My Semicolon Project

I’ve been overdue for a new tattoo, but people who know me well know that my body modifications are always tediously planned out. I don’t get inked just for the sake of doing it; my tattoos each have a story that’s tied to my soul and likely represents something more than just the illustration. Meet my newest piece: the semicolon.

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Wow! This photo is packed with symbols for things that all mean a lot to me. Such as ninja turtles. 🙂

Laurel alerted me to the Semicolon Project last year, and while I’m not affiliated with them in any way, I respect the project’s vision and have a personal investment in anything aimed at preventing anxiety, depression, suicide, and self harm to all people. The Semicolon Project is a valuable tool for a world inundated with put-down culture. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that people are plagued with depression in our world because most of the images and messages marketed to us center on death, destruction, criticism, and getting us to emotionally react. Innovators of the Semicolon Project urged people who were feeling suicidal, depressed, or anxious to draw a semicolon on their hand or wrist. As explained by supporters of the movement, “A semicolon is used when an author could have chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to,” empowering individuals to choose another way.

My own experience with depression, anxiety, and suicide dates back to when I was a teenager and my parents were nearing divorce. All of the fighting, stumbling on my father’s plans to move me away from my mother and not knowing how to tell him, being asked who I’d like to live with, witnessing them lying to each other – it was a lot to handle. I didn’t have a sibling to seek comfort from, and the nearest extended family member’s home was 300+ miles away. That was the earliest, and thankfully one of the only, times I felt like dying would be a better option than waking up the next day. I was not suicidal again until I faced postpartum depression after having Kennedy.

Side note: My parents didn’t end up divorcing, but it’s important to point out that even a rock solid marriage like theirs has seen its battle days.

As far as I can pinpoint, depression has been a big bubble in my life, encompassing chaptered chunks of time that happen to be in chronological order. I didn’t know it was there half the time, but I think I was able to disguise it to myself by training my mind to think otherwise. After the third year of my parents living in Florida and me in California, I’d trained my heart to think it wasn’t hurting for them to keep myself from completely falling apart watching my friends all spend time with their families. Coping mechanism? Maybe. It’s been a complicated web to untangle, and that’s the best I can come up with so far. I’m still working on it.

Anxiety is an entirely different bear and by far the one I work hardest to manage. Anxiety is what tells me to worry, tells me to second guess myself, dreams up the worst case scenario and then plays it on repeat, and who shouts ugly things at me when I’m feeling weak. I hate it. I have it. But it does not have me. This tattoo is mostly dedicated to that. I chose my bicep too because, well, it takes strength to pause and decide. Our world values moving fast, but I say we take it slow. Slow down and be intentional. Stop missing things because you were moving too quickly through them. Pause, reflect, decide what serves you and discard what doesn’t, and last but not least: do.

My tattoo is a reminder that though my pace of life can become rapid, I am still in control of how fast it plays, and how many times it gets paused for reflection, for recovery, and for peace.

Full Disclosure

anxiety

There. I said it. Can I go hide now?

First of all, I want to advise that if you’re someone who views mental wellness as a waste of time and energy, you should click the X on the tab for this window and walk away from my blog. If you think that depression, anxiety, and/or posttraumatic stress are made up disorders, you should click the X on the tab for this window and walk away from my blog. If you’re looking at your computer or mobile phone screen with the idea that this is a cry for attention, again, get the hell off my blog page because what I’m writing about here isn’t for you.

Now that I’ve hopefully filtered out trolls, skeptics, and jerks, here’s the unedited truth:

I’ve never sat in a therapist’s office and been told that this is my diagnosis. However, I’ve kept my former therapist’s number on speed dial for the last decade since connecting with her just as I was finishing college at CSUSM. No other professional in the field of mental health has ever been able to reach me quite like she has, and given that we’ve been in touch for so many years (through my marriage, entry into motherhood, and moving), she knows a lot about me. I asked her if symptoms like mine sounded like anxiety, and she told me it wouldn’t be right for her to give me a diagnosis over the phone after not seeing each other for a couple of years. She then went on to state that based on the pattern of behaviors I’ve exhibited during periods when I was under her care, anxiety symptoms like self-consciousness, excessive worry, and sleep issues are common with anxiety disorder and that if those symptoms are becoming worse for me, I should seek care with someone local to my area to address it.

Aha.

This has likely been a building issue; it definitely didn’t spring up overnight. The first time I felt something noticeable was on June 20, 2008. Some of the beautiful friends and coworkers my mom and I had gained while working for the same hospital decided to throw a grand send off party for my parents, as they would be departing for Florida six days later.

I can remember very clearly being told what time the party began and where it was located (not far from where I was living at the time) and one of my close friends at the time offered to come with me. Keep in mind that I was planning my wedding at this point, so this friend was also serving as a bridesmaid and knew the magnitude of what was about to happen for me the minute my parents flew away on a one-way flight leaving me behind in sunny San Diego. As I got ready for the party, I had to force myself through the motions of getting up, getting showered, drying my hair, picking out clothes, getting into the car, driving to pick up said friend, and then showing up at the party. It was torture. We arrived almost an hour and a half late. I had no excuse other than that I wanted my body to move, but I couldn’t do it. It was like being trapped in a tornado. I smiled and faked my way through that party, but all I kept thinking about was how my life would probably end six days later and if it didn’t, I would have no clue where to begin picking up and moving on.

The next time I can recall feeling different was two and a half years later, at the end of my masters program at National University. I struggled to get my thesis written, and I struggled to find work doing what I wanted after graduating. I hadn’t had much luck finding fulfilling work when I got my BA, so I had set myself up in my mind to have difficulty doing it again with my MA. I can remember staying up late at night scouring the internet in search of a job to get me to the next phase of my life, and my husband walking into the living room of our apartment in boxer shorts begging me to please just come back to bed. Even in bed I couldn’t relax or sleep or get comfortable.

Then, the most damning evidence that there might be a more recurrent issue worth addressing happened in 2014 leading up to my own departure for Florida. I think I’ve droned on ad nauseam about the pain I felt in that transition and fear of the unknown, but I don’t think I’ve disclosed to many the series of panic attacks I felt in those last few weeks. Scary, unchangeable (so I thought) phenomena of tension, shaking, inability to speak, inability to control tears, inability to be any of the things expected of me at the time which included a good wife and mother. I was secretly hoping someone would just have me committed because in my eyes, the future was scary and these attacks would sneak up on me unsuspectingly so I was all around sucking at life during this time.

 

Obviously, my life has taken a positive turn since that period, but that nuisance still lingers with me. I try to fight it off, and most days I succeed. Some days, I don’t.

anxiety gremlin

One of my former students is an artist. She’s working on an official graphic for me, but this represents what anxiety is like for me. A gremlin on my shoulder. This one’s kind of cute, but I promise the feeling isn’t.

Despite this, I still engage in very outwardly, uncharacteristic activities for people who routinely feel anxious or nervous. As a professor, I can’t shrink and hide behind the lectern or computer screen and expect my students to excel. If I’m asking them to step out of a comfort zone, I have to do that as well. I do so willingly, too, because teaching is a passion of mine. I also meet students in the health and fitness classroom through the Cize classes I teach. Most folks hate to dance when they’re by themselves, let alone when they’re in a group of people who can see them missing steps – me included. But I’m grateful to get the chance to teach people how to dance. As a fitness coach through Beachbody, 90% of my sales happen when I present what I have to other people. People don’t come to me – I have to put myself out there and go to them, and 90% of the time, I hear rejections from people. That’s okay. I will still always search for people to help with the products and support I offer.

Most people would call me an extrovert, but I will valiantly fight that description until the day I die. I am absolutely NOT an extrovert. I would rather sit at home with one or two friends than have to socialize with a bunch of people at a party.

On days when anxiety is weighing me down, I’ll often get asked the question, “What’s wrong?” It’s hard for me to even begin to answer because I have trouble describing it, it isn’t just one “thing,” and most people don’t have the patience to accept that someone else may be shouldering the runoff of an invisible disease that’s turned their world upside down. And when you’ve become good at being there for people, picking up the slack for others when they fall, and consistently showing up come rain or shine, people don’t often let you off the hook so you can go deal with your disease they can’t see. Having anxiety doesn’t stop Kennedy from reciting her ABC’s over and over and over and over and over and over while I load her into the car, figure out my grocery budget for that trip, fight through traffic to get to the grocery store (because Newberry Rd. is no joke), try to remember what we need at home because I forgot to make a list, shop, load the car, and drive home, all with a splitting headache. My anxiety doesn’t stop my boss from emailing me her critique – however harsh or glowing – of my classroom management for that term. It doesn’t stop my students from calling my phone 842 times a day wondering when their assignments are going to be graded despite the fact that what they submitted is technically late and I’m not obligated to grade or assign credit for it two weeks after the fact. There is no cane to carry or brace to wear. It’s just there. And no, people with anxiety, depression, schizoaffective disorder, or any of those other mental afflictions that take them out of normal don’t go around announcing their disorders to others. At least most of them don’t. Why should they? Why should WE? Our culture indicates that if you can’t stand on your own, you’re a failure, and I’m not running to get in line and be called a failure.

It’s part of the human experience to categorize others based on traits and characteristics we can see – short, tall, skinny, overweight, young, mature, male, female, stylish, plain, etc. But I challenge you to not let the absence of physical characteristics influence the judgments you make of others. People like me can smile, shout, get people moving, get people learning, and hold it together okay outwardly, but you have no idea what storm may be brewing internally. And, if someone’s kind enough to let you know that they’re dealing with a lot, back off for a bit. Offer your help, but don’t do so in expectation of return. The nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me during my bout with anxiety was:

“You do what you need to do, and I will support you because I love you.”

Sullen Girl

“Is that why they call me a sullen girl? Sullen girl…
They don’t know I used to sail the deep and tranquil seas.
But he washed me ‘shore, and he took my pearl and left an empty shell of me.” –”Sullen Girl” by Fiona Apple

Anxiety sucks. I’ve only recently become acquainted with just what this feeling is that’s hovered over me in much of my adult life past age 27. If I had to come up with a metaphor for what this emotion feels like, I’d say it’s probably similar to what Sri Lankans felt like on December 26, 2004 as they watched the ocean menacingly encroach upon their habitat, helpless against the raging onslaught of water that would devour their homes, places of business, streets, cars, friends, and family. Anxiety washes over me like a tsunami, and all I ever wanted to do was bask in the sunlight or sail peacefully with the wind in my hair.

It’s typically been my nature to be open and inviting to others – I’m not this way anymore. I used to enjoy social settings, meeting new people, and putting myself out there. In place of those things I’ve been busy building walls, withdrawing from relationships, and trying to patch up really old wounds that I thought had healed. I always thought that when I reached a point like this I would find myself sad about the shift in my attitude and behavior, but I’m actually really comfortable being this way because it minimizes my amount of emotional risk. I used to scoff at risk before, but now I refuse to take risks. I don’t want to be vulnerable to anything or anyone anymore.

The only place I feel truly safe and calm is at home. If I could lie in bed and eat yummy food and watch Netflix all day without consequence, I would. But someone has to let the dogs out. These papers aren’t going to grade themselves. I don’t want to be arrested for child neglect. Eventually, the groceries in the fridge will run out and I’ll have to go to the store to get more.

When I can’t sleep, I like to sneak into Kennedy’s room, grab her from her toddler bed, and lie down with her in the futon guest bed – there’s something so comforting about getting to snuggle with my baby who isn’t really a baby anymore. I’d do the same with Fabian, but since his body is bigger, he controls the cuddling. I can just grab Kennedy and snuggle with her and she’ll fall asleep no matter how we’re tangled up. Plus, I enjoy the tickle of her soft curls against my chin and nose. I want to soak up these moments now because one day she won’t want me anymore. When she’s a rebellious teenager, she’ll probably tell me she hates me because I won’t let her dye her hair pink or stay out ‘til 3am with her boyfriend. I just hope that by then I’ve found something else to comfort me that isn’t cocaine or excessive drinking or heroin or PCP.

Now, I know that the Christians and religious folks probably wonder, “Why doesn’t she just hand these troubles over to God? Why doesn’t she pray more? Doesn’t she know Jesus can save her?”

My answer to that: I do pray. I do read The Word. I do have a relationship with God and Jesus – a strong one. It is naïve to think that just because a person is going through troubles, they must be lacking in faith. Trials like these are where faith is tested. So-called good Christians are not free from troubles. Don’t look at someone else’s life and assume that everything must be okay just because that’s how it looks to you.

As with all stages in life, this one will pass too. Perhaps it will be in a few months, or maybe it will take me decades to dig out from under. Until then, the walls, distance, and mistrust remain. I’ve been so burned and shit on and it’s finally all catching up to me. I almost wish I could go back in time to 1992 or so and warn little young, bright-eyed, hopeful, friendly Antoinette that she should probably just stop it now, because it’s only a burden to have to keep up later. When you’re the person who is good at offering an ear to listen and a heart to care, all anyone is going to let you do is listen and care; they won’t return the favor. When you’re upbeat and lighthearted, nobody will allow you to be downtrodden or serious. Nobody ever asks the friend who’s a good listener if they have anything to say. Nobody ever reaches out to the girl who’s constantly reaching out to everybody else. Don’t exhibit strength or power in overcoming obstacles because then you’re never allowed to be weak. Helping make someone else’s bad days good means you’re never allowed to have bad days.

The Best You Can

One lesson I’ve come to learn since turning 30 (actually, since having Kennedy) is that we as humans tend to make things harder on ourselves by envisioning scenarios in ways that cause us to feel doubt and insecurity. Tim Hoch explained it best here, but assuming we always know a person’s intentions, drawing up situations and reasons for why someone didn’t call or text us back, why we didn’t get the job, or the house, etc. only makes us unnecessarily rack our brains for answers to questions we don’t even need to be asking. At the root of this problem is the curse of perfection that many of us tend to thrust onto ourselves. We expect to be the person our friends can turn to in all times, we expect to always have great days at work, we believe our children will see us as heroes and nothing less, we assume our significant others are, and will always be, infatuated with all of us. These things aren’t true. In fact, if 50% of this can come true at any given time, you’re doing well.

The truth is, there are days when work will be overwhelming, there are times when we need space from our friends, we may not always come through as super heroes for our children, and we shouldn’t idealize our significant others, nor should they do that to us. Life isn’t a perfect picture. It’s a running film of change, adjustment, and capitalizing on the resources at your disposal. Some of us are better at that last part than others, which I think explains why we can’t all be rock stars, or Nobel Peace Prize winners, or zillionaires. At 30 years old, I’ve had to learn to give myself permission to fall short of perfection. As long as I’m doing the best that I can, that’s acceptable.

“The best you can” is one of those phrases like “I love you,” or “I hate you,” which has different meaning for everyone, and carries less weight with overuse. “Can” implies ability, and “best” implies excellence. Therefore, if I work to deliver the highest level of excellence that’s within my abilities for a given task at a given time, then I’m doing all right. Some days, my best looks damn fine. Other days, my best gets the job done, but it’s not worthy of a gold medal. I used to sweat the days I didn’t earn gold medals. Truthfully, this is a lot of what thrust me into postpartum depression in the weeks after I gave birth to Kennedy. I believe it’s what gives a lot of people anxiety about things they want to do, but know they won’t be great at in the beginning. It’s unfair and unnecessary.

Because we are humans, we are subject to imperfection, and remaining mindful of this is what defines life as a joy to live versus a burden to move through. There will be times when we struggle. Not all of our efforts will reap large benefits. We may not be super mom or dad or auntie or uncle, but as long as we are working to provide the best we can for the little girls and boys who look up to us, we are doing well. We can’t all be perfect 4.0 students, but a 3.5 is great, too. You may not get that promotion you were gunning for, but at least you’re employed, and there’s probably something better waiting for you at a later time. It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them and work to avoid them in the future. Don’t strive for failure, but give yourself permission to fall short a time or two. Being the best at everything is impractical.

As I set my sights on 2015, I’m prefacing my lofty goal list with this defining truth.