Clawing Your Way Out of Your Own Head

I’m going to be perfectly frank here. I could not write this post when I was at my lowest because, no matter what I tried, nothing worked. I did not believe I could feel better. And the more I wallowed in self pity, I more I self-isolated.

In a letter I wrote to a friend back in 2013, I said something to the tune of, “It worries me how much I crave isolation. I seek it every chance I get.” At the time, I was in college and living in a house of 7 people. I shared, not only a room, but a bed. In the mornings, I got dressed in the dark to accommodate someone else’s sleep schedule. This was living in the city, always accompanied by the sounds of the train or friendly people playing instruments in the street. It’s hard to be alone in a city.

I think about that letter a lot, as if I should have been more “careful what I wished for” because I got it. I got to be alone.

I’m going to be perfectly frank here. I could not write this post when I was at my lowest because, no matter what I tried, nothing worked. I did not believe I could feel better. And the more I wallowed in self pity, I more I self-isolated convincing myself that, “You’re not going to get better, and these people don’t want to hear you complain about it anymore. They want to hear you say that you’re feeling better, but you won’t. So stop reaching out.” This is how I spoke to myself.

I followed my own set guides to “being alone” but misery seemed to follow me like a shadow. I couldn’t concentrate or focus on any one cohesive thought. It was all I could do to pull myself out of hourly panic attacks. I was experiencing resurfacing repressed memories of past traumas and I started, not only fearing these memories, but fearing what else might resurface. I was wracked with fear over things that haven’t been prevalent for years. I felt like a traumatized pup that no one wants to adopt because it’s been “ruined.” Because it snips at reaching hands out of fear, remembering hands that once weren’t so kind. I felt ruined.

Then, two things happened. One (and I’m cautious to put this because it’s important to remember that any kind of medication is never a catch-all solution) I started taking medicine again for anxiety after running into (more than) a few medical insurance road blocks. Two, I realized that my panic rarely followed me to my place of work. And I really dwelled on that for a couple of days because according to, well, everything.. stress from work is one of the leading causes of anxiety in adults in the US. But I found myself staying late and coming in early just to sit a little longer in the embrace of safety. So what was that about? I surely worried that I wasn’t performing well enough, I had an extremely heavy workload, dead lines to meet, what have you. But I felt SAFE there. Safe being a key word for me because my anxiety is largely panic based with no obvious causation.

So why was I calmed in an environment made to be stressful, but panicking at home. Work was the only place I could go where I could truly get out of my own head and just be for a while. The thing about my mental illness is that I am obsessed with it. It occupies every pocket of my brain like smoke, always present in everything I do, which made my life feel like a constant to-do list. Maybe if I eat, I’ll feel less anxious. Maybe if I go for a walk, I’ll be okay. I didn’t do anything without the purpose of “feeling better” or “recovering” behind it. Nothing was for pure joy anymore. “If I play this video game, maybe it’s something I can grind until I’m so good and then.. and then.. and then..” I made myself into a project, instead of a person.

But I’m not a project. Self improvement is important, sure, but it’s equally important to do the things that you do because you genuinely enjoy them. Without concern where it’s going to take you in the future. Without obsessing over how it’ll impact my mental illness.

But changing the way your brain functions isn’t easy, which is why I’ve started looking for ways to get out of my own head. Like any other habit, it takes time to ingrain into my daily routine. For anyone who also struggles with feeling trapped inside their own mind, I’d love to hear what you do to shut yourself up. What do you do that is PURELY for the joy of it? What helps? Reach out to me and let me know.

A list of ways I escape my own head:

  1. First and most importantly, schedule time to let yourself really feel. This was recommended to me by a therapist a while back, but at the time I felt certain that I couldn’t “schedule my feelings.” But, turns out, you totally can. For me, I used to find time to sit by the water and check in with myself. Often, I cried or screamed or stomped. This was my designated time to FEEL. Once I started this process, it felt less like these emotions were just sitting under the surface. It’s okay to feel. It’s good to feel.
  2. Do things that appeal to your senses. Touch the things around you. Leaves on low hanging branches, hot pavement, chipped paint. Yes, you’re going to look like a weirdo rubbing against a tree trunk by yourself. Who cares. Be a weirdo. They don’t know.
  3. Go swimming in cold water. It’s really hard to think about how paranoid you are that everyone actually hates you when you’re swimming in cold water.
  4. Go on scavenger hunts and make art out of what you find. A collection of fabrics or odd knick-knacks. Take pictures of unique shadows on your skin. Hang it above your bed. Fuck Warhol, you’re a real artist.
  5. Listen to podcasts. And not just pretentious educational podcasts, listening to meaningless comedy hours or spooky stories. Laugh out loud at the funny parts. Create a happy energy within yourself. I hear this all the time: Other people are attracted to happy people. But don’t do it for the sake of others. Be attracted to your own happy self. (I also use podcasts when I’m having trouble sleeping. If you have someone else’s voice right in your ear, it’s hard to pay attention to your own racing thoughts.)
  6. Clean your sheets, do your dishes, wash your bathroom sink.
  7. If you have the funds, keep food around. Buy a cook book and work your way through it. Have you ever noticed how good it feels to really take care of yourself? You started to feel like someone worth being taken care of.
  8. Try not to rely on social media for validation.
  9. Try not to associate other people’s popularity on social media as them being more worthy than you. Everyone is fake on the internet. Consider someone you know very well. A best friend or a family member. Then consider how you would feel about them if you only saw them through their Instagram, twitter, what-have-you. Entirely different story, right?
  10. With the last two in mind, share things online! Our usage of the internet isn’t black and white, it doesn’t have to be either poison or antidote. There are plenty of communities to be found online. Find a site with people who also like your strangest niche interests and explore them.
  11. Take yourself dancing. (I’m still working on this one. I’ll keep you updated on how it goes. In the mean time, maybe just dance alone in your room like a teenager in a movie. It feels stupidly good.)
  12. Interact with strangers. When I used to work retail, something I would notice is how other employees would complain about elderly customers coming in and wanting to chat for long lengths of time. But I never understood the annoyance. Social skills are like a muscle that needs to be exercised less it become weak and you forget how to use it. More likely than not, you’ll be surprised who will chat with you. (I’m still working on this step, as well.)
  13. Create art that is just for you. Draw in your sketchbook without the intent of sharing it with anyone. Write a terrible poem. Paint. Do these things because they are fun, not because you want to “be better” at them.
  14. Listen to music all the time. Stupid, meaningless pop music, EDM, whatever. Stop wearing about if you’re listening to “”GOOD”” music.

 

A

 

let me tell you about my morning

when i write my own story i am both storyteller and main character. i get to rewrite my narrative. i get to choose how to see my world. i get to open the door and invite you into my universe. 

im back in salem and it sits the same, like a heavy weight in my stomach or a feeling of being a little unseen: a window partially covered, a light flickering, a cloud over the sun. this morning especially so, though my friends are in the kitchen, though a breeze drafts through my room, though the day sits waiting for me to fill it.

something about overcast days and creaky houses reminds me of stress and sadness and im worried im letting so many people down. two days, two separate situations saying ‘im annoyed’ and ‘you messed up’ and im too sensitive for this. when people criticize i want to hide, i want to crawl under hills, i want to wrap myself in blankets and curl into a corner and feel the feelings and so this is what i do. with tea and candles and telling myself that when people are upset that doesnt mean im wrong. when people are upset, sometimes they are wrong. when people are upset, sometimes i need to take my own side

and the drama in me sighs out, oh, sometimes living is like being an open wound and the salt is just text messages and casual words and how can i be so thin-skinned in such a gouging world

and with that sentiment, sad-me leaves my little cocoon nest and goes into the kitchen and makes myself breakfast oats and tells the roommate whats on my mind. there was miscommunication with someone and its this whole thing and when i explain it he laughs and its so clearly ridiculous and i crack a smile and then we are both laughing and —

its not all so bad.

its not all so good, the world, our nation, right now. but its not all so bad, not all of it. not laughing over oatmeal and not me, at my core, and thats the fear, right?


so, anyways, ashley wrote about blogging and i tell you these little stories, these morning oats and little thought because

i write so that i can speak, i write so that i can see the words i need to read. when the world pulls me down and im confused and tense and disappointed in myself, i get levity. i get agency. when i write my own story i am both storyteller and main character. i get to rewrite my narrative. i get to choose how to see my world. i get to open the door and invite you into my universe.


i dont know if you see me as i want you to – as a friend, as someone doing their best, as someone constantly apologetic and trying to be kind, as a thinker and brave doer and all the things i like to think i am. i do know that i dont like opening up out loud, i stutter and sweat, i avoid hard conversations, and this is why i dont like telling someone off for blaming me for someone elses mess and this whole situation, but anyways, when i write

i want you to see how the corner feels when i wrap the yellowstone-green blanket around my body and sit in my too-tight hat from b and feel the comfort of walls close and warmth closer. i want you to see how i sit and think and ask myself whats happening in my heart and slowly the sun filters through the broken white window blinds onto the scratched up wooden floor and how i start to remember all the wonder that is me and my life. i want you to taste the oats as i eat them slightly under-cooked in a too-hot-to-hold metal bowl and talk through my mouthful to caden and the sun shines a bit more inside me too.

i write so i can feel, and so you can feel it, too.

-h

 

 

 

cheap metaphors for why my life is like a big bowl of mac n cheese

  1.  mac is SO tasty and delicious, but if you eat too much you get sick. see, even good things have to have limits and end. see, you can’t always have the good-and-delicious or you’ll feel a bit sick and tired. see, it’s going to be okay that i’m leaving my wonderful life here
  2. mac is so cheesy and so am i
  3. a good bowl of mac doesn’t come out of a Kraft Macaroni box. real good mac takes a trip to the store, a big gallon of milk, shredding all the cheese, using the oven and the stove, remembering the spices (even the mustard), and cutting up that onion. mac takes time, effort, planning. wow, just like life!
  4. mac is great at any time of day or night, but the best bowls of mac are always shared. think of a blustery autumn evening, red leaves and cold winds outside, warm mac in a big bowl on the table, and your best friends sitting with you, laughing, joking, eating that mac. just like macaroni, life is best when you share it with others.
  5. macaroni is perfect after a long day of school, and a nice baked mac n cheese blends in perfectly in the high-class restaurant. mac for breakfast? no problem. late night drunk mac n cheese? beautiful. just like me, just like my new jacket, macaroni knows that it is versatile and suited for many different situations. this isnt a mac identity crisis, macaronis just flexible!
  6. ashley rose made me macaroni, just like shes made my life this summer warmer, cheesier, happier, and all around more amazing. i love my macaroni and i love ashley rose! thanks for the laughter and meals and fun in the sun, thanks for the mac and the humor and cleaning the shower! thanks for being just as fantastic as a huge bowl of mac n cheese!
  7. and sometimes, you only have time to make a quick bowl of easymac in the microwave, and sometimes you have to write pretty quick and not-that-special blog posts. this is my easy mac. itll do for now.

a practice in assertiveness

these are the words I haven’t spoken but I must, the ones that say I cant and wont be quiet anymore, theres too much living to do, theres too much to me to hide

while you’ve been out

ive been growing like a plant from the dirt, like a forest after fire, like pain back to brilliance

but have you noticed – whats happened to me?

where there were scars there are smiles, where there was insecurity there is solid foundation, where there has been shakiness and fear and anxiety there is all of that but now there is power, there is voice, there is strength

and

do you know me

hi, im heather

hi, I love to climb straight-up hikes, switchbacking to the heavens, sweat teasing my mouth with saltiness, mountain views that make me cry, I love hopping rivers rock-by-rock, I love resting at the top for hours to take in the beauty of the challenge, I love running back down the mountain, and I love

risk. in many forms. it makes me feel alive.

and I love dancing, did you know that? I could dance for hours, the beat in my bones and the joy of movement in my body, I love dirt-bass-grime beats, I love headbanging and intoxication, I love losing myself in a crowd, I love bonding with strangers through our excitement for zomboy and troyboi and porter, I love seeing that side of humanity that’s dying for connection and something deeper and finds it in light shows and notes and harmonies and sounds that resonate in my rib cage

and I love

laughter – over nothing, over ourselves, over life. All the time, the more laughs the better. I don’t care what we look like, laughing ourselves into oblivion, don’t you know this is the only way to scare away the shadows?

And I love

outside. Why eat a meal at the table when I have a dock? Why would I sit inside when the door opens out, why would I listen to microwaves and laundry-machines when there are birds chirping and waves crashing and sun to feel and flowers to smell? There are sunsets to fall asleep to and moons to wonder at and I want to know where the clouds are blowing to and what animals live under the dock and why the spider lives in my car and how to grow my plants as tall as me and nothing is more magic than the fern bush outside this window or the seal chasing fish through the ocean or three bald eagles swooping over me as I float on my back in the middle of the lake

And I love the wind in my hair, on my bike, out of car windows, in little mototaxis through the jungle

And I love travel – by myself – I love the joy of a bus ride to anywhere along twisty dirt mountain roads, no railings, no one expecting me, just views to inhale and people to meet and lives to imagine

And I love my job and my future – I think if I follow my joy it will lead me to a career that will make things better and that’s already happening and I knew that I was on track and now its panning out, really

And I love who I am, right now, always. I love who ive become and I love this life I am leading and I cant bring myself to apologize for any of it, for the smile as I push up the mountain trail, for the joy of late-night pie and morning-after stomach aches, ill always want to run away and lay in the sun by myself, and blast flosstradamus as I drive through the smoky city skylines and wonder at the end of the world, every day is magic and im in love with life.

And I love to write because this is who I am, these are the words I haven’t spoken but I must, the ones that say I cant and wont be quiet anymore, theres too much living to do, theres too much to me to hide, I don’t care about documenting the moments I just want to drink them in like water on a hot day, and I cant think of anything more radical than saying,

here I am! this is me! listen up, I say ‘no’ now!

And I laugh at silly dogs and I laugh at myself and I eat ice cream six days a week. I write every day and I meditate as much as I can and I like slow yoga and books and feminist television and I just cant be mad about things much, except for when its invalidating me

And I feel this depth of pride and happiness and I think its something like self-esteem, do you see?

Because I love all of these things and I am proud of them.

I love all of these things and I love me.

slices, how to make this place our home

We had pie. All of us, I mean. Feeling vaguely reminiscent of a large family gathering, with all the windows and doors open to let in the newly August air, we gathered around the oven and shared large scoops of vanilla ice cream that melted almost immediately. In the background, everything hurt a little less, but in the way a computer updates without you even noticing. You used to have to tell your computer: yes, now is the time to move forward! But now, it all just happens automatically. 

We had pie. All of us, I mean. Feeling vaguely reminiscent of a large family gathering, with all the windows and doors open to let in the newly August air, we gathered around the oven and shared large scoops of vanilla ice cream that melted almost immediately. In the background, everything hurt a little less, but in the way a computer updates without you even noticing. You used to have to tell your computer: yes, now is the time to move forward! But now, it all just happens automatically.

“I’m going to drink my ice cream.” one of us declared, before immediately doing just that. We all validated the decision with heavy enthusiasm.

It was blueberry. The pie, I mean. I think this detail is important for you to know.

Perhaps, you’ve been here before. Swaddled by cigarette smoke and people. Everyone takes carefully constructed bites because the pie has become an event. Something we all want to acknowledge that we appreciate out loud.

‘We took it out too early.’

‘But, you know what, I like it that way! It’s better this way anyway. Our imperfect, perfect pie.’

How easy is suddenly felt to be alive. I recently read an article on nostalgia and how it relates to food (read it here) and I wondered if I’d spend my entire life trying to recreate this slice of pie. Would I be on my deathbed one day thinking, “Life peaked at blueberry pie.”

(Writing this now, I snap the elastic band on my wrist once against my flesh. A trick my therapist recommended. I’m unclear about the details of when you’re actually supposed to snap it, but the right moments seem to present themselves to me like they’re scheduled. Snap to life, snap to reality.

Like children, we hesitated going to bed that night, staying up well past our usual bed times for no reason at all. Long past the end of conversations. Occasionally someone might say, “I should go to bed” without getting up, without even the intention of getting up. There were eight of us, then, suddenly, seven, six, five.. (I like to think of Bowie counting down in Space Oddity)

Then, without our consent, the night became early morning and there was only two of us left. Warriors waging a one sided battle against time.  I concentrated on keeping every muscles in my body steady, thinking I could become stuck in time if I was careful enough. But even still, my heart pulsed, my nails grew, my lungs expanded and then contracted. A busy highway pretending to be still water.

I’ve eaten blueberry pie before. It’s tasted like familiar stains in old carpet, the heat of Illinois in the summer right before a big storm, pulling folding chairs out of the garage so everyone has a place to sit. It’s been many things. Frequently, it tastes like a beginning and an ending all in one slice. Like, “Why haven’t we done this before? We’re alive every single day, but we only eat blueberry pie on special occasions.” Like, “Let’s start having pie for breakfast!”

I’m going to eat pie again, though I can’t tell you exactly which flavor yet. But when I do, it’s going to taste brand new, and it’s going to taste like a home, and hopefully then I’ll turn to you and say:

‘We had pie. All of us.’

A