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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Who needs therapy? You do. Me too!

Someone I follow on Twitter said that it's National Mental Health Awareness Week. Since I hear that four or five times a year in different contexts, I'm not sure if it is or not. But whether that's true doesn't matter. Whenever people hear the phrase "mental health" they immediately begin to think of all the different diseases and syndromes that people who have "poor mental health" are labeled with. And all the stigmas that go along with it.

Because there are still a lot of stigmas. There are still a lot of people who think that unless you're certifiably insane, you can just get over it. Move on. Stop wallowing. My favorite is the phrase, "it's all in your head." You know what? They're right. It is all in my head. Because my head is where I keep my brain, and that's the organ with the problem.

And that, right there, is the cause of all the issues and problems people have in dealing with those who have a mental illness. They don't consider the brain as being just another organ, subject to the same frailties and imperfections as any other organ in the body. Diabetes is a group of metabolic diseases in which a person has high blood sugar, either because the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or because cells do not respond to the insulin that is produced. And yet no one tells a person with diabetes, "Suck it up. It's all in your pancreas." Would you tell someone with a heart defect, "You don't need those pills, just exercise more," or anything like that? Then why on earth does anyone feel qualified to say, "It's all in your head?"

I have been diagnosed with three different "It's all in your head" conditions in my life. When I was 19 I was diagnosed with depression. At 28 they added mild panic disorder. When I was 30 fibromyalgia was introduced into the mix. I've been told to, "just deal with it," "calm down," and "suck it up," by uninformed people who truly cared about me and wanted me to get better, but had no idea what was the matter. Thank heavens for my parents, who wanted me to get help.

And as if my heart had a murmur and I had to be careful with how I worked out or what I ate, with depression and anxiety and fibromyalgia I have to be careful with getting into bad habits and watch what I eat, and what stress I invite or avoid, and some days I have bad days anyway.

Which is why my chosen profession is so dangerous.

I entered The Darkest Lie in a contest for self-published or as yet unpublished books. The contest is called the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and they accept 10,000 entries. I feel like I may have talked about this before. I'm bringing it up again now because I entered my novel last month and they have already announced the 2nd round. My novel is really good- I'm very pleased with it and it's something I feel proud to share with others and I think I've mentioned before on this blog how passionately I would like to be a writer as a career. But for this first round they aren't judging my novel; the entire cut is based on a 300 word blurb you write about your novel.

If you've read my blog before, you know brevity isn't how I manage to make my point. I meander around it being repetitive for a while until I find the exact phrase I was looking for, or make it back to my original argument, and voila, I'm done. My talents lie in eloquence or my unnecessarily large vocabulary because they allow me to be exact. 300 words is hard. It's limiting. But it's done.

In the end, I wrote 3 blurbs. Then I allowed a small and easily accessible group of people to read them and vote on their favorite. This was the favorite:

He's electrocuted two grown men. He's knocked down a seven story building. He shoved a grenade into the mouth of an unconscious daemon and was ready to pull the pin. He's screamed defiance at the sky in the company of a jungle panther and a red imp, and done anything he needed to survive. But the thing Thane fears most is his sophomore chemistry class.

At 15, all Thane wanted was to be invisible for three more years. His one cardinal rule was, "If they don't see you they won't hurt you." And then one thing changed, and that was the catalyst for his chemistry teacher framing him for attempted murder, opening a door that led halfway around the world, getting drugged, getting shot, being imprisioned, getting shot again, and finding out that there's a hole ripped in the fabric of our reality where magic is seeping in. 

That one thing was, of course, a pretty girl. 

Now Thane is fighting to keep his humanity and questioning his sanity while everything he's ever believed is being proven wrong. He isn't invisible and he isn't powerless and he can hear the song that holds the universe together, but knowing that science and magic are two sides of the same thing isn't going to save him. The most powerful magic and the most advanced technology will fail and worlds will fall unless Thane can do one thing. He has to believe in a power that doesn't come from magic or machine, and let go of the darkest lie he's ever been told.

Of the 3 I wrote, this was the third and it was my favorite too. Surprisingly it clocked in around 250 words, making it not only the last pitch I wrote but the shortest by 50 words. Re-reading it now my stomach is clenching and the agitated shaking is revving up. I'm nervous because they're only taking 400 entries to the next round. That's 4%. Conversely, 96%of the people who entered this contest three weeks ago will not be making it to the next round. 

The first order of business for me is to stop freaking out about it. Entering this contest was one of those rare scenarios where I had everything to gain and nothing to lose, because the entries are confidential and there were no barriers to entry: no fee, no promises, nothing. If I check the website tomorrow and my name isn't on the list I lose nothing and I gain nothing and my life continues. The extreme emotional roller coaster comes from what the potential gain is- there are 5 categories and the winner of each category gets a $15,000 advance and a publishing deal with Amazon. But those 5 novels then go head to head, and the "Grand Prize Winner" gets the same publishing deal, but with a $50,000 advance.

Then there's the intangible: I'd be a writer as a career for the rest of my life. As a job. And I wouldn't ever have to worry about finding a different one. Job security in my lifelong ambition. 

What's the danger? Oh man, everything. And, by they way, when they announced the 2nd round I wasn't in it. That may have been because I entered it in the wrong category, and it may have been just because the blurb wasn't good enough. But the book review I received on the same day took the sting out of my loss a little bit. I've posted it on Facebook and on my author page before, but it said two things that really made my day. It said, "[The Darkest Lie] is the best contemporary fantasy book ever," and "... made this book my favorite read since 'Enders Game.' Sorry Orson, this woman's got serious chops." It helps that the book review was posted by a university reading professor, aka someone who reads books for a living. So I had a bright spot to balance the disappointment: I lost to people who didn't read the book and was given that praise from someone who did. 

Whereas I have several friends right now who are going through huge life-changing trials and wretchedness that are going to drastically alter their lives. I've found myself on the phone with one or the other of them several times over the last months and I've discovered that when I say my heart aches for them, I'm not speaking metaphorically. There is an actual pain in my chest. They talk to me about what's going on in their lives and what they have to deal with and I am grateful that they talk to me. Because of that trust, I'm not going into any specifics about who or what or anything. I want them to talk to me. I can't do anything to help their lives actually get better, but I can listen and sympathize and love. I am good at being reasonable and trying to see things objectively, and sometimes I help them feel a little better for a while. That's my win. That's what I can do.

But I find myself repeating to several of them the variations on the same phrase. It's a simple sentence, not insightful or eloquent in design. It's only, "(Insert Personal Pronoun) needs therapy." 

And let me also specify to any of those friends who might be reading this that you'll read something and you'll think I'm talking about you. I AM NOT. If you think I'm talking about you, then you're already wrong. I am giving personal thoughts on depressingly common situations, and I have not in the past two years had a conversation with someone about issues and trials and grief that isn't markedly similar to another situation I've heard or written or spoken about. If you find something personally applicable in this, hooray I've done my job as a writer. But I love my friends and my family passionately. Don't bother being offended because again, these are generics.

Enough caveating. 

He needs therapy. Sometimes I feel sorry for men, especially here in Western society where they're taught to bottle up emotion. Don't share, don't be weak, don't drag others down. Men generally are the providers for the family and they work increasingly long hours in our more and more competitive economy. Men form friendships and other personal bonds through time spent together doing the same thing, whether it be having dinner or playing a sport or watching TV. But they spend 60-70% plus of their waking hours at work. If he's unhappy or feels oppressed invariably he'll be told, by others or by himself, to man up and just get it done. If he doesn't have an outlet for that, for all that pressure from bosses and co-workers and spouses and children and himself, eventually he'll burst like a balloon that your cousin won't stop blowing into and just give you even though you asked him to please blow it up for you. 

People who care about him will talk to him about being unhappy in terms of action items, "If you'd just do this and this and this then you'd be fine." Okay, when someone is hurting and you respond with things they could improve on, you are telling them that they aren't okay and that they're right, they're a failure or weak or whatever. And can I take this aside for a second and talk about a personal pet peeve? A really big personal pet peeve, more pettish and peevey than almost any other peeve that I keep as a pet?

ULTIMATUMS ARE THE WEAKEST FORM OF NEGOTIATION. Mostly because they give no room for negotiation. Ultimatums are the dominion of the villan in a story. The good guys aren't the ones saying "Batman, you either give me your mask or I'm going to blow up this bus full of sick orphans." Ultimatums are also the purview of bad teenage relationships, "it's me or your friends." But when ultimatums are introduced into a relationship, any relationship, not just romantic but family or friends, you have to understand that you have crossed a line you can never take back. You are, at that moment, asserting that your will and desire are dominant over anything the other person could say or think or want. If you have come to the point where you see no other possible step but issuing an ultimatum, your relationship has deteriorated past any healthy point already. And it means that you've lost control and you're lashing out, desperately trying to get it back. 

There are absolutely situations where someone has lost control and needs to get some back. But any time you are seeking to control someone else, you are treading dangerous ground. Don't take it lightly and never in the heat of the moment.

Here, there's a whole wikihow on How to Give an Ultimatum. My advice though, is just don't. The moment you do, you're the bad guy. I'm much more in favor of co-operation and negotiation, where you give and take. But I do understand that life spins out of control sometimes and you have to take drastic measures to spin it back.

Anyway, tangent ended. Take away? Sometimes we need therapy just because we need someone to talk to who doesn't have any skin in the game. Someone who isn't going to be affected by our choices and so can afford to be objective. And someone we can be totally honest with without worrying about hurting their feelings or our words getting back to whomever we are talking about.

Honestly, how nice does that sound?

She needs therapy. I just finished reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy again. I don't recommend it, honestly I don't recommend any Tolstoy unless you have a passionate curiosity about the condition of Russia and specifically the Russian peasantry during the last few reigning Tsars, because Tolstoy was passionate about it and his characters discuss it at length every few chapters. However, the point of the story is Anna, a beautiful woman in a loveless marriage who leaves her husband to become a mistress. And all of her mental devolvement afterwards. She is terrified of losing her lover and becomes convinced he doesn't love her anymore, and if that's true, what can she do? She is lost. She can't go back to her husband and no one else will have her, and there is no work or position she can hold. And in the end (which means SPOILER ALERT but I'm only mentioning it at all because there was a movie based on the book that came out last year) she kills herself.

I can't speak for women everywhere, but I know that I'm plagued by insecurities. And sometimes I obsess. And usually the thing that I'm harping about the most inside becomes more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our insecurities can drive us crazy and drive the people around us over the edge too.

Most of us won't do anything that drastic, however, every woman in America is in the center of a maelstrom of emotions. We are pulled in every direction by our ever increasing responsibilities. If we're at work, we should be at home raising the children. If we're at home, we're lazy and not contributing to the economy. When we're at home, if we're doing laundry and washing dishes we're not paying attention to our children. If we're playing with our kids, then the housework isn't getting done. And then add to all that the pressure of being educated and intelligent and finding time to make and keep friends and reading books and having dinner ready and being a good wife while still finding time to volunteer and haven't you ever just wanted to scream, "Shut up and leave me alone!" to the world in general?

Never ever wonder why someone is crazy. Be impressed that they've managed to stave it off for so long. Therapy is again an outlet for emotions without repercussions, but it can also be something more.
Something a lot more. I think I've gone on long enough this time, but stay tuned for part two: You need therapy. I need therapy. Why does therapy work?

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