Excellent question, normal readers. Why don’t I just go out and do the thing I’ve been longing to do daily for years on end? Because the thought makes me want to curl into a ball and die.

People, by and large, think psychological ailments are just plain made up. I mean, they don’t really phrase it that way, because denying such a large scientific field outright makes you sound like some sort of conspiracy theorist, but deep down most people who don’t have a mental health problem think it’s all rather silly. They think mental diseases are just excuses agreed upon by groups of people who can’t take responsibility for themselves.

All you have to do to confirm this is listen to the way people try to offer advice to someone who has a mental disease, like our problem is that we’ve just never looked at it logically, because if you have a broken leg, all you need to do to fix it is to look at the leg logically, determine that you really need your leg to be functionaland it’ll heal itself.

I know logically that nothing really bad would happen to me if I tried to introduce myself to people. I know logically that it would be better to try and fail a few times until I find some friends than it is to live such a lonely existence. I can convince myself of these things for brief spans of time; the problem is sustaining that belief for more than a few minutes. Twice I’ve gone out to geek girl meetups, psyching myself up the whole way there, only to have a panic attack at the doorway and turn around to leave without going in. A third time I managed to at least go inside, but I stayed for about two hours without talking to anyone, because at an event for shy nerds to meet friends, pretty much everyone had split off into small groups by the time I got there. If walking up to a stranger looking for friends was hard, walking up to a group who’d already bonded was pretty much impossible.

I’ve written and rewritten an open invitation for geek girls in my area to meet up countless times for the past year or so, thinking it would be easier to talk to people if I was the one organizing the event. But whenever the moment comes to post it, I just can’t, and I feel completely powerless to explain this to people who don’t have social anxiety. I can’t explain how I know I’m not going to be struck dead if I make an effort to meet people, but that I still feel a wave of dread wash over me that obliterates EVERYTHING but the overwhelming need to run, to hide, to get out of the situation and find somewhere safe to hunker down. I can’t logic my way through it, and it just about kills me, because I still feel like I’m at fault for something I can’t control, and that the almost-decade of crushing loneliness and despair is my rightful punishment.

I fantasize about having a best friend the way most people fantasize about meeting their future spouse. But there’s no socially approved way to really discuss such a longing. People understand dating sites and singles bars and wanting to meet that special someone. It just comes across as creepy and sad when you talk about being so utterly desperate to meet a platonic friend instead of a romantic one. And after being abused by my first serious long-term boyfriend, my issues with finding a romantic partner make my issues with platonic friends look sane and normal by comparison. Digest that for a moment.

All I want from life is a few good friends to grab a bite of lunch with, to go see a movie with, to play a board game while squealing over Benedict Cumberbatch and Misha Collins together.  It hurts so much to feel like it’s all so close at hand, yet impossible to actually reach out and touch. And always, abreast of that thought, the guilt and shame that I feel knowing it’s something I’m doing to myself, that if I could just be stronger it would all get better.

Half the time I feel like the only way I’ll ever work through my depression and social anxiety is if I figure out how to stop the cycle of self hate and forgive myself, to accept that I’m just trying to survive and deal with everything one day at a time. The other half I feel like the last thing I should do is forgive myself for any part of the mess I have made of my life.

The Beginning Of The End

Until two or three months ago, I never really thought about suicide. I can’t say it never crossed my mind; human curiosity being what it is, everyone has thought about it on occasion.  I have been depressed for the majority of my life, but it was always something that led to inaction rather than self harm. Even in my pubescent Edgar Allen Poe death and darkness phase, I was never really morbid in the sense that I glamorized death. It was rather a natural child’s reaction to the realization that I could explore the concept, where previously I’d been subjected to adults’ urges to steer young minds away from such sad topics. I’d quote ‘The Conqueror Worm’ for effect, but death was never something I aspired to.

This has been a rough year in a life already too full of them, and something has begun to change. I have not yet been taken over by the desire to kill myself, but for the first time ever I’ve found my mind circling back to the topic on a daily basis. Most often it’s when I’m driving, especially on the way to work. I imagine what would transpire if I yanked the wheel and plowed into a tree (even in my morbid imagination, I would never contemplate killing myself in a way that would injure other drivers).  That tends to get me thinking about the specifics, and I conclude that I’d prefer something less violent and more peaceful. I think about how bad I’d feel for whoever would discover me, though not necessarily bad enough that it puts me off the idea.

Always before, I imagined that if I waited it out, depression would end and my real life would start. This year, I’ve realized that there is no logical reason to assume the future will be better than the past. Logically, I’ve realized it’s the opposite. I’m almost a decade into life in the service industry, with a half completed college degree in a useless major, and a resume that must inspire tears of absolute mirth in the eyes of any remotely respectable employer. Tuition for my university has almost doubled since I dropped out a few years ago. Every time I try to research careers, every article I read seems to relish in ending with an admonition that the job outlook for such-and-such field is utterly bleak and not expected to get better in the foreseeable future. I feel so trapped.

My social anxiety and depression have been feeding on one another and thriving in my seclusion; I do not have a single person I would call a friend, merely coworkers and long-distance acquaintances. I have never felt an emotional closeness to my family, a source of constant bewilderment and anger to them. My reasons to keep fighting back against depression are growing fewer and weaker, and this year marks what I fear could be the beginning of the end.

I watched Office Space the other day, and Peter’s line about every day being the worst day of his life hit me in a way it never had before. Because that’s me, honestly. I go to work, suffer through eight hours where I just want to scream at the top of my lungs until something inside me breaks.  I’ve been sending out my resume but the complete lack of interest makes me feel worse than I did when I wasn’t trying to find another job.  I thought my mental state would improve a bit once I started taking action. When I wasn’t sending out resumes, I could fool myself into thinking escape was just around the corner, if only I’d try. Realizing that I am truly stuck whether I act or not has been a very hard blow to take. Before I had hope, if nothing else. But now every day when I get out of bed, I think, “You’re stuck. You’re never getting out. How did you let this happen to yourself?”

There was a pretty big purge at work last month. The store manager was fired, then two of the more junior managers. Another manager saw the writing on the wall and quit without notice. My department manager–the absolute closest thing in the world I have to a real life friend–has a guillotine looming over his head. I feel constantly sick to my stomach at work. We have two temporary managers who are raking everyone over the coals in order to figure out who should be fired next. I’ve had an almost nonstop low grade headache for weeks now that no amount of Advil can seem to fix. I just want out so bad, but I need another job lined up first, and that doesn’t seem like it will be happening any time soon.

The one bright spot on the horizon has been writing. I’ve made some decent progress on a romance novella after years of being blocked. If I can make some money on the side, I’m hoping that in a year or two I can save enough money–about $20,000 or so–to buy a tiny manufactured home in Big Bear, and get out of retail hell once and for all. As far as dreams and life goals go, a decrepit old trailer on a mountain in the middle of a dessert is kind of a shitty one, but I’ll take any reason to live over none.

Part of me is afraid to hope. I know romance and erotica do extraordinarily well on Kindle–enough to annoy the living shit out of people who write “serious” books, at any rate–and I think I can do a moderate trade once I get a few titles out there. But it’s like the resumes and job search all over again. Until I try it, I at least have hope that I can do well. If I try and fail, I’m worried it’s just going to push me closer to the edge. I have few enough reasons to hang on that the loss of any one of them has the potential to be devastating.