Mental Health Matters: Codependence

I discovered the idea of codependence last year around August. I was displeased with my daughter’s choice of boyfriend, as I had been in the past, and was looking for reasons why she seemed to have fallen in love with the same personality – again. Google is one of my best friends, so I used it to search for specific traits that I’d noticed in both her current and former beau.

No matter what phrases I used, codependence popped up. So, I clicked on a link and read the characteristics:

Low self-esteem

People pleasing

Poor boundaries

Reactivity

Caretaking

Control

Dysfunctional communication

Obsessions

Dependency

Denial

Problems with intimacy

Painful emotions

codependencyJeez Louise! You know those movies that show people’s lives flashing before their eyes prior to their deaths? That’s how I felt reading this list of descriptions. It was as if someone had written an outline of my life. I stopped worrying about my daughter and the men she’d chosen and instead began reflecting on myself and the choices I’d made from childhood through adulthood. The proverbial light bulb went off and I realized (as my sister once said) I’d been codependent as f—k!

From the low self-worth of abandonment to the eventual numbing of painful emotions established in adolescence and further perpetuated as a grown woman, I exhibited each codependent trait. I was stunned, but suddenly, my life made sense.

While most wouldn’t describe me as a people-pleaser, there were specific people I rarely told, “no.” My grandmother was one. The example I repeatedly describe is when she’d told me that she wanted me (and the rest of our family) home for Christmas. We could do what we wanted for other holidays, but December 25th was different. So, even though Dwight and I moved our family a thousand miles away, we drove up and down the interstate every other year for seventeen years with our daughters in tow just because I thought I had to and also because I feared telling her no. I’m not sure what I thought would happen if I said, “We’re not coming,” but I avoided the conversation and disappointing her for almost two decades, all while ignoring how the situation affected my family and me.

Another way codependency showed up in my life is through a lack of boundaries. I could write another twelve posts about this, but I’ll just share two specifics. Prior to 2014, I had no personal boundaries “based on awareness of my own unique needs.” It’s easy to do this when you’re unclear about who you are. How could I know what I needed if I didn’t know who I was as an individual or what I liked? As a result, whatever others liked, I liked. Whatever they wanted to do, I did. You’d never hear me say, “No. I’m not doing that!” It was more like, “Sure. I’m down with anything.”

Similarly, I had very few relationship boundaries. I’ve written before about the ease with which I can become friends with others. However, in the past, I’ve also befriended former students, even when they were still under my tutelage. Years ago, each one had access to me through my cellphone, where we’d chat for hours, discussing their personal business, and depending on what was happening in my life, mine too. I wanted to be a “caring teacher,” but blurred lines and unresolved issues, helped me to become a codependent one as well.

As a current teacher educator, of course, I advise against this; it’s unprofessional. However, reflecting on those ten years, it’s clear that poor boundaries permeated both my personal and professional life in another attempt to prove I mattered.

Another clear way codependency manifested is through control. For much of my life, I didn’t feel as if I was in control of myself. As an only child in a family of older relatives, times were far and few between when I knew what was best for me. Also, losing my mother at sixteen and being sent away at seventeen showed me that I was in control of nothing. Anything could happen at any moment. This led to two issues: I trusted everyone’s opinion, except my own, and I eventually tried very hard to control everything around me, including other’s actions, so as not to be caught off-guard by life, ever…again.

This revelation of codependency really changed my outlook as it gave me a new way to take responsibility for myself and my behavior.

From this point on, I’ll continue to share how I developed healthier coping mechanisms, in addition to conversations with those in the field who can support us in actualizing healthier lives.

Until then, tell me…are you familiar with this term? Have you ever been codependent?

Source 1

Source 2

Monday Notes: My Bisexual Daughter

My daughter has a lot of positive qualities.

She is intelligent. I first realized just how smart she was when she was three-years-old. I begged the teacher to put her in the next class, but she disagreed, that is, until she interacted with her for two days.

“You were right,” she apologized, “I just thought you were like all the other parents who think their child is brilliant.”

The next day she was in the four-year-old class.

Her intelligence was reaffirmed years later at the end of third grade. I’d received her first state standardized test results. She’d gotten all the answers correct. Even with my background in education, I’d never seen marks like that.

She is caring. I remember when she cried because she was saving a lizard that had somehow entered the house, a frequent Florida occurrence. His little green tail fell off as she used a glass to capture him. She immediately burst into tears, but soon calmed down when I reminded her that lizards’ tails regenerate. She dried her face and released him outside where he belonged.

She is socially conscious. She loves being black and championing for black people in different ways, like when she assured her dark-skinned friend it was okay to stay in the sun; she had no fear of “getting darker,” and neither should he.

She can also be found telling her father and me about her new choice of water, why we shouldn’t be buying McDonald’s, why we should stop eating ‘carcinogens’ (e.g., meat), and why we should sign a petition about parolees.

She is kind. When she found out her big sister wouldn’t be able to attend our last trip, she offered to save more of her own check so that her sister could go. Of course her sister declined the offer, but my point is she offered. She also considers her friends and frequently stands up for them in different situations or is there for them when they need someone to listen.

She is trustworthy. This is why we had no problem passing my car to her at the age of seventeen. She drives to school and back home. She drives to work and back home. She drives to her friends’ houses for parties. She drives back to school for extracurricular activities. She drives to complete her service project once a week during the summer. She spends the night over friends’ houses, and when she doesn’t feel comfortable where she is, she texts me…and comes home. We trust her and her judgment.

These are the qualities that come to mind when someone asks me about my daughter. The last thing I consider is her sexual identity. I just wished society felt the same.

Mental Health Matters: Feeling My Feels

When I first received a packet of information from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services outlining the events that led to my adoption, I called my then best friend to read her the contents. At first, her sniffles were low, but eventually they began to drown out my words.

“Why are you crying?” I asked.

“It’s just…so sad,” she began.

“Don’t cry,” I insisted. “Don’t cry for me.”

By this time, I was 32 years old and had mastered muffling and numbing my own sorrows. I wasn’t going to sob about my own life, and I certainly wasn’t going to allow anyone else to mourn for me.

I suppressed the pain of discovering I was an abandoned five-month-old baby with the other emotional trauma I’d endured. The only thing about stuffing emotions into an abyss is that they’re never really gone. Pain. Sadness. Anger. Whatever emotion you’ve attempted to ignore stays with you. I learned this nine years later when I was 41.

moon_womanI’d decided to do a relationship meditation hosted by Oprah and Deepak. I thought the meditation would help me have a better relationship with my husband, father, cousins, and in-laws. What was surprising is the meditation really focused on the relationship I had with myself. This was achieved through chanting mantras and answering journal prompts. One of the questions asked this: What, if anything, are you afraid of finding out about yourself? Or something like that.

At first, I didn’t want to write the truth. But, after realizing I’d be the only one reading it, I decided to be as honest as possible. I scribbled these words: There must be something wrong with me for me not to have any parents.

And then, I cried.

I cried for the five-month-old version of myself, who must’ve been terrified being left in an apartment for days. I wept for a baby who was separated from her mother. In that moment, I realized I didn’t need permission to empathize for myself. So, I also cried for being adopted and not told to feel anything about the finding years ago. I grieved losing my adoptive mother. My final tears were for my adoptive father, who, no matter how much he uttered, “I love you,” had shown otherwise.

That day was pivotal. I’d waited my entire life for someone to green-light my emotions when really, I held the power all along.

moonAfterwards, I stopped stifling tears and emotions. I began using honest communication in most situations. I refused to follow family and society’s made-up rules of engagement. From that day forward, I knew it was better for me to share emotions than it was to harbor resentment and damage myself further. This ranged from answering simple questions, like “How do you like working here?” to harder ones, like, “Why haven’t you invited me to your parties?” with truth. With many people, I ceased hiding my emotions, and subsequently, protecting theirs. I don’t mean to say that I trample on others’ feelings; that would be insensitive, but rather, I don’t hold back for fear of what others will think. I don’t owe anyone a lie or a watered-down answer because they’re ill-equipped to deal with how I feel or because they’re not used to hearing a different opinion.

Since that day, I’ve also learned how to move through emotions and determine why I’m experiencing a specific response. I have a phrase: I feel (fill-in-the-blank emotion) because of (fill-in-the-blank reason). It might look like this: I feel resentful because my family doesn’t consider how I feel around holidays. Sometimes I share these sentiments; other times, I don’t. The important part is to know how I feel and move through it.

Sometimes tears arise because I’m triggered by past life events, like the time I was watching TV and a woman and her mother were shopping for wedding dresses. I remembered how I shopped for dresses by myself and it made me sad. Being able to acknowledge that emotion and then pause for a second has been more supportive for me than pretending feelings don’t exist.

Finally, because I’m now more inclined to feel my feels and process emotions, I’m less likely to use unhealthy coping strategies. I no longer rely on people, relationships, or sex as a means to improve my mood or self-esteem. As a result, my relationships have improved because I’m interacting from an authentic space, not from a place of suppressed hurt and anger.

For me, an ability to feel has been liberating.

Source

 

Mental Health Matters: Suppression

My mother died on Monday, September 4, 1989. It was Labor Day. That’s why I can remember it. My father returned from Northwestern Memorial Hospital that morning. When he walked in the back door, I knew life had changed. His red eyes and sunken shoulders spoke first. It was one of two times I’d seen him cry.

“She’s gone,” he said.

Then, he hugged me. Both of our faces were wet when he released me.

When we arrived at the hospital, my father handed me several quarters and instructed me to use the payphone outside of the intensive care unit to call family and friends.

The first person I dialed was my grandmother.

“I knew something was wrong,” she said. “I could feel it. We’ll be right there.”

She and my grandfather’s Michigan home wasn’t far; they arrived in two hours. Her voice disrupted the solace.

“She just couldn’t take it no more. Her little body just couldn’t take it no more,” she said.

My grandfather swallowed his grief and let out a small choke. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, turned to face the hallway, and blew his nose.

Others’ pain makes me cry, and my mother had just died. My eyes welled up.

“Don’t cry,” my grandmother instructed, “you had your mama for a long time. Sixteen years is a loooong time.”

img_6673Years’ prior, my mother had told me not to feel sorry for my own adopted self. Throughout my childhood, I’d been told not to cry over trivial matters. On Labor Day 1989, the lesson my family desired was finally solidified: there is nothing worth crying over, not even the death of one’s mother.

That Monday I swallowed my pain.

The next day I attended the first day of my junior year with hundreds of other Whitney Young students. When my friends asked me how my summer was, I continued swallowing my pain and casually replied, “My mother died yesterday.”

They thought it was odd. “I’d be home if my mother died,” one replied.

“It’s okay. Life goes on, right?” I practiced my calm demeanor.

A few days later, when friends and family congregated to pay my mother respect, I continued swallowing my pain. I used sarcasm to cover resentment. I stood in the vestibule and made my friends laugh about a man’s shoes or a lady’s church hat. Why should anyone feel sorrow for me, when I wasn’t allowed to feel an emotion for myself?

img_2576I swallowed the pain the whole 1989-1990 school year. I’d learned that angst is best covered with achievements and a smile. I knew how to achieve and my natural smile shone from ear to ear, no matter how I felt about my circumstances. Apparently I fooled everyone, because not one adult asked me about my emotional state that year, not even my father’s new girlfriend, not even a teacher at the best high school in the nation.

This is how I learned to push emotions down. This is how I learned to pretend to be okay when I wasn’t.

Mental Health Matters: Developing a Sense of Identity

My cousin and his wife adopted a baby last year. As soon as they brought her home from the hospital, he had a list of all the things she’d be and do. She would like cooking; he’d ensure she would because he props her up in the kitchen as he prepares meals; he’s a retired military chef. She would like fishing; he’d already taken her out on her first boat excursion. I feigned a smile as he described how fractions of her life and her identity were being shaped by his likes and dislikes.

pianoI suppose raising children in this way is natural. My mother was a skilled pianist. On Saturday mornings, she drove my six-year-old self to the north side, where I took Suzuki piano lessons. A brown piano sat in the corner of the dining room, where I remember practicing and learning one song, Cuckoo. It wasn’t until I advanced to reading sheet music that she looked over at me and asked one question.

“You don’t want to do this anymore?”

My answer was, “No,” so I was allowed to stop.

There was little else I remembered doing at that age. I devoured books, and eventually I wrote. By the time I was ten, I’d written and created a book about a boy, who had to assume responsibility of his home due to his father’s death. It was called On the Farm and was nominated for an award sponsored by Gwendolyn Brooks. But were these enjoyable to me, or were these just hobbies my mother had introduced to me? After all, she did have a bachelors in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She also had boxes of unpublished essays stashed away in our basement.

It seemed imperative that I learn who I was independent of others. Psychologists agree; they suggest adoptees learn what they like/dislike apart from their adoptive families.

img_0522While writing is something my mother and I shared, it really is something I like to do. I was reminded of this six years ago. I’d written a piece about going natural, and on a whim, submitted it to For Harriet. My ego was overwhelmed with the thousand or so responses that essay garnered but writing for public consumption as a way to discuss a new thought was also something I felt I’d been missing. Connecting with others is necessary for my being. The following year, I began this blog and have loved every minute of not only writing, but also engaging with others about our daily lives. And if I use the what could you do for hours rule, then writing would definitely be it.

So, yes to writing. But what about other things I’d picked up throughout life?

Dwight and I have been married twenty-four years. When you’ve been with someone that long, it’s also important to discover what you like separate from your spouse. Superhero movies is that thing for me. Once I realized that Marvel was creating a seemingly endless timeline of films, I had to bow out. A few years ago, I expressed to him that I would only be watching one per year…with him…at the movies. I’m not sure how he feels about this, but such a small decision made a huge difference for me. I’d rather write, blog, or read a book than watch the same trope play itself out under water, in a fictional African land, or in a parallel universe.

I’ve also recognized that I like to entertain company in creative ways. For example, I’ve created something called a Christmas tree decorating party. I thought it’d be cool for each person in our family to have their own five-foot tree, and subsequently, invite a few people over to eat, drink, and decorate them. I’ve also thrown a Christmas brunch with all women. Sons weren’t even welcome. My youngest daughter and I made breakfast food and served about fourteen women.

transient_memphisSome of you may have also noticed I like photographing homeless and transient people. Many have asked me why? Others have judged it as rude. I think this hobby is the best example of stepping into one’s identity. I have my reasons. Sometimes I explain myself; other times, I don’t, because what I’ve found on this journey toward understanding self is it doesn’t matter what others think. It doesn’t matter if I can articulate why I enjoy something, and it doesn’t matter if it’s aligned with what my family or society values.

All that matters is that I know what I like and how I feel when I engage in it. This has been my greatest lesson of all about developing a sense of identity and of being myself. As a result, my sense of self no longer relies on the approval of anyone else.

Mental Health Matters: Psyche of An Adoptee (II)

I once read an adoptee’s article I’d found on social media. In it she asked, “Can you imagine being the only person in the world you know who you’re related to?” (Pine, 2015). This woman’s question summarized the moment my adoption was revealed. I felt alone, as if I was the only one of me around. Where did I belong?

Scholars call this a sense of belonging, which is also a common adoptee issue*.

peas_podBelonging begins with family. I looked nothing like anyone around me, which is a physical way of belonging. In addition, my family homed in on parts of my physical difference, such as my butt. My parents used to say I had a “bubble butt.” When E.U.’s Da’ Butt came out, my father would replace one of the names with mine, “Kathy got a big ole butt!” When my elementary class was featured in the Chicago Suntimes, family proclaimed they knew it was me because of the way my butt protruded in the picture. Comments about my derriere continued well into Christmas 2013 when my great aunt mentioned something about my oldest daughter and I sharing this feature. I was 40 years old.

There was nothing my family could do about my posterior, but my mother and grandmother did their best to correct other perceived flaws. My mother noticed I didn’t move my arms when I walked, so she showed me how “normal” people rhythmically did this. To this day, I sometimes remind myself to move my arms so as not to look robotic. That was just the beginning of the list. The two ensured I turned my feet in so that I wouldn’t walk slew footed; straightened my back so that I didn’t walk like a duck; and raised my voice so that I spoke from my diaphragm. My insecurities grew with each lesson, especially because I didn’t see these “flaws” in anyone else.

eggsThere were also familial detachments. My mother retold times of her great-grandmother laying ties on the railroad as an example of where she drew her strength. It’s a great narrative, but there was little connection, because I knew she wasn’t my great-great grandmother.

My paternal grandmother lived about three blocks from us, and eventually, right upstairs, but the distance between us was great. I called her, “Grandma Emma,” like her other grandchildren, but it was obvious she was closer to my father’s sister and her children, who lived 800 miles away. I recognized the warmness in the way she embraced them when they visited and the attention she provided. Maybe this had little to do with being adopted; maybe it did. Either way, I didn’t feel a part of her.

square pegI carried this general lack of belonging into my marital family. How could I feel at ease in an additional family, when I couldn’t even find comfort with the one in which I was raised?

I sensed the awkwardness of my own interactions.

My father-in-law would sit at the kitchen table and talk to me about how he fixed a refrigerator that morning. I’d stare past his words, not knowing what to say or how to relate.

“Seems like she’s not interested in what I’m saying,” he once told his son.

I wasn’t. But more importantly, I just didn’t know how to be around someone else’s family.

His mother once told me she was glad she didn’t have girls.

“They seem difficult,” she admitted.

I internalized her comments and assumed as her daughter-in-law I must also be too difficult for her. We rarely spoke more than five sentences between us. Not understanding her quiet, unassuming personality, I deemed their nuclear family as another group I probably wouldn’t fit into.

Like other parts of me, this pattern of behavior remained and affected many adult relationships. I developed detached connections since I figured I wouldn’t fit in anyway. It’s a stressful existence for sure. But one that I eventually learned to let go of.

Eventually, I’ll explain how. Until then, let me know if you can relate to anything here. I’ve since learned that you don’t have to be an adoptee to feel as if you don’t fit in.

*Disclaimer: I only speak for myself. I’m sure all adoptees have different experiences and perspectives.

Mental Health Matters: Psyche of an Adoptee (I)

I never heard of the word “adoptee” until a few years ago. This is for two reasons. One, that’s when I began researching specific mental health topics, and two, most conversations about adoption are centered on the benevolence of adoptive parents. For the most part, adoptees are left out of this discussion. Like mental health, I’m on a mission to also de-marginalize adoptee’s voices*, which sometimes go hand-in-hand.

1462536161555

As I’ve explained before, after I discovered I was adopted, my parents never mentioned it again. It was just a blip in that day. After my mother died, my grandmother would frequently mention my adoption. Sometimes she’d reminisce about them searching for my receiving blanket and then remembering that they didn’t receive me in a traditional way. Other times, she’d marvel at how much she and other family members thought I looked like my mother, even though I did not.

In retrospect, I believe my grandmother’s comments and others’ interactions were unconscious ways to ensure I was perceived as a part of and not different than them. However, after reading several bits of information on adoption, I’ve learned that adoptees, no matter how loving and accepting their adoptive families were, have similar issues.

Identity is one. It is common for adoptees to not know who they are, literally and figuratively. According to Erikson (1968), identity begins in childhood and develops over adolescence, right around the time I’d found out about my adoption. For me, identity formation included accepting I wasn’t biologically a part of a family, being told this was my “family,” and being asked to accept someone else’s definition of who I was and where I belonged.

I never verbally expressed my identity confusion, but I definitely showed it.

I switched identities with everyone and everywhere. I used to wait and observe those around me to understand not only how to speak, but also how to act, how to be. And if it was behavior with which I was unfamiliar, then I simply remained quiet for fear of not fitting in. This continued through adulthood. For years, I showed very little of myself around my husband’s immediate family. He and his golden-brown mother, father, and brother seemed to be paper-doll perfect, and I wasn’t quite sure where I was supposed to fit into their picture.

This behavior continued in other ways. At our wedding reception, the DJ played a popular Detroit house music song. I’d been living there for a year and had grown used to their brand of house. I began dancing and Tima, my friend from high school scrunched up her face and said, “Kathy, what is this shit?”

Dwight said something about this being my song. He was right. But I remember almost freezing in place because two worlds had collided; two of my identities faced one another. Do I say, yeah girl. This is my song? Or, do I stop dancing and return to my Chicago House music roots? I think I stopped dancing.

These examples may seem slight, but when you don’t know who you are or what you like, or how to be yourself in every situation, small things can turn into frenetic anxiety-induced happenings. And, they can add up.

IMG_2990At the beginning of our relationship, Dwight introduced me to comic books and cartoons about superheroes. I began watching Batman just because he did. I stopped wearing red lipstick because he re-told a story about his father’s experiences overseas with women and red lipstick. I thought he didn’t like it. I grew my hair past my neck and to my shoulders because he’d once admitted his preference for long hair. He and his family watched movies a lot; subsequently, he and I could be found at the movies almost every weekend.

I did very little that I liked to do, not because my husband forced me to do things he liked, but simply because I hadn’t explored who I was or what was enjoyable to me.

These are just a few instances of how a lack of clear identity affected me throughout the years. Trust me. I could write a novel of examples woven well into the 2000s.

Instead, I’ll end here. But I invite you to comment. Can you relate to this issue? Are you a person who lived with identity issues even though you’re not adopted?

Source

*Disclaimer: I only speak for myself. I’m sure all adoptees have different experiences and perspectives.

Mental Health Matters: Perfectionism

For most aspects of my life, I can pinpoint the exact moment when I recognized a specific trait, but I’m unclear as to when I learned the idea that I should be perfect. After much research, it seems it could have come from four areas.

#1: It is common for adoptees to develop perfectionism out of insecurity and fear that they will be rejected from their adoptive family (Brodzinsky). This seems reasonable. I discovered I was an adoptee when I was around ten years old, and the story I remember was one of happenstance. Our home included several bookcases filled with books. On one of these bookcases was a book called Why Was I Adopted? I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor and reading the book in its entirety. When I reached the end, tears dropped one by one.

“Why are you crying?” my mother asked.

“I feel sorry for these people,” I said. “They don’t know who their family is.”

She replied matter-of-factly, “You shouldn’t feel sad. You’re adopted.”

adoptedShe and I never discussed the shock that this new information carried. We never discussed “adoption,” why she and my father adopted me, or what it meant to be an adoptee ever again. I’m not sure why, and as an adult and parent, I can only guess it’s because they didn’t know how or because of shame. Adoption carries its own stigma for all parties involved. Sometimes it can be embarrassing for the adoptive parents who, for whatever reason, cannot conceive their own biological children. Oftentimes, adoptees are ashamed and feel as if they were not good enough to have remained with their biological families, thus creating a sense that they need to achieve perfection, lest they be removed from this family, too.

This is something to which the child version of me could relate. As a child with no explanation, there was this idea that I must’ve caused my own adoption. If I were just good enough, then I wouldn’t have been given away.

#2: Perfectionism can also be developed when there’s a “frequent fear of insecurity or inadequacy” (Good Therapy); apparently, it’s something parents can unwittingly teach. I’ve written before about how my mother required me to sit for long periods of time to focus on a task until it was right. In a time of typewriters and correction fluid, this meant beginning my fifth-grade report on Ethiopia over and over, until it was error-free because “it was a reflection of me.” That’s just one example. Several other instances  reveal compounded experiences where I learned that flawlessness was a preferred behavior, not just from my mother, from other family members as well.

number_one#3: “Excessive praise for your achievements” and “believing your self-worth is determined by your achievements” (Martin, 2018) can also lead to perfectionism. I was raised as an only child and was my maternal grandmother’s only grandchild for over twenty years. I was my paternal grandmother’s youngest grandchild. Being the only and the youngest means I was doted on quite a bit. Everything I did was not only praised, but it was always perfect. According to my family, everything I did was “the best.” You know what this breeds? An adult who frequently desires to achieve all the things all the time at peak perfection. It’s no wonder that, after receiving a terminal degree, my sense of ego was slowly deflated. I’d reached a pinnacle of success and there was nothing more to do to externally prove my worth. I had to determine how I’d live the remainder of life without doing something.

#4: A final idea is that mental health issues, like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are associated with perfectionism (Good Therapy). I can’t say with confidence that I don’t have OCD. I mean making stringent lists that make me feel as if my world will crumble should I stray from them may qualify, but I don’t know. However, for me, anxiety definitely does align with perfectionism. But, it seems to be a chicken/egg scenario. Does a predisposition towards anxiety and OCD cause one to seek perfectionism or does perfectionism cause anxiety and OCD? For me, not fully feeling a sense of belonging in my adoptive family, feeling insecure about my origin story, and receiving excessive praise seemed to have fed anxiety.

Luckily, I’ve been reflecting on perfectionism in varied ways over the past six years. Next week, I’ll delve into how I’ve unlearned (and continue to unlearn) perfectionism. Until then, feel free to add to this discussion. Are you a perfectionist? Are you a recovering perfectionist? Do you know any perfectionists? We need to undo this harmful and unrealistic standard. None of us are perfect and none of us ever will be.

January’s Mental Health Matters: Acceptance

February’s Mental Health Matters: Anxiety

Mental Health Matters: Anxiety

I learned the first semester of undergrad that being assigned several tasks at one time caused uncontrollable tension. There was an overwhelming sense that I wouldn’t have time to complete everything. That’s when I developed an organized coping mechanism system. I began keeping an agenda of lists. These lists ensured that I knew where I was supposed to be and at what time. As technology advanced, I not only kept lists, but I also created reminders on my cell phone and included the same events on my digital calendar. My lists had lists.

I’m sure list making is a “normal” task; my issue is that I never veer from them. A friend of mine jokes that she needs to make an appointment to speak with me. But she and I know it’s not a joke. I will not sacrifice a list item for an unscheduled phone conversation to catch up with a friend.

This rule continued as I raised children. My daughters understood that if they wanted me to do something, then they had to tell me at least a week in advance. I’ve missed ceremonies because they told me at the “last minute,” which would require me changing my schedule, sending me into a frenzy where I felt as if I didn’t have enough time.

The rigidity and necessity of my list making surfaced April 2019 when my youngest daughter was in a car accident. Someone hit someone else, who hit her, and caused her to hit a fourth person. She called her dad, who handled the situation and agreed that she was able to go to school. By the end of the day, she’d texted me complaining of headaches.

After an appointment with a DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine), it was decided that she had a concussion and would need further treatment. Additionally, she would have to take pain meds every 3-4 hours and rest for at least a week at home…with me. This meant no screen time and no thinking, just resting. Are you aware of how challenging it is to keep a seventeen-year-old off her phone?

This is when I fully realized another issue. When life is fine, I’m fine. List. Check. Go. When something occurs, especially if it’s traumatic, I begin to feel worried that I cannot handle the task at hand and complete my list. I spiral quickly.

Ensuring my daughter ate food, rested, didn’t watch television, stayed off her phone, didn’t FaceTime her group for a group project (which she did), took pain medications every four hours, all while checking off my daily professor tasks, like grading papers and answering students’ question was…a lot.

But I didn’t realize it until my husband came home.

“Why are you so tired?” he asked.

clocksMy answer? Tears. I was emotionally exhausted. The days’ events had worn me out, and underneath it all I was also worried that our daughter wouldn’t recover soon enough. She was in a rigorous academic program and needed her brain. She had an oral exam in a week and AP exams shortly after. Concussions can take months to recover from. Her fogginess was evident. She couldn’t recall words, like theory. What if she never healed? What if this accident ruined everything? What if I wasn’t doing enough to help her heal? How was I supposed to balance helping her and doing my job?

I never saw myself as suffering from anxiety. I reserved that for other people, like my cousin who had prescriptions for panic attacks or those who washed their hands and cleaned obsessively. Certainly, I wasn’t like them.

I’d even read that people with anxiety chew ice and shared that info with my husband. “You used to chew ice,” he said.

And I thought so what? I’ve never had anxiety. But, I do. My life is peppered with people asking a simple question, like “how are you?” and me crying uncontrollably because I’ve held onto frenetic feelings and worse-case scenarios of a situation.

Last year is just the first time I’d realized it.

Part of the mental health stigma is that issues have to be extreme. This is untrue. You do not have to be walking down the street talking to yourself to have a mental health issue. You can simply have an overactive mind that constantly tells you there isn’t enough time to complete tasks. You can have the incapacity to appropriately regulate your emotions. Or, you can have fill-in-the-blank issue that you’ve kept secret to appear “normal.”

Either way, the first step for any healing is acceptance. I’ve accepted anxiety is a part of a few mental health issues I’ve tried to hide. Next month, I’ll discuss another.

January’s Mental Health Matters 

 

Mental Health Matters: Acceptance (Part I)

Around 2005, I found my biological mother’s side of the family, and with that came a narrative about my family’s mental health. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services sent me a thick packet of information sealed in a manila envelope.

My mother had been diagnosed as having acute schizophrenia, undifferentiated type. According to the report she would oftentimes “walk around with an empty stroller” and could be found “lying on the couch, laughing hysterically.” Although she was an avid swimmer, in 1978, she drowned in Lake Michigan.

These images are not only vivid, but also profound. I immediately related to my mother’s psychosis. Finally, I understood part of myself.

I’d felt slightly off growing up. For example, in elementary school, it was difficult for me to walk in front of a class or across the cafeteria. Oftentimes, I thought everyone stared and talked about me. I had little reason to believe these imaginings, but in my mind they were true. However, I learned to cope. I’d pretend I was a horse with blinders on. I’d walk directly to my destination, ignoring anything in my peripheral vision, internally praising myself when I made it back to my seat without ridicule.

I never told anyone.

Learning about my biological mother introduced me to one of her sisters, Aunt Catherine. She outlined the remainder of our family’s mental health history. She suffered from depression. Her father, my grandfather had, too. Her mother, my grandmother had a nervous breakdown. Her two brothers were in prison; one murdered someone.

When I shared my relief that I’d finally found solace in understanding my off-centeredness, she rebuked it.

“Don’t try to be like us,” she said, “you’re not like us. You don’t have to be like us. Depression feels like you’re in a deep hole that you can’t get out of. You want to get out, but you can’t.”

I’d never experienced depression. In fact, my set point is joyful. So, I dismissed my newfound knowledge. Plus, who wants to identify as “crazy” anyway? I focused on other family similarities, like the tremors she, my daughters and I shared; all of our hands shake uncontrollably.

Still I knew something about me wasn’t normal.

When I was younger, I cried frequently for all reasons. One time I remember swelling up with tears because my paternal cousins had visited from North Carolina. They planned to drive to Bolingbrook, a Chicago suburb to visit another cousin. I thought I wasn’t invited, so I cried, until they consoled me and assured me I’d be right there with them. I was ten.

When my parents told me my father had diabetes, I cried because I thought he was going to die. My mother came to my room and asked me to stop. “Crying for hours is excessive for a diabetes diagnosis,” she said. I was twelve.

It was the 70s and 80s, so I was deemed sensitive. Anxiety wasn’t a household term, and therapy in black homes was unheard of. Instead, I received the proverbial, “Whatchu crying for now?” question, especially from my grandmother, who seemed to want me to be tougher, something I never fully achieved.

I researched schizophrenia and clinical depression. Aunt Catherine was right. I was neither of those; but, dots were connected. However, I dismissed them because they didn’t form complete pictures. They weren’t direct links. I ignored the idea that mental health is genetic; however, like brown eyes and curly hair, traces of mental health can linger in one’s DNA. Curl patterns may be a little looser and eyes a little darker, but characteristics are there.

So, while it’s no easy feat, I’ve taken some time to accept this trait. Subsequently, because I believe the only person I can change is myself, I’ll be publicly exploring it in more detail this year on this blog as a way to de-stigmatize mental health issues and to bring truth to light. What better way to do both than to begin with me?

Oh, and those tremors? They’re more than just biological markers; They are a physical manifestation of social anxiety disorder.