The Masks We Wear Over Depression and Anxiety

I am so grateful to all those who stopped by last week when I wrote about anxiety, and to those who commented with words of encouragement, told their own stories, and/or shared my post with others. The piece, to my surprise, was the most viewed post (in one day) that I have written on this blog.

Of course, me being me, I thought, Crap, I should have done a better job writing it. The topic is so vast, and my experience so entrenched, that I almost didn’t know where to start.

One thing that I have been wanting to write about – and I confirmed this after hearing the stories of friends and readers – is the mask that so many of us battling depression and anxiety feel compelled to wear. The outer us and the inside us. The visible versus the hidden.

Story after story shocked me, because never in a million years would I have guessed that these people struggled with something as debilitating as anxiety and/or depression: dedicated parents, a head of department, a published author, Ph.D. students, a passionate college instructor, a high-end New York designer, a top-ranking management consultant.

The irony is that others might say the same about me. I’ve got the elite names on my resumé to project a certain kind of image, and I’ve been described as “fierce” and as driven and confident. I’m both flattered and amused by the descriptions, unsure about their accuracy.

My self-image is distorted, of course, by my personal knowledge of my struggles. I admit to somewhat dismissing or at least downplaying my strengths and achievements because I experience, sometimes at a high level, the human emotions of insecurity and fear. Maybe we are shocked when we learn about “successful” people suffering because we believe achievement and anxiety (and depression) to be mutually exclusive, that somehow success cannot coexist with mental or emotional difficulty. We can be extremely anxious at the same time that (or perhaps because?) we are extremely competent, but in making public only the proud self we perpetuate the belief that anxiety does not exist in the happy, smart, and capable.

My friend, a teacher who once asked me to help with one of her music classes, had no idea how much internal debating I required before I could say yes. I had to look up the address of her class, enter it into Google driving directions, ascertain the 6-mile-long route to see if I could comfortably navigate it on my own, check with my husband’s schedule, debate whether it was worth pulling him from work to drive me, and check both our schedules to see if he could do a practice run with me if I decided to drive on my own. After stressing for days without getting back to my friend, I finally decided to tell her the truth and ask for a ride, even though I knew it meant adding another task to her already packed schedule.

“Sorry to be lame…”

“You’re not lame,” she told me. “I can get you.” 

In the same way, my on-line book club members have no idea how much stress I went through in the week leading up to our first on-line chat. Back and forth, back and forth I debated over whether I should cancel. I hated the way I looked on video. I worried about sounding dumb “in real life.” I did not feel like interacting live.

But I went through with it, because I knew I would feel worse about myself if I didn’t. And it turned out to be wonderful. When it was all over something in me lifted at the same time that something else – a shard of fear – fell away.

One of my readers wrote in her comment last week, ” . . . you have to remember that success is built in increments, and that by getting through daily tasks, you’re accumulating success all along even if you don’t realize it.” I think I’m old enough to be her mother, and there she was giving me something brilliant to take away. And I wouldn’t have benefited from those, and so many other warm words had I never dared take off the mask. The thing about opening up is that the fear of someone’s reaction is by far more frightening than the actual reaction. The real thing – when the other person is real (and you don’t need her if she’s not) – is unexpected, disarming, and heartening. Where you expect a ditch you’re given a bridge, and an outstretched hand that says either “I’m proud of you” or “Me too.” Either way, the hand beckons “Come here,” and the arms take hold and envelope you.

 

 

 

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On Conflicts, Children, and Relationships

Suggested House Rules [by my 9-year-old]

1. When there is a fight/argument, don’t say anything.

2. Play as much as you can.

3. HAVE FUN!! 🙂

4. Read ALOT!! 🙂

5. Keep track of Library books

6. BE HAPPY

7. Think Positive

8. Help each other

9. Be kind

10. Calm down when needed

Fred showed me this list a couple of weekends ago, after witnessing Max and I fight the night before.

“I wrote some rules for us last night, Mommy,” he said. “And I read and drew until 11:00. I also found a calm place in my room. I’ll show you.”

He led me to his room and pointed to the left corner of his packed closet.

I asked him if he was okay, and he nodded with an exaggerated smile, as if to reassure me he was really, really fine. I sighed to myself and pulled him into my arms and held him, telling him we were okay too, and that I was glad and proud that he’d found a way to make himself feel better.

It pains me to look back on that evening, remembering Fred’s shouts, “No, don’t say anything more! It’ll only make things worse!” He tried so hard to get Max and I to stop where we were, to not escalate our emotions any further.

And unlike my situation growing up, Fred doesn’t have a sibling with whom to seek comfort while his parents squabble.

But also unlike my childhood, Fred has the reassurance of experience that things do get better, if not by the next morning then by the next evening, or the day after. He knows that Mommy and Daddy love one another and that the conflicts are temporary and smaller than the relationship. It took me the perspective of adulthood to understand my parents’ love and marriage; as a child I honestly didn’t know if my parents loved one another or not, and I grew up equating conflict with detriment.

So while we haven’t been able to shield Fred from seeing our conflicts – nor do I expect that to be realistic – I hope that we have been able to show him that real and worthwhile love encompasses both unparalleled joys and surmountable difficulties. This is no small feat in the multi-generations of our family, because despite being connected by strong love, we also have a more hidden history of divorce, estrangement, and displacement.

Last year, when his class was asked to write and display a personal narrative, Fred chose to write about his relationship with his best friend of the last five years. Here is a part of it:

I was happy to find a friend. He is my first friend in kindergarten. Me and Jack are very close friends and now we are still friends. Once, maybe in first grade we were mad at each other. I forgot why we were mad at each other. I didn’t play with him for the whole recess. The next day we played with each other.

This idea that he and Jack can be angry for a whole day and sometimes say mean things to one another and still be close friends is something that has really impressed him, because it’s a story that comes up again from time to time. Yes, it is possible to be angry at someone you love, to not even want to talk for an entire day, and still be the best of friends. It’s quite something when you realize it; I certainly wish I had understood that in my friendships and even in my family growing up.

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On feeling important and valued, and a Tale for the Time Being (in progress)

I usually alternate my book posts and my “life” posts, but today I’m going to write both.

My first read of the new year is Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 Booker Prize finalist, A Tale for the Time Being, which I’m still in the middle of reading (and enjoying quite a lot). It’s the story of a writer, Ruth, who finds a Hello Kitty lunch box washed up on shore near her home on a Canadian island. When she opens the lunch box she finds the handwritten diary of a seemingly perky teenage girl, Nao, in Tokyo. She begins reading it, and learns quickly that Nao is in fact planning to kill herself. Nao recently returned to Japan with her parents after having spent her whole life in California, and she is being bullied relentlessly at school and her father is unable to find employment. Her father, thinking that he is of no use to the family, throws himself in front of an oncoming commuter train in a failed attempt to end his life.

What’s struck me so far, aside from the fact that the language is a lot lighter and funnier than what my description may lead you to believe, is the idea of feeling important. Nao writes in her diary:

“I hope you understand that I don’t think he [her homeroom teacher who participated in her bullying] was a bad man. I just think he was very insecure and could convince himself of anything, the way insecure people can. Like my dad, for example, who can convince himself that his suicide will not harm me or my mom because actually we’ll be better off without him, and at some point in the not-so-distant-future we’ll realize this and thank him for killing himself.” (page 78)

Both Nao and her dad have suicidal fantasies. Neither feels wanted. Nao feels unwanted for obvious reasons: her classmates actually hold a fake funeral for her in homeroom and make no bones about the fact that they don’t appreciate her existence. But Nao’s dad’s sense of not being needed seems more self-imposed. He’s unable to provide for his family, feels ashamed for not fulfilling his role, and believes that his family will be better off without him. (I haven’t read any evidence of his family actually rejecting him.) It’s only after he sees Nao’s devastated reaction that he realizes he was wrong in his perception of his place in the family.

This got me thinking about the whole concept of feeling entitled – to love, to owning a space in someone’s life. This theme struck me because I’ve felt both loved and not in different areas of my life, and I have known others who have felt the same. What makes us feel wanted and needed? And how do we show others that we want and need them?

For all the griping I’ve done about the often too-close relationship that I have had with my mother, she at least gifted me with a strong self-worth within my family. And because she took her role as a mother so seriously, I carried that importance with me when I became a mother too. I know I am needed, by sheer title alone. I know my place in our family, I know I have a critical role to fulfill, and I know that my loved ones would be devastated if anything were to happen to me.

That may sound obvious to many, but I mention it because I’ve been surprised and hurt to hear important people doubt their self-worth and their place among loved ones. I know that people have walked away from families, or have ended their lives, due to distorted or real views of where they stood in their loved ones’ lives. I have no answers here, only questions.

~~~

My early experiences with close friendship were not as positive as my experiences with family. The first “real” friendship that I have clear memories of was with a friend I’ll call M. She and her sister were daughters of my mother’s friend, and we used to all hang out whenever our moms played mahjong together. Then M turned 13 (I was about 11) and she suddenly became mean. She began putting me down about my clothes and my house and led her sister and a couple of mutual friends to begin excluding me, until after a year or two of on-and-off psychological bullying I stopped  accompanying my mother to their house. (And no, I never said a word of any of this to my mother…)

That early experience did define the value I held of myself in terms of girlfriends. I rarely took initiative to start friendships or to pursue them deeply. I left the ball in others’ court. Among groups of friends, I never expected to be included. Then one day during sophomore year I was shocked when a classmate invited me to join her and her friends for a movie. I remember thanking her profusely and she looked at me as if I were crazy. I honestly didn’t realize that my reaction wasn’t normal until I saw her face.

Emmy changed my life, and she gave me the confidence to find more friends like her.

All of this leads me to my next question, which is how do we show others that they are important to us? And the answer is not as forthcoming as I had thought. I am trying to think back to Emmy, and how she made me feel wanted. She was never the sentimental or affectionate type. In fact, she was pretty no-nonsense and blunt. But she included me. She listened. She waited. She always answered my phone calls with “Hey, Seal!” as soon as she knew it was me on the other line, no matter how unenthused she may have sounded when she picked up. Likewise, I think back to the other people in my life over the years who have made me feel valued, and I think about what they did to convince me of it. They included me. They listened. They waited. They were glad to see or hear from me, and they showed it.

It made me think about how I am showing the people in my life that I value them.

How often do I ask questions, and hope to get a long answer? How often do I pick up the phone, and how often do I let it go to voicemail? How often do I carve out time for others, and how often do I say “Unfortunately, I’m working” or “Hurry up!”? When was the last time I invited a friend out for lunch, instead of waiting to be invited? When was the last time I asked for help? When my mother called last time, couldn’t I have mustered a more enthusiastic tone when I heard her voice?

While I know I am important in friends’ and family’s lives, do they know how important they are in mine? I’ve had an extreme need to assert my  independence for most of my life, and in the process I’ve failed to show some of the people I care about most just how much I really need and value them.

Can you relate to any of this? Has rejection or bullying touched any part of your life? Do you allow people into your life and space easily?

Lessons learned in 2013

It’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to look back on a year, but I decided to do it this year. Here are some of my reflections from 2013:

[Addendum: I apologize for my horrendous numbering system below (no 4 and 2 6’s)! I edited this post literally 15 to 20 times before hitting ‘publish’ but I completely neglected the numbers. I’ve decided not to fix it, however, since some readers cited by number the items that resonated with them. I’ll leave the list as is for reference 🙂 ]

1. The world is kinder when I change the lens.

I’ve always had a tendency to look too much into things. If someone consistently fails to say hello or respond to some of my emails, my mind reaches for the negative: I’ve done or said something wrong, or she thinks I’m a bother. I’ve been reminded not infrequently (usually by books and male friends) that when something like this happens it says more about the other person than it does about me.

This year, I began trying to give others the benefit of the doubt. The acquaintance who appears cold and does not respond in kind? Perhaps something is going on in her life right now, and she is not in a place to extend herself. My world became softer and kinder when I changed the way I made assumptions about others’ motives.

2. It does feel good to not beat myself up.

The comments were so innocuous (or regular) that I couldn’t even see anything wrong with them until a therapist pointed it out to me. Judgments like “I’m such a mess” or “I look awful” or “I’m such a bad mom,” when piled up day after day, year after year, can do a number on your psyche.

3. My child is not perfect, but he is terrific.

All my unrealistic expectations of myself trickled down to my child and I struggled this year to let go of the fear that every flaw signals potential trouble ahead. My son will make mistakes. He will forget things. He will miss answers on a test. He will be careless. He will get overly emotional. He will be tired and he will be hungry and he will be stressed and he won’t always be able to put on a happy face in these situations. The thing is, what human being doesn’t do this every now and then? I’m living proof of the damage that can be done when the bar is set to the sky, and now it’s my responsibility to bring it within reach for my son.

5. There’s a certain decibel level of my voice that no one should ever have to hear.

I would never have labeled myself a yeller, but in fact I do yell. Or I did. I am trying to make that the past tense. There is nothing in my life that warrants shouting. My son’s behavior is never so beyond the norm that it cannot be addressed by a regular or at most firm tone of voice. And even if he ever really did cross the line, I doubt that shouting would be effective or productive.

6. I need to be kinder.

Not more polite and not gentler but actually kinder, whether it’s mumbling criticisms about a waiter at a restaurant or judging someone’s behavior or arguing with my husband.

6. I want to remember the man I fell in love with. 

Twelve years of marriage and almost ten years of parenthood have turned our pre-parenting memories to black-and-white. Something triggered an old romantic memory the other day, and I allowed myself to go with it, to rewind through the last 10 years to a time when it was just the two of us. I realized that those memories are an important anchor in a family dynamic that has since changed so dramatically.

7. I deserve at least 2 hours to myself each day.

My busiest two weeks of work are ahead of me, but so far I’m holding firm to my new rule of not working at night. I am not a rescue worker and no one’s going to die if I don’t respond late at night. After Fred goes to sleep, it’s me and my books or my writing.

8. My emergency oxygen mask is this, in this order: sleep, water, exercise, a (reasonably) tidy home.

I blamed everything from hormones to depression this year when in fact what I needed was basic self-care. I need to have all 4 of the above before I can care for anyone else properly.

9. We all speak different languages.

I’m planning to write more about this in a future post, but it really hit home for me this year how certain conflicts I’ve felt have been a result of the fact that loved ones and friends and I speak different “love languages.” Example: Max shows love through actions while I show it through words. In fact, I view and relate to the world through words but I realized that not everyone does.

10. Motherhood has more than one job description.

At 4 Fred drew a series of t-shirt designs for each of us. On his dad’s shirt he drew the American flag; on his he drew a dinosaur; on mine he drew a computer. He said that it was because I liked to work.

I’ve felt guilty for almost the entire time I’ve been a mother, because I’d failed to live up to my image of the “ideal” mother. I don’t do arts and crafts, I don’t cook and bake more than I have to, I don’t enjoy playing, and I am not all-sacrificing. It was thanks to your responses to a post I’d written on the subject that I began to swap out the old picture for a more realistic one that depicts the kind of mother I actually am: a travel-loving, book-loving, word-loving, conversation-loving, thinking-loving and independence-loving mom. I realized that I don’t need to trade in who I am in order to love and raise a child.

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The gulfs in marriage and home: Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri

I am so grateful to a couple of blogger friends who recently urged me to move Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri up on my reading list. This book had been sitting on my shelves unread for maybe three years.

Interpreter of Maladies is Lahiri’s first published work, a collection of short stories that also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

The stories take place in both America and India although we often get the sense that we’re in both: the characters are making a new life in America or traveling back to India to a country that’s unfamiliar or consoling a friend who’s been separated from his family.

The stories are also about marriage, about secrets and lost connections. The opening story is a powerful one about the gulf that takes place in one marriage after the death of the couple’s first baby. Other characters struggle with infidelity, loneliness, hunger to be noticed, and bewilderment at the behavior and thinking of their partners.

And there are stories of women living on the margins of society in India – the ill, the displaced. They, too, long for connection and belonging.

I’m trying hard here not to resort to cliches or overly dramatic expressions to describe how I felt reading these stories, but the only thing I can say is that I was amazed at how much punch each of these short stories could pack. Lahiri captures the immigrant’s and the outsider’s story with such nuance and poignancy – the optimism, the hope, the alienation, the longing, the loneliness…and all of this is rolled together with the parallel emotions faced in each of the characters’ marriages or relationship with the community. These are stories for anyone – Indian or not, immigrant or not – who’s ever felt a part of themselves empty, who’s ever wanted to be full and yet not known how to feel whole.

Understanding, accepting, and appreciating the language of husbands and fathers

When Fred was a baby I became more aware of how some (many) women often corrected the way their husbands parented: they didn’t like the way they diapered, bathed, dressed, fed, or played with their babies. Around the house, too, I would see it. One husband-friend of mine once shook his head after being criticized by his wife and said to me, “See? I’m afraid to do anything. And she wonders why I don’t help more.”

I didn’t really go through that, because Max was actually better with babies than I was and he is often better around the house as well.

But I had my one area of “expertise,” and that was the emotional rearing of our child. On this I was convinced that I was better. I grew up with and was influenced by a mother who, while critical, almost never raised her voice. She never shouted, never punished, and never talked down to my brother and me. For better or worse, she spoke to us almost as equals. This was in sharp contrast to many of the other Chinese mothers and caretakers I knew. I had one extreme daycare teacher shout at us, “Shut up or I’ll chop your heads off!” I was told that this was how people talked “back home” (back in the villages of China).

For years I corrected Max on this aspect of parenting. He, like all parents, came into parenting with the experiences he knew growing up in his family and in his culture and his style, I felt, was a little too Asian and old school for my tastes. And so for years we talked, fought, and cried over this. Finally, nearly ten years later, we are pretty much on the same page. I think it is our greatest achievement as a couple.

Then a few weeks ago I found myself repeating something I’d promised I’d try my best not to do: correct Max in front of Fred. It was a knee-jerk reaction and the words came out before I knew what I was doing. Max and Fred were butting heads on something and I didn’t like the way Max was handling the situation.

Max was furious with me and walked off to his office, so I emailed him. (I know it sounds odd but we email when we’re mad (it’s better than us screaming).) He wrote back that he and Fred have their own relationship and that they are doing fine without my stepping in to complicate things.

Maybe that should’ve been obvious, but it was the first time I really saw and understood that. Sometimes I would cringe or “tsk tsk” at the way Max talks to Fred – the teasing, the gruffness. It’s not abuse or humiliation, just different from how I would talk to Fred. Then I realized that different in this case perhaps simply means “male” or just “different” rather than “wrong.” I relate to my child as a woman does: I nurture, soothe, validate. Max, too, is very affectionate and tender with Fred, but he is not me and he has his own style. And the thing I haven’t allowed myself to see is, I do screw up, a lot. As “expert” as I am on all of this, it’s textbook smarts and I over-personalize parenting and stress out and criticize and even a decade later I am no better at this gig than I was when I first gave birth. Children keep changing and the only thing I can count on is my determination to keep understanding my child and to understand myself better through that experience. I know I need to give Max this chance too. So I  accepted that I have to let go…and let them build their father-son bond, a bond that is as unique and necessary as the bond that I have with Fred.

Yesterday they had another minor episode. I was in another room so I don’t really know what happened, only that Fred showed attitude and Max got angry. But I minded my own business and trusted that Max would be able to handle it fine and I went out to run errands. When I finished an hour later, I walked into a house filled with the cacophony of two recorders playing Mary Had a Little Lamb. Instead of working (we work from home), Max had joined Fred to practice the recorder. Later after dinner, the two belted out When the Saints Go Marching In over and over, doing their best renditions of Louis Armstrong. And then closing their finale they mooned me. They nearly fell to the floor laughing so hard while I just sat in my chair rolling my eyes…and inside falling more in love with the two of them.

Men, boys. Fathers and sons. They’re foreign to me sometimes, but the joy and the love – I get that.

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Breaking the cycle of how we were parented

Jp_shpSigh…parenting is hard. I know I’ve been saying this every year for the last nine years. But really, it is very hard for me right now. I’m struggling because I’m finding it hard to separate my own issues from my parenting.

Those of us who didn’t grow up with “ideal” parenting always vow to not turn into our own parents. We will know better, we say; we will be different. I used to criticize my husband for repeating his parents’ negative patterns, until lately when I’ve realized for myself just how hard it is to break out of those cycles.

I tend to be critical and perfectionistic. My mother tends to be critical and perfectionistic. I never met my grandmother, a single mother, who passed away before I was born, but I’ll venture to guess that she was pretty critical and perfectionistic too.

Over many years I’ve trained my eye to notice only the gaps – the 5% on a 95 on a test, the slightly bungled response in an otherwise fantastic job interview. Don’t even get me started on photos of myself.

God knows what the cumulative damage has been, from living with this kind of lens. And now I find myself looking at my own child in the same way.

Fred got a 94 on his math test last week, came in second in his martial arts competition two weeks ago, and remembered to bring home everything from school yesterday except for his water bottle. I know enough to not voice my knee-jerk reactions every time, but it’s bad enough that I even have knee-jerk reactions to begin with.

One area in particular that’s a hot spot for me is time management. The problem is that the one area Fred needs to improve on is the one area I’m very good at. I’m a planner and I haven’t worn a watch in over two decades because my internal clock is so freakily accurate. Time management is important to me and something that’s come naturally so I don’t know how to help those who aren’t able to do it.

But I’ve been trying – big white board with check-off list, a ticket incentive system. After a number of struggles, yesterday morning I heard Fred’s alarm go off a half hour earlier than his normal wake-up time, and then the opening and closing of his dresser drawers followed a couple of minutes later by the clapping of the kitchen cupboards. He had gotten dressed and gone downstairs to get breakfast. I told him I was proud of him and that he was up early enough to catch the bus (always a treat for him). Then, five minutes before he was supposed to leave, he needed to use the bathroom, and ended up missing the bus…which was just as well, because he then realized he’d almost forgotten his recorder for music class.

I didn’t shout or get angry (this time), but I was visibly irritated. He was up a half hour early for crying out loud, and still managed to make no progress in terms of getting to school any earlier.

The truth is that Fred did great that morning. He had the foresight to set his alarm clock, at an early enough time to give himself a comfortable cushion (he had not originally planned to take the bus). He got dressed and prepared himself breakfast before either Max or I were even up. This is HUGE for him. I just wish I had really seen that, and not only in hindsight.

The most painful realization in all of this is that I have blurred the lines between love and approval, and it clued me in on why I, too, have spent my life terrified of losing people’s affections whenever I make a slip. Sometimes when I’m disappointed by Fred’s behavior I’ll feel myself freezing up, even though my love for him of course hasn’t changed. Fred on the other hand will, without fail, kiss me and tell me “I love you too, too much” before closing his eyes to go to sleep each night, no matter what my mood is. On one particularly bad morning before leaving for school he wrapped his arms around me, hugging me long and hard before getting into the car.

I know that his challenges with time management are the flip side of his creative mind, a mind that is often lost in intense thought. Among his many gifts is a huge capacity to love, overlooking others’ flaws and mistakes and slips, and making sure that the last message before “good night” and “good bye” is always “I love you.” I have so much to learn from him, and every incentive to break the cycle.

Do you struggle with this too – that is, repeating patterns from your own childhood?