the lexicon devil

Thursday, May 9, 2019

How Bullet Journaling Helps Me Get the Upper Hand on My Anxiety

Anxiety has always been a part of my life.  I have vivid childhood memories of fixating on schedules and being apoplectic over last-minute changes of plans. As I have gotten older, I've remained as high-strung as ever, but I have adopted some strategies that help make my condition manageable.  One strategy I have developed to help organize my frantic thoughts, my goals, as well as my personal and professional obligations is through bullet journaling.

Bullet journaling has come to mean many things to lots of people over the past few years.  As I use it, bullet journaling is an exercise in mindfulness, organization, and ad hoc scrapbooking.  Over the past year, the practice has been a saving grace for my frayed nerves.

But what is a bullet journal?  What does it look like?  Again, this can vary between journalers.  I construct my bullet journals from 7.75 in x 5.75 in dot-grid layout journals that I buy from Michael's.  For each month of the year (or each month that will fit into a journal), I have a monthly-view layout with a designation section for me to record a list of appointments I have throughout the month.

Additionally, I have separate layouts for each week of the month.  My weekly layouts have spaces for each workday and one combined slot for the weekend.  Within these weekly layouts, I have included a mini-monthly calendar (for reference), an inspirational quote, and two daily habit trackers (my mood and the glasses of water I drink).

After the weekly layouts for each month, I have a page where I list my monthly goals, another page where I reflect on how the month went, and an "in review" page where I usually record the month's highlights-- including any events I went to, books I read, or films that I saw.

So, as I use it, my bullet journal is like a homemade, suped-up day planner.

Whenever I have an appointment or deadline, I draw a tickbox and record the event in my weekly layout (I've always loved the satisfaction of ticking items off a to-do list).  If something great, or worth remembering down the line occurs, I also record it in my bullet journal, usually drawing a cloud around the event to differentiate it from a task to complete.

Some bullet journalers incorporate elaborate lettering and illustrations in their layouts.  That is so not my style.  I prefer functionality and limit my decorative touches to washi-tape accents on the margins of my layouts, using the same pattern of washi-tape to visually differentiate one month from another.

Bullet journaling has been a productive exercise for me in many ways.  The physical and mental labor of planning and constructing my journals has been very grounding, keeping me present and in-the-moment, though suitably distracted, through several challenging periods over the past year.  Sometimes I feel paralyzed by anxiety and find it nearly impossible to do anything but lay in bed; however, while at some of my lowest points, I have been able to collect the energy to zone out and work on a layout.  With that being said, I fully accept that there are going to be times where all I am capable of doing is curling up beneath my tranquility blanket; but, if I can use my literal downtime constructively, I want to

One of the most useful aspects of my bullet journaling practice has been habit tracking.  As I mentioned before, I track my daily water consumption and my moods, which gives me a pretty black-and-white idea of how I am doing with self-care and gives me data that I can then take back to my mental health care professionals.  When you're going to a psychiatrist or a therapist regularly, it is often difficult to remember how long you have been feeling a certain way.  Anxiety and depression lie to you, convincing you that have always felt poorly and will never feel good again . . . mood tracking provides you with quantitative evidence to the contrary. [Note: I have since moved away from tracking my emotions daily and have since moved to a weekly rating system, rating my overall week from 1-10].

Though it isn't a substitute for quality medical treatment of a chronic health condition, bullet journaling has helped me be more mindful about my health and proactive about staying on top of my responsibilities.
Tuesday, May 7, 2019

This Isn't Fine, #2: What a Triggering Event Looks Like for Me

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States.  I have been candid about my own mental health struggles over the years and I thought now was as good a time as any to share a post I've been meaning to publish for a while.  Own-voices narratives are an important part of breaking the social stigma around mental illness and, for the culture, here is mine.  Written several weeks ago, today's post discusses Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as I experience it and how, even though I am in treatment, the condition continues to impact my life.  

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a chronic illness that has been a popular subject of public discussion since the dawn of the new Millenium.  Often, these conversations consider the ways in which combat veterans, returning home from war, have been emotionally (in addition to physically) scarred by their experiences in battle.  The emotional wounds our veterans carry are extensive, and our governments doing precious little to provide them with the medical support they need (and were promised).

Our veterans are not the only walking wounded in our society.  According to the Sidran Institute, at any given time 5% of the American public, approximately thirteen million people, are dealing with PTSD.  It is further estimated that 8% of American adults will develop PTSD during their lifetime.  However, despite the prevalence of PTSD in American society and the term's frequent, if colloquial use, in conversation, PTSD is a widely misunderstood diagnosis.

The Mayo Clinic explains that PTSD is "a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event."  Common symptoms of PTSD include intrusive memories, avoidance, as well as changes in one's physical and emotional reactions.  Symptoms can appear within a month of the triggering event(s) or even years later.  Furthermore, The Mayo Clinic notes, "[t]hese symptoms cause significant problems in social or work situations and in [interpersonal] relationships.  They can also interfere with your ability to go about your normal daily activities."

I was diagnosed with PTSD in my late 20s after a traffic accident, but I had truly been grappling with the aftermath of trauma since childhood.  While I am not going to hash out the specifics of my own traumatic experiences, I am willing to discuss some of my triggers, which include: having my personal space violated, unsolicited touching, inebriated people who violated my boundaries, as well as any form of aggressive or abusive behavior (particularly from men).

For the most part, I am able to keep my PTSD in check with medication, psychotherapy, and a fair amount of self-care.  Even though I am usually able to keep myself safe, I periodically experience triggering events that that throws off my hard-fought, yet delicate, balance.

As a matter of fact, I am currently trying to find my grounding after a recent troubling event.  Since so few examples of contextualized triggering events exist outside of the sensationalization depictions in the media, I thought it might be a good idea to talk through a recent triggering experience I have had.

A few weeks ago, I went to see my favorite band play live at one of my favorite local venues.  I was excited to see the band, it had been almost three years since I had last seen them play and I was excited to share the experience with my significant other.  When I have seen the band live in the past (including at the same venue), the performances were energetic, the crowd was enthusiastic, but the show wasn't overly raucous, no one became violent, and the inebriated concertgoers kept their messiness within the party they came with.  This time it was different.

Perhaps the concert was poorly timed, at the end of Spring Break for several local colleges; perhaps some attendees had been on a bender since St. Patrick's Day (the previous weekend).  In any event, things went south very quickly after the main act took the stage.

My significant other and I were in the middle left of the general admission area.  Not long after the headliners took the state, several college-age young men took to dancing aggressively around us, pogoing wildly and catapulting themselves forward toward the stage.  One guy behind me kept dancing so close to me that he was rubbing his groin area against my backside; even if you are "caught up in the music" it should dawn on you that rubbing yourself against someone you don't know's backside is off-limits.  Again, we were in the general admission area so there wasn't any room for me to move away from the jerk without being trampled.  More than once, I turned around, shot the guy an ugly look and told him to back-off; eventually, I ended up donkey-kicking the creep . . . but he continued to violate my space.  Finally, I asked my boyfriend (who is well over six feet tall and rail thin) to stand behind me so I had a buffer between me and the booty brusher.

When space allowed, we tried to move farther away from the rowdier segments of the crowd.  Despite these efforts, a barrage of dudebros violently pushed themselves forward, nearly pitching me, my boyfriend, and several other people over in the process.  Then one of these frat boy projectiles proceeded to "dance" by repeatedly slamming into my right side, bouncing against my boob in the process.  At this point, I was already on edge from the booty bouncer and the flying dudebros, so this latest violent interaction left me feeling violated, and I just wanted it to stop.

My hurt, my panic, and my fear narrowed my focus.  I became a feral version of myself, fighting my way out of a situation where I feel trapped and in imminent danger, throwing elbows at my latest assailant and unleashing an eviscerating blue streak that would have made George Carlin blush.  At that moment, I felt outside of myself, shaking with rage and fear; I tried to move further away from the widening fracas, but the heaving crowd only gave way so much.

About half-way through the set, as I stood in a controlled internal panic a full-on mosh pit broke out on my right.  It was like the ground opened up and the inhabitants of a Hieronymous Bosh painting spilled out on to the floor.  All hell broke loose.

Mind you, this wasn't the Warped Tour in 1999 or a Limp Bizkit show in the early aughts, it was an indie rock show in one of the most gentrified corners of California.  My previous experiences seeing the band (including at THE SAME VENUE) did not prepare me for the bad dudebro mojo of this show.  I can totally accept fans getting caught up in the moment, or being overtaken by the music (or the booze).  By all means, jump up and down, throw your arms up into the air, just don't throw them (or yourself) at me.

A few weeks on, there remains a number of things about my concerting going experience that bothers me. First of all, I was surprised at the lack of security within the venue.  At other shows I have been to, crowd surfers and would-be-slam dancers were pulled by security and escorted away.  The only time I saw security intervene during the show was when a concertgoer smoking what I suspect was a PCP-laden joint took a faceplant right in front of me (y'all haven't seen Friday and it shows).  Otherwise, it was a dudebro free-for-all and I couldn't have identified security staff for love or money.

What bothers me most, actually, was the way in which my space and requests to be left alone and out of the fray were ignored.  This concept is hardly new to any woman who dares to occupy public space-- on mass transit, in a professional conversation, at a party, in line at the grocery store.  We can be present in a space, but it is not ours to occupy; we don't even have purchase over what is happening to our physical selves within public space.  While personal space at a concert is understandably diminished, it does not disappear.  No matter the context,  you should be able to tell someone "stop smacking my butt" or "do not touch my chest and refrain from elbowing me in the rib cage." It should not matter how caught up in the moment you may think you are, you are not excused from consent-derived contact.  Full stop.

After the show, when the crowd finally gave way and I was able to scramble out onto the rainy streets, I was inconsolable.  I cried most of the way home.  I felt physically violated, verbally threatened, and skittish about going to any show in the foreseeable future.  In the weeks since I have been actively trying to separate my favorite band's music from the behaviors of some of their fans.  I have loved this band for years and their music has been an integral part of my life for a long time; if their music were to become a trigger for me, that would be a major emotional blow.

This experience is characteristic of what triggering events look like for me.  One or (usually) more of my triggers are activated: I get scared/ angry/ panicked; I lash out verbally, or if the situation escalates, physically. I become emotionally numb with adrenalin until I am able to escape the situation. When the adrenalin wears off, and the numbness subsides, I am back in my emotionally wracked body, once again marooned on my historic traumatic landscape.

That's the thing about having PTSD, it isn't that you are "overreacting" to an upsetting event; rather, like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, you become unstuck in time.  The new events set off old traumas like blast caps in your psyche.  And you're pulled back. Back through time. Back through past traumas.  Old wounds split open as new ones bleed.  PTSD is a palimpsest of trauma.

Living with the condition, like any other chronic illness, can place major limitations on your day-to-day life.  In many cases, the effects of PTSD are not visible and our suffering is not apparent until we are already in distress.  With thirteen million people among our ranks nationally, it isn't too much to expect civility, kindness, and compassion in public life. For many of us, our wellbeing depends upon this. 
Thursday, March 7, 2019

This Isn't Fine

In January, while combing through years of archives, I noticed that I had written more openly and frequently about my mental health in the earlier days of this blog than I have in more recent times.  This isn't to say that I have undergone a miraculous biochemical bootstrapping and have fought my way back from the emotional hinterlands.

Quite the contrary.

The past few years have been very difficult . . . even if my digital presence and day-to-day life seemed to paint a different picture.  Like the happy-go-lucky dog in the meme, sipping his cup of coffee while surrounded by flames, I subordinate or just plain ignore difficult emotional situations.  Until I can't.  Save the odd nihilistic social media post here or a claim to be "screaming on the inside" accompanied by a sfumato smile there, I find it difficult to communicate my feelings to others. It's all very Irish-American of me: cloak my feelings in dark humor or just angrily deny their existence.  Really, I can't fault anyone for failing to notice that I feel miserable fairly regularly-- I make a damn good joke about depression, after all.

But, here's the thing: I'm not okay.

Many behavioral health professionals demure when asked by their clients to "label"  them with a diagnosis.  While this has historically been true of my clinicians, I am generally categorized as having anxiety and depression.  Both are chronic health conditions that have run in my family for generations.  This genetic predisposition to mood disorders has been exacerbated by challenging circumstances.  I do not remember a time when "not okay" wasn't my default emotional setting.

Yet, despite my challenges, I am very lucky: I have almost always had empathetic clinicians who have listened to me and helped me manage my care, even when I haven't been in a state to do so myself; I have quality health insurance, and I take medication to (mostly) stabilize my condition.  I fully recognize that my neurodiversity is privileged, but that doesn't mean I am okay.

I'm functional. I'm not okay.

I'm only on speaking terms with one relative (my mom, who's great and whom I am very close to) and I don't have a wide social network beyond a few work friends and my partner (who is also great and my best friend, to boot).  But, the people I am closest too have their own burdens to bare and I am reticent to lean on them during my low points.  So, I keep most of what I am feeling to myself: I hibernate,  I zone out on my phone, I get hyper-focused on work,  I read (when I can focus),  and I generally I do what I can to distract myself from how miserable I feel.

The problem with the "distraction defense" is that, sooner or later, your sublimated emotions will reorganize and manifest themselves.  Each time they return, it harder and harder to recalibrate and maintain the appearance of normalcy.

Over the past three years, I have lost three beloved four-legged companions to sudden and aggressive diseases.  Despite vigilance, proactive measures, and seeking the best treatment available, I was powerless to stop the progression of their fatal illnesses.  That sense of powerlessness is hard to bear.

No matter what some [terrible people] might say, pets are treasured members of your family and I would have been equipped to lose human family members, who-- save for one-- I do not have a relationship with-- than to have lost my furry companions.  I could make peace with the loss of someone who never cared for me; but the loss of the unconditionally loving of fur-son, multiple times over, in a short period of time, is completely intolerable.

To complicate matters, these losses have occurred while other areas of my life have been in chaos.  For the past few years, I have struggled with chronic pain (the sources of which I am still working with doctors to pinpoint); have tried to mediate the needs of my close group of loved ones who have all been struggling in their own ways; have worked two jobs; and have taken classes on the side to keep myself "intellectually busy."  By the end of the day, I am so consumed by mediating other's feelings and needs, and distracting myself from my own, that I am completely empty.

So, where does this leave me now?

My birthday is next week.  I'm in my mid-thirties.  I really should have some aspect of life figured out, but I do not.  I make small plans for the future in the hope that I am able to stumble my way towards them, to add some dimension to what feels like an amorphous existence.

I'll try to get healthier.  I'll try to keep moving forward.  For now, I'll try. 
Thursday, January 24, 2019

Three Qualitative Reading Goals for 2019

For 2019, I have kept my GoodReads Reading Challenge goal the same as it was for 2018, forty books.  I know that reading forty books is a do-able goal, a stretch that is within my reach, albeit with some concerted effort.

I'm a tick-the-boxes sort of person by nature, so having a number to shoot for is important to me psychologically; however, I decided that the number of books that I read in 2019 was going to be secondary to the quality and breadth of my reading.  As I've gotten older, I have started to realize that what I am reading is more important than how much I am reading.

Looking back over my reading stats for the past few years, I have settled on a few qualitative reading goals that I think will broaden my literary horizons.

Read chunkier books.  Last year, the longest book I read (I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara) was just over three hundred pages.  I tend to shy away from bigger books because I worry that they will slow-down my pace.  This *fear* has inadvertently meant that I have picked up fewer nonfiction books in recent years that I would like.  There are a few doorstops that I want to make my way through in 2019 and I am determined to not let their length deter me.

Read more translated fiction.  As someone who buys a lot of books, I think it is important to put my money where my values are.  I believe literature in translation gives readers a window into the subjective experiences of populations they do not belong to.  Over the past couple of years, I have collected a fair few books by authors from Latin America, Asia, and Africa and I am planning on diving into them this year.

Read the books I already have . . . before I add more to my library. I don't believe that a person can own too many books.  With that being said, I own a lot of books and there are well over a hundred (or two-- yikes!) on my shelves that I either haven't read or haven't finished.  Starting in February I am going to be putting myself on a book-buying-ban, allowing myself to only buy as many books as I am able to finish (or purge) from my collection in a month.

What are some of your qualitative reading goals for 2019?  Let me know on the 'gram @thelexicondevil.
Monday, January 21, 2019

Daily Life As I Live It #1

Last week, I was combing through the archives of this blog (and its earlier iterations), for a long-overdue tidy.  As I looked back at some of my earlier posts I noticed that when I was blogging the most, I was writing about my life and mental health more often.  These posts may not have had the same reach other review-based posts, but they were cathartic to write at the time.  Though, to be honest, I don't have the courage to go back and read them.

Throughout my life, I have dealt with difficult situations by compartmentalizing my feelings and, in true Irish-American fashion, putting them into a little box that I smash into the farthest corners of my psyche.  I've never been great about communicating my feelings verbally, either.  Writing about how I feel is about as close to emotional expression as I have been able to allow myself, but it's an outlet I haven't allowed myself for a long time.  I've decided to change that.

Over the weekend, I learned that one of my loved ones is in fragile health and that we don't have as long together and I thought we would.  This news reiterated to me not only how tenuous life can be, but also my need to express my feelings in the best way I know how.  To write them.

I don't know what the coming weeks and months have in store for me, for my family, but I know that I can't put it in a box and hide it from myself.  I'm going to need to write about it.  So, as I can, as I need I will.

Fair warning: it's going to periodically get emotional around these parts.
Thursday, January 17, 2019

Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

One of my reading highlights of 2018 was Sayaka Murata's Convenience Store Woman (translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori).  Originally published in 2016, Convenience Store Woman won Japan's prestigious Akutagawa Prize and was then accompanied by a great amount of hype upon its English publication.  Usually, I am wary of hyped-up books (I'm still mad about John Burnside's The Dumb House, btw) but the premise of this one piqued my interest.

Keiko, the titular woman, began working part-time at the convenience store while she was in college.  Throughout her life, Keiko always struggled to fit in with her peers or appropriately read social situations she found herself in.  In Japanese society, which Murata depicts as valuing conformity, Keiko's quirks make her both an anomaly and the subject of great concern.

When she begins working at the convenience store, Keiko is given an employee handbook which provides her with the one thing her life had been missing: explicit instructions for comportment and a purpose in life.  Though the job is low-status and part-time, Keiko works in the store for decades, seeing colleagues and managers come and go, placing the smooth operation of the store above all.

Keiko's work becomes her life's purpose.  However, when her devotion to her work begins to draw the unwanted attention of a group of high school friends, Keiko finds herself making an arrangement of convenience that could potentially upset the fine balance she has been able to strike.

Convenience Store Woman is a compact volume whose simple premise belies a deeper social message.  Keiko's story is as much about the toxicity of the "timeline myth" and social conformity as it is about her line of work or the purpose she derives from it.  In Keiko, many 30-somethings, myself included, will find shades of their own life: despairing at not keeping pace with your peers, feeling obliged to make excuses for why you haven't progressed professionally, the cringe-inducing feeling discussing your personal life (or lack thereof) with people you only see a few times a year.

The novel was one of the highlights of my 2018 reading and I cannot recommend it enough.
Monday, January 14, 2019

Bringing Up the Backlist: Five Books I'd Like to Get to in 2019

There are enough books stacked around my room to build a fallout shelter.  Try as I might, I am never able to get through all of the books I add to my personal library every year: blame my sluggish reading pace, the pressures of work and LIFE, or my compulsive Amazon purchases (don't judge--respect my journey!).  Though I am spoiled for choice, there are five books that I definitely want to get to sooner, rather than later,  in 2019.

McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh| Last week, Penguin Books reissued Ottessa Moshfegh's 2014 Believer Book Award-winning novella McGlue in a striking paperback edition.  Set in 1851, the work follows the titular character as he sobers-up to some disturbing memories of his drunken antics.  The book sounds (and looks, tbh) sinister as fuhhhhk and I can't wait to tuck into it.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Translated by Misha Hoekstra) | In 2019 I want to make a concerted effort to read more work in translation and this work in translation about a translator just seemed too meta to not dig into.  The novel was a 2017 finalist for the Man Booker International Prize and is published by one of my favorite independent publishers, Graywolf Press.  Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is about Sonja, a Danish woman who translates Swedish crime novels and is dissatisfied with her lonely life in Copenhagen.  In an effort to make changes in her life, Sonja reconnects with family and begins to learn how to drive, the latter of which is made more complicated by Sonja's vertigo. Moody, broody, and Scandi this one has my name on it.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (Translated by Ann Goldstein) | I have been meaning to come back to the Neapolitan Novels since I read and loved My Brilliant Friend a few years ago.  2019 is the year I want to continue and maybe even complete the series . . . even if the covers are a bit cringe.

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Kranostein | The Trauma Cleaner is a biography of Sandra Pankhurst, a trans-woman who lived an eclectic life before finding her calling as the titular trauma cleaner.  Despite its grim title, the book is meant to be a life-affirming look at our shared humanity.  I actually owned a copy of the book before it was available in the states, but the heaviness of the title and the general heaviness of 2018 made me reticent to pick it up until recently.

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling | The Golden State was a novel I first learned about on several "Best of 2018" lists and is meant to be about a young single mother who leaves in Bay Area to live in the high desert.  Perhaps because of the geographic similarities, the book reminded me of Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room, one of my favorite reads of 2018, and I instinctively (read: impulsively) bought it.

What books are on your reading shortlist?  Let me know on Instagram @thelexicondevil.