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Black and White in a World of Technicolour

I first encountered the phrase “black and white thinking” a couple of years ago when I met with someone at the local Anxiety Disorders Association prior to starting any programming, exercises or medication. This was probably half a decade ago now, and I remember sitting in a very welcoming lady’s office and noticing that despite probably being well into her fifties, she had one of the prettiest, most inviting faces I’d ever seen, as well as a head of beautiful brown curls. Her face was etched with countless lines, but all I remember seeing in it was kindness and beauty. The purpose of my visit at this point was, after a referral from my doctor, to have a discussion to see what type of anxiety disorder I had. Social? Panic? Generalised? I don’t remember much of what was said, but I do remember her opening a book at a page listing a series of symptoms and feelings, and asking me which I related to. I remember bursting into tears when I realised my life was filled with every single thing on the list, and feeling like it was complete and utter confirmation that I was thoroughly flawed. Broken. I wasn’t able to finish the assessment, and I vowed never to go back—stepping foot inside that building again would be a reminder that I was fundamentally wrong, and I knew if I stayed out, I could pretend. I could do it by myself.

Fast-forward a couple of years and I did end up back in that very same building, taking that very same assessment. I’d done what I could on my own—set up and near-completed a list of everything I was ever afraid of (then, in true INFJ fashion, made another one!), tackled fears head-on (even if they resulted in various instances of throwing up or sobbing my heart out feeling my efforts weren’t good enough), but I still had Serious Issues. We could go back for hours talking about where they came from, but the point was they were still there. At this point, I went through the program. I started counselling and medication and I started doing my homework. I did a lot of reading and a lot of learning, not on how to “conquer” anxiety, because I think I’ll always be a worrier, but how to manage the destructive thoughts and feelings that had buried themselves so deeply into my skin that they’d become part of my identity.

My then-boyfriend broke up with me several times over anxiety-related issues. Each time I felt once again that I wasn’t good enough, and that I had to do better, be more, in order to be worthy of being wanted. I felt like I had to prove myself for two whole years, but looking back, I’m glad things unfolded the way they did. Even if the motivation at the time was fuelled by insecurity, being forced to learn independence and how to manage my thoughts made me strong enough to accept the final breakup when it did happen. I’d learned I needed—and deserved—more than always having to prove myself and beg desperately simply to feel wanted.

That was a tangent, but it leads me back to the idea of black and white thinking. Throughout all that, I was taught that it was a terrible thing, and that it was part of my anxiety that had to be eliminated. Yes, I did learn that sometimes, not being able to see the in-between can blind you to the best solution. It’s horribly self-centred of me to believe that there are only two ways of seeing things and that anything else is completely invalid, but at the same time, hate the idea of wasting a single day on things that don’t align with what life should be. Trivialities, chores, arguments, Facebook… we have one life, and each day is falling away from us faster and faster as we get older. We don’t know how many we have left. We hope there’ll be lots, but there are no guarantees. None. So on one hand, I do acknowledge that being too focused on not wasting time prevents you from giving time to situations when that’s exactly the thing that others involved may expect or need—but on the other, perhaps more dominant hand, being able to quickly see how things are, whether or not they line up with how they should be, and make an immediate call to action to improve them results in more time being spent on the things that matter. I realise that not everyone operates this way, and I acknowledge the value in devoting time to truly exploring the best way forward. I just have an unequivocable need to bridge any discrepancy between how things are and how they’re meant to be as quickly as possible, so as to make the most of however many moments we’re given on this planet.

BridgeI’m not just talking about times of conflict. I’m talking about goals in life, too. I honestly think if I hadn’t put everything out there for the world to see, I would have had no reason to remain accountable or take action, and I would probably still be huddled away in my cubicle at lunchtime so inwardly full of dreams and so outwardly terrified of judgment and failure. What a waste of this gift of time. When I first met AC, I saw someone passionate about music. Someone who’d begun with the same dream but had been as scared as I was, who’d taken the leap into performing and a year later, fronted a band, had written dozens of songs, and had turned that dream into reality. I wished desperately for someone I might be able to begin the same journey with, and when he was actually open to starting a band with me, my brain quickly weighed out the options in a flash: fight or flight. This was my option to fight the fear that had kept me off stage for nigh on a decade, so I grabbed onto it tightly, all the while counting my lucky stars for the opportunity. That night, I sang something, and made him face the other direction I was so nervous. But a few hours later, we were singing together, and I’d decided we were going to perform publicly in two weeks’ time. I remember him telling me it didn’t have to be so soon, that I could take my time and ease into it. And I remember saying that as scared as I was, it was something I wanted to be able to do, and there was no point wasting any more months being afraid when the opportunity to just do it was staring me in the face. The thing is, opportunities are all around us. If you don’t like something about your life, you have every power to change it. All you have to do is decide to, and take action. It’s been almost three months since we started our little duo, and I’ve got a log of six performance diaries already, music videos of us on YouTube, a rather official looking Facebook page, and photos of myself actually enjoying being on stage. Three months, and already so very much closer to where I want to be—all because of black and white thinking.

Video shoot screencap

I’m trying to walk the line between what I believe to be the benefits of black and white thinking and what others around me may need. Do I try to convince them of my rationale? I think any time someone tries to get someone to see things their way, if it’s done with the intention of bettering things, practices, thoughts or processes, it’s almost a crime not to—only when one tries to convince purely for the sake of being right is the endeavour wrongly entered into. But I have to respect that other people’s methods and ways of doing things are just as valid to them as mine are to me. It’s a strange balancing act, but I had to put it out there. If there’s a situation, a goal, or a life you want to be leading and aren’t, whether it’s ten minutes from the present or ten years away, realizing the discrepancy between what you’re actually doing right now and whether or not it’s going to get you where you want to be can be an immediate call back to the right direction. Things can be as simple as switching your mindset; breaking the cycle of immediate emotion and focusing instead on how your current actions are affecting the big picture. Life is finite, and that’s a scary thought. Why fill any period of time with grey when it could be filled with technicolour?

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The Anti-Romanticism of Pathology

I haven’t been writing here half as often as I used to. I’ve been spending most of my writing time on fiction for the last little while (enormous thanks to those darlings who took a peek at my recent short story!), and when I’m not doing that, I’m making various endeavors to learn to play musical instruments, getting more tattoos, and decorating for my cats (seriously, this is in a frame above their food dishes. It is important for me to chronicle this life of mine through writing, but lately I’ve found it slightly hypocritical to do so without actually spending it living. Still, I’ve been taking lots of pictures and recording lots of videos (which I’m sure will come back to haunt me in the not-too-distant future), and connecting regularly with some really awesome people.

But recent life hasn’t all been smooth. I’ve always maintained the importance of eternally moving forward, no matter in which direction, but for a little while over the few months leading up to Christmas, I felt myself being pulled toward a dangerous destination. A place where old, distorted ways of thinking wrapped their way around the progress and masqueraded as reality. And that called for action.

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From late 2011 until about spring 2012, I started to see a counsellor. I also started taking medication for my anxiety for the first time in my life. I went through a ten-week course with the Anxiety Disorders Association of Manitoba, I did my homework, and after a few months, my case was closed. But toward the end of 2012, I found myself immersed every day in what felt like a pool of toxins that began to insidiously creep in and distort my entire mentality. No longer was I spreading my wings on the vast ocean of possibility, but I was becoming caged, torn between my own vision of capabilities and the person I had to be in order to comply to that environment’s standard. I’ve always been motivated by achievement and surpassing others’ expectations, but when your wings are clipped and all you’re left with is a dream of what you could be doing, you begin to question the capabilities you had in the first place. Everyone around me told me what a huge, positive difference I’d made. But those with authority over me saw nothing but someone stepping beyond their role, taking on too many “extra-curriculars” – necessities, in my mind, for a successful operation – and pointing out all the places things could be done better. I was someone who didn’t fit the corporate mould.

“I’m too good for that, there’s a mind under this hat;” words to a favourite song come to mind. “I speak because I can to anyone I trust enough to listen; you speak because you can to anyone who’ll hear what you say.”

I mean no malice in writing these words, but I have to be true to the reason that led me down the path of old habits and distorted imaginings, things that led me toward the place I used to be. I started feeling that if all my achievements, hard work, creativity and dedication to bettering something meant nothing, then maybe the same held true for myself as a person. Maybe the same held true for my friendships and relationships; maybe I personally felt I was doing all the right things but maybe I had it all wrong. So I started looking for signs. And in doing so, I saw my insecurities manifest from thin wisps of possibility into a corporeal monster that tore away at everything I held dear. Something had to be done. Something had to be done now.

So I went to see a psychiatrist. Re-opened my case with my counsellor, who, after a session, recognised where I was and wanted someone who specialised in mental health to help me. I’d been on the medication for about a year, but I apparently should have been getting infinitely more benefit from it than I was.

The assessment consisted of a one-hour booking which turned into a near two-hour session with me, my counsellor, and a young psychiatrist. I think I threw him a little by being so on the ball with my own mentality, and after an extensive fleshing out of my childhood, my cross-continental uprooting, my traumatic experience of a “marriage”, my amazing but heartbreakingly ill partner and my increasingly toxic work environment, he decided I “didn’t fit any one mould.” I learned that within classifications of the various mental illnesses any one person could have, there were “cluster A, B and C trait” characteristics, each subsequent one being less common than the last, but still possibly present. I didn’t have a textbook anxiety disorder. I definitely didn’t have social anxiety, which explains why I felt so out of place in the ten-week program I attended a year ago. I didn’t have generalised anxiety either, but I did have B- and C-cluster traits of a “non specified anxiety disorder”. Additionally, I had the same for borderline personality disorder. He made it very clear I didn’t have BPD   – but my heightened concern about others’ perception of me being “good enough” and continual fear of abandonment fall into that realm.

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The fact that I didn’t fit neatly in one box didn’t surprise me. I never have in any area of my life, and only recently found peace with simultaneously being a fiercely passionate creative with a love for arts and language and an enormous sci-fi, psychology and science nerd with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I never have been typical, and this plagued me for most of my life. But I think I’ve learned to embrace the uniqueness – and so the diagnosis, as it were, didn’t upset me. He recommended a change in medication, some mental exercises, and to check in with my doctor and counsellor regularly over the next couple of months.

“There is nothing less romantic, literary, or lyrical than the language of pathology, diagnosis, symptom checklists. As I read through these checklists over and over again I was struck by the harshness, the crudeness of the terminology. And once the evaluation process began, more and more distinctly unpoetic terms were added to the lists, as the problems quickly grew in scope and seriousness.”  — Priscilla Gilman

It’s hard to put this stuff out into the world, to admit that you’re flawed, but I want to remember the journey. I’m not scared of being judged for it because I know I’m really doing something about it. And I tell myself that makes me brave. On top of that, I am so much more than a diagnosis. I’m someone who takes action when things get sucky, I’m someone dedicated to bettering myself, I’m someone who makes goals and follows through on them, and I’m someone who feels the fear and goes ahead and tries anyway. I’m someone who sees beauty in the universe and feels so very deeply, and I’m someone who’ll be a brilliant friend if you’ll let me. I am so much more than a diagnosis, and this is merely a stop on the map that will lead me to where I believe I’m supposed to be. I know a lot of people are reluctant to turn to medication when it comes  to issues of mental health, usually due to the strange notion that becoming dependent on them is both terrifying and bad. Is it so terrifying when one has something as terrible as cancer and “depends” on medication for a better quality of life? Why the double standard when it comes to issues of the mind?

So it’s been a couple of weeks. The first night I began the new meds I was promptly knocked the hell out for a good fifteen hours, and struggled to stay awake past 8 PM for the next few nights. But that very first day, I was blown away by how quickly I felt so much better. It felt like I’d been living with my heart in a vice that had finally been released and allowed to breathe. I felt free, and it felt strange – it felt like the continual physical tension and weight of anxiety and worry I hadn’t even realised was there was gone. I was just about to go into a brand new job, and I found myself excited, without a trace of fear. It was beyond bizarre. But I couldn’t be happier. This freeing has left me with a sense of urgency – to dive into the world around me and do all those things I’d set out to do, knowing how much easier they’re all going to be. Knowing that the joy and adrenaline will finally outweigh the fear. My first week at work is going swimmingly, and the plan is to get up and perform at an open mic within the next two weeks (without throwing up afterward).

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I think this is the start of brilliant things.