September: On Connection.

If you have an extremely active mind and low boredom tolerance, a psychiatric hospital is a terrible place to be.  During one dreadful week in October 2013, I kept myself sane in such a place by inventing stacks of paperwork to do.  Mostly in crayon, or if I stumbled on a lucky find, a blunt golf pencil.

I took all the Official Worksheets provided by the hospital and dutifully filled them out.  When I ran out of those, I made my own.  I doodled.  I wrote down prayers I’d memorized long ago.  I made charts and graphs.  And of course I did what I do whenever I get upset and overwhelmed: I made lists.  Lists of what was bothering me.  Lists of what I needed to do to fix it.  Only instead of “clutter in bedroom closet” and “ask doctor about diaper rash” this time the lists held entries like, “paranoia in group social situations” and “leave house at least once per month.”

It’s this paper, though, that gets me the most.  This is the one I look at now and then to remind myself how far I’ve come.

supportsystem

 

Now, less than three* years later, I could rattle off a dozen names for that list, easily.  People I know are there for me, a veritable mini-Rolodex I can sort through when I need just a few minutes to vent or a bit of advice.

If suicidal people have one thing in common, it could very well be a sense that there is no one left to turn to.  None of us choose to end our lives as a first resort.  I would posit that the number one thing we can do to improve our mental health, all of us, is to beef up our support systems.

…She says blithely, as though the Mishell Baker of September 2013 had never had the thought, “Gee, I wish I had more friends.”

Quite the contrary.  That Mishell spent a lot of time telling anyone who’d listen (a rapidly diminishing number) how lonely she was, how misunderstood, how adrift on a sea of broken dreams.  She was really fun to hang around with; I can’t imagine where all her friends went.

I jest (cruelly), but it’s a vicious cycle.  The lonelier you get, the more depressed you get, and the more depressed you get, the more toxic you become to other people’s mental health.  Soon you forget how human interactions are supposed to work.  You watch people forming and maintaining friendships around you and marvel at it as though it were something alien and incomprehensible.  What are they doing?  Why does this work for everyone but me?

invisiblecube

Sitting there in that hospital with my golf pencil and paper, I realized that I was going to have to relearn from square one.  It became clear to me that as an extrovert, my lack of meaningful social connection–my feeling of living in a transparent cube impenetrable by myself or others–was the single most toxic factor in my mental health, and that I had to prioritize fixing it above anything else in my life.  Yes, even above being a decent mother to my children (my reasoning: a neglectful mother was probably better than a dead one).  I had a terminal illness whose only cure was making some damned friends.

As soon as I got out of that place, I signed up for a regular volunteer gig, just to get me out of the house.  Mostly dealing with children, since that I already knew how to do, but there was an adult in charge I got to practice making small talk with twice a week.

I studied social interaction with the sort of detached open-mindedness I would use for any subject of which I was ignorant.  I looked for people who were successful at it and tried to pick apart what they did, what made them likable.  I pulled out my neglected copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People.  Every time someone did something that charmed me, made me want to be around them, I took a mental note.  Do more stuff like that.

I re-taught myself how to be funny, by watching things that made me laugh, and analyzing them.  I re-taught myself to smile.  I asked people questions about themselves, even though I didn’t care about the answers (I was still nursing my own bitterness that no one cared about me).  Even as I resented that I was giving more than I was getting back, I kept giving.  Mechanically.  Relentlessly.  Stubbornly.

And somewhere along the way, something shifted.  Maybe I got a bit of affection back, and that put me in a better mood, and that made me find that I cared a tiny bit more, the next time, when I asked someone how they were.  And they picked up on that, and the warmth coming back became stronger, and started coming from more places.

Here I am, after three years, and I’ve become my mother, in a wonderful way.  (My mother is the kind of person who couldn’t wait for a bus without having three new friends before it came.)  I heard myself say on my way out of a shop, “You take care of yourself, now,” to the woman who works there.  Heard how much I meant it.  Heard how much I cared about the baby she was carrying, the one no one could tell existed by looking at her, but the one she’d announced to me the visit before — because I had made it so obvious every time I came in how much she mattered to me as a person, what she was doing that weekend, what her opinions were about things.  Maybe I was faking it at first, but I’m not anymore.

There’s a danger in caring about people, of course.  If something bad happens to this woman’s baby, that’s a new potential source of pain for me.  But the potential risk, especially if you care widely, is nothing compared to the immeasurable richness of an interconnected life.  Because when you do feel pain, there are people there for you to lean on, a variety of people, many of whom are feeling strong at the moment and aren’t worn out yet from hearing all the details of your last three problems.

I’m not saying we have to consider all people equal in our lives.  It’s fine to have a Best Friend Forever; I have one, too, and she’s often my first call when things go pear-shaped.  But if she’s stressed, or if I’ve already bent her ear twice this month, I’ve got other options, now.

Just making more friends didn’t fix everything that led me to that hospital, but it is what gives me the strength I need to make all the other (huge, sweeping, permanent) changes I needed to make in my life.  Because when my strength fails, there’s a net underneath me, and when I fall, I no longer have to climb all the weary jagged way back up alone.

* <3

August: On the Clarion Staircase.

In my husband’s and my conversations about various attempts at achievement and self-improvement, we talk about something I’ve dubbed the Clarion Staircase Effect.  I’ll explain why in a minute, but first I’ll give you the most recent example.

I’ve been studying Russian for going on five months now, using a textbook, various apps, and twice-weekly meetings with a Skype tutor. This is the fourth foreign language that I’ve studied with any seriousness, and I normally excel at it.  I mention this not to be immodest, but to explain why it was frustrating to me, after five months, to still feel as though I were doing math problems in my head when I tried to speak in Russian, rather than having even the beginnings of a fluid “feel” for the language.  Every week I would study, and every week I would show up at lessons with my tutor and absolutely flounder. The only phrases in Russian that came to me fluidly were “I don’t understand” and “I don’t remember the word,” and those only from overuse.

It wasn’t until last week that I realized my tutor was, intentionally or unintentionally, creating the Clarion Staircase Effect in the escalating content of our sessions.

You probably begin to understand what I mean, but I’ll explain explicitly anyhow.

When I attended Clarion in the summer of 2009, I was terribly out of shape.  I’d been more or less a shut-in for a couple of years before that due to mental health issues, and although I’d spent a few months pre-Claroin doing daily walks around the neighborhood to lift myself from a purely sedentary state to something more approaching human, I wasn’t prepared for the fact that every morning for six weeks I’d have to walk up to a classroom on the fourth floor.  I was also pregnant.

The first day of class, I was sweaty and gasping for air, heart pounding, worried for the health of my unborn child.  But by about week four, when I got to the top of the staircase I was… sweaty and gasping for air, heart pounding, worried for the health of my unborn child.

“This is so frustrating,” I confided to a classmate in week four as I sank miserably into a chair.  “I figured after nearly five weeks of daily cardio this would be at least a little bit easier.  And yet here I am, still gasping like a fish, just like the first day.”

“But have you noticed,” said my classmate, “that now you climb the stairs in about half the time?”

Oh.

I do this to myself chronically.  I set a Difficulty Level for a task in my head, and subconsciously I adjust the task so that it meets the expected difficulty level, rather than doing it the same way I did before and enjoying the pleasure of watching the difficulty drop.  This perpetual bar-raising is a wonderful way to get better at things, but it’s not a great way to feel good about yourself.  So sometimes I have to remind myself, if I don’t seem to be improving at a task, it may be that my standards are moving ahead of my capability like a carrot on a stick.

Writing the Arcadia Project series has been like that, too.  I keep asking myself why first drafts never get any easier, despite my confidence.  And then I remember that every book I write has a larger number of threads I’m trying to tie together, higher stakes, and more complicated networks of relationships.  I’m not satisfied with simply repeating what I’ve done before.  Every time I sit down to write a book, I want to push myself to the point just before giving up, because that way I know I’m growing as a writer.  The minute it starts to feel easy, I know I’m cheating myself out of an opportunity to grow.

What about you?  Do you do this to yourself?  Have you been doing it and not realizing it?  Or are you the sane type who lets yourself enjoy the fruits of your own self-improvement by setting yourself tasks you couldn’t have managed two years ago, but can now accomplish with ease?

Mailbox: Seven Decades

Thanks to my putting my mailing address “out there” prominently for anyone to find, I’ve begun to receive such truly remarkable letters on a regular basis that I think I’m going to have to make blogging about them a semiregular activity.  For a while I was contented with occasionally tweeting that I had received something that touched me, but then I received a letter from a 60+ year old woman in Idaho, and I realized that 140 characters wasn’t going to cover it.  I don’t have her permission to use her name, and don’t know how to contact her online, but I’ve asked permission in my reply to her letter, and so I’ll possibly edit this post later with a bit more about her.

I was intrigued before I even opened the card; it had a haunting photograph of misty trees pasted to the outside, created, I can only presume, by the author of the letter, as it was titled beneath: ” ‘ECHO’ – for Mishell Baker “.

This woman wrote a letter to thank me for having written Borderline, and somehow, it seemed, to thank me for simply existing.  It sounds strange, doesn’t it?  Excessive?  Except that this woman, better than anyone, must have known how valuable it is for me to receive reassurance that it’s okay for me to take up space.  She knew this because, like me, she has borderline personality disorder.  And somehow, miraculously, without the new tools we have to identify and manage the condition, she has survived into a seventh decade.

I’m not certain if she realizes how miraculous that is.  I fact I’m sure she doesn’t, given that she had written to me to congratulate me on something she considered a tremendous achievement.  All I did was write a book.  This woman has somehow not only survived past sixty without ever finding an understanding therapist, but also managed to find some kind of peace, after many harrowing decades that she only delicately alludes to:

“…after a long lifetime of moving around in hope of outrunning all that ailed me, I have finally grown roots and stayed put these last seventeen years; able to…make some real progress in the construction of self.”

My eyes fill with tears just reading this.  Can you even imagine?  To be a woman in her forties, carrying around (what I can only imagine must be) a string of broken relationships and abandoned careers, and to still have the courage to try again, to settle somewhere and begin the process of finding out who you are?  This woman attributed courage to me, but only I think because, as someone with BPD, she found it hard to recognize such a good quality in herself.  People with BPD are prone to idealizing others and belittling their own accomplishments (as well as the accomplishments of anyone foolish enough to love them).

It’s hard for me to express what it meant to receive this letter.  I never imagined that anything I might write or say, could move a person more than twenty years my senior to thank me.  If I ever nurtured fantasies of illuminating readers or changing their lives for the better, I always imagined lost souls in their teens or twenties who hadn’t yet reaped the benefit of surviving long enough to pick up a few tricks that pass for wisdom.

I don’t even remember now exactly what I replied to her, but I hope I said something to make it worth the effort she took in reaching out to me.

If you’d like to reach out, you may do so at 4960 W Washington Blvd; PO Box 78760; Los Angeles, CA 90016.