Thursday, February 17, 2011

On Metamorphosis + Freedom

The road ahead was curiously baren, gray + (thankfully) simply wet.

The landscape was breath-taking – ice coated the trees, which created a picturesque scene from some winterwonderland, like those so incredibly described by C.S. Lewis in The Chronicals of Narnia. The ice was the only remnants of the wintery front that passed through the night before.

This morning, the sky opened up + gorgeous rays of sun shined through + reflected off of big puffy clouds above as well as the icy tree limbs below + all around for as far as the eye could see. The lack of heavy traffic made for a surprisingly peaceful + surreal trek from State College to NYC; the only thing man-made ahead (besides the road + traffic signs) was a single big-rig several hundred feet ahead in the distance.

This was Day 3 of my On The Vine Creative: Living The Dream Tour (aka: OTV LTD). OTV [was] my freelance business + I [was] an advocate, writer, designer, crafter + russophile (as well as principal).

That small business + I had both undergone a momentous metamorphosis in the two months before this trek in early February.

The Road to Freedom is Full of Holes
In early August, a minor car accident sparked my 12th + final [hahaHA... Nope!] episode of depression, which hit its peak in October while I simultaneously hit rock bottom.

Thankfully, I started seeing a great new counselor in late October + with her guidance, I was empowered to climb back up – tooth + nail – from that deep pit throughout November. Through writing and later crocheting, I was able to begin processing emotions; something completely foreign that I had never done before in my 28 years.

In December, I had my first good day – the first in nearly four months; without the ‘help’ of medication, which I had tried for the previous two years, which had failed miserably each time, regardless of the type or dosage.

The following week I had 2 or 3 good days + by mid-December, I was officially out of depression, with a concrete confidence that (barring any catastrophic event outside of my control) I will never experience that torture of depression in the same (nearly leathal) intensity with the same frequency (every four months, for a span of four months each… as had been the pattern since graduating in 05) again.

I had successfully broken the cycle that had been passed down to me from three previous generations of unprocessed hurt, pain + grief. As a product of my environment, it’s no wonder I had no idea how to process emotions and therefore experienced the same migraines, overwhelming anxiety + deep depression that my parents, grandparents + great-grandparents had experienced.

Rebuilding with CBT
Thankfully, CBT (Cognitive Behavorial Therapy) is founded on the principle of guiding a person through a series of introspective steps to discover maladaptive coping mechanisms + negative thought processes – taught via messages from family, community, society, etc… often taken out of context; sometimes truly intended to be oppressive.

Once that analysis phase is complete (the most painful part of the entire process, though it is brief, I promise), the CBT counselor guides you again to learn how to address + reframe those learned tendencies; something I will be doing for the rest of my life, though it does get easier + more automatic over time.

Then, you are encouraged to learn how to ‘be in the moment’ – again a foreign concept to me as I developed a coping mechanism to escape + survive a choatic childhood + homelife by living in the future, daydreaming in my mind.

Finally, you are empowered to become your own counselor with the knowledge that you + you alone possess all the knowledge, power + wisdom to make good choices for yourself in regard to any circumstance you face now or in the future – positive psychologistics (a relatively new branch of psychology characterized by research into three overlapping areas: Pleasant Life, Good Life + Meaningful Life) refer to that process as self-efficiacy.

Digging Deeper for the Why's
Once the smokescreen was cleared (the never-ending, fruitless search for a ‘Savior’ or ‘Rescurer’ or for a ‘Miracle Cure’ or ‘Magic Wand’ or ‘Magic Pill’) + replaced with self-efficiacy, I was able to spend December discovering and embracing my identity; one half of my problem that was contributing to my depression.

Growing up, I learned quickly to just blend in + not attract attention. Being different +/or unique equalled bad + wrong + lots of problems. It took some time to recognize that tendency in myself – I truly feared being yelled at by anyone in authority, whether it be parents, bosses, teachers or my own boyfriend. It also took a while to realize that not everyone yells to solve problems... huh.

It also took a while to discover where those messages had originated from. Partly from a choatic homelife with an over-extended, highly sensitive mother who became overwhelmed easily + ‘blows her stack’ as she fondly refers to it without warning over the littlest things to release the pressure.

Partly from being a highly sensitive person like my mother: I get overwhelmed/overstimulated quickly, too, + I absorb intense emotions, as well... fortunately, usually intense emotions from her.

Partly from living in a concervative, Christian small town in Southwestern PA with rigid adults who fear + reprimand any divation from the norm + with cruel children who will torment + outright abuse you, if you are in any way countercultural, which unfortunately (I've now come to realize it's fortunately) I innately am.

I hate my life?!
The other half of my underlying problem was that I hated my career. Because work is such a huge aspect of life, consuming 40+ hours per week, I thus unwittingly hated my life as well.

Sadly, the other message that was beaten into my head from an early age from family, institutions + community was the imposed plan to ‘go to school, get a good job + you’ll be set.’

It never occurred to me, until this time of self-discovery earlier this year (2011) that I could choose a different path for my own life. However, at that time, when edging closer to graduation from high school in 2001, I desperately wanted to escape the economically depressed small town environment + leave behind all of its abusive people + their ridicule.

So, I went to school, got a good job… but I wasn’t as set as I had been promised.

To my chagrin, I discovered three things my first week of working professionally as a designer for Giant Eagle’s corporate office:
  1. I do NOT belong in the corporate world;
  2. there is a big piece of that imposed plan that is missing, which in my own way I expressed out loud to myself driving home from RIDC Park as, ‘There has got to be more to life than this… I will NOT live this way for the next 50+ years?!’; and
  3. you can physically escape the small town, but, by the time you do (24 years later) the small-town comes with you subversively + deceptively inside your own head via ‘voices’ (ie: all those awesome messages you received growing up) – truly an evil thing.

Derailing that crazy train
After I had embraced my identity, I began defining what an ideal future profession for me would be in January. For my entire adult life, I had no idea what I would be if I were not a designer.

Unfortunately, I simultaneously tied up my identity into my profession (ie: I got my value from what I did, rather than who I am) + perfectionistically equated quitting + changing paths with failure. So, whenever work got tough, I experienced a double-whammy of torturous identity-crisis as well as the pain of professional growth + development (often achieved through a sink-or-swim, tough love environment, which Giant Eagle as well as every employer I worked for since had practiced).

Resisting the tendency to latch onto the first ‘career’ name I thought of + trying to fit myself into a pre-fit mold (like I did in the past), I did the opposite this time + listed everything I had enjoyed + everything I had hated over my last 6 years of experiences since college.

A picture of my future profession started to reveal itself over a few weeks time. I was so thankful to find that it was going to be a relatively easy lateral shift from where I had been as a freelance designer via OTV; to a freelance writer.

My most engaging projects outside of work were through supporting non-profits + causes that helped empowered people + that inspired change. I had burned the candle from both ends trying to work full-time in a job I had hated + volunteer after work for an organization that I was super passionate about.

I decided to live in the place where experience, talent + passion meet… which, I suppose is the true definition of career, though I don’t think that simple word does it justice.

Small shifts can make big differences
Thus, my mission: change the world, one story at a time. My passion: writing to give voice to causes that empower people + inspire change.

As an advocacy writer, I use my past design + marketing experience to broadcast a story throughout the social media airwaves to increase awareness, engage dialog & spur action to further the cause.

[I started several] on-going projects [to see what would stick], based the sociological model of oppression-empowerment-change in oral history format: Agents of Change: stories of everyday people effecting change; Demystifying Depression: breaking the silence to dispell the myths and misconceptions of mental illness; You, me & the Cold War: 20 years later, the Second Cold War Kids are alright; and Break the Spell: advocating the end of anti-Gypsy discrimination.

[Within a few months, Demystifying Depression became the obvious front-runner. The response was overwhelming because there is such a huge need for mental health advocacy. I put the other projects, as well as OTV, on indefinite hiatus to focus my attention + energy on one project... + to not burnout]

Getting back to the point of the story
Juxtapose that beautiful winterwonderland of a drive with the raw emotion coming out of this recently liberated little girl behind the wheel, screaming at the top of her lungs along with Zach de la Rocha to “Killing in the Name of”:
Dan an ba Now you do what they told ya. 
Dan an ba Now you do what they told ya.

Dan an ba Now you do what they told ya. Dan an ba… 

And then unleashing all pent-up rage of my entire life + yelling as loud as I could through tears at the climatic finnale:
Fuck you I won’t do what ya tell me!
Fuck you I won’t do what ya tell me!
Fuck YOU I won’t do what YA TELL ME!
FUCK you I WON'T DO what ya tell me!
Fuck you I won’t do what ya tell me!
Ban ban am...

After 28 dreadful years, on February 3, 2011 on that OTV LTD trek along I-80 from State College to NYC... I discovered that freedom, from any oppression, is a beautiful thing. 

Beyond the yelling... other evidence of change
After the four-hour monotonous drive from State College on I-80, hitting the G.W. Bridge + being dumped into the thick of it in NYC on Broadway Avenue was quite the rude awakening.

New York City is notorious for its fierce driving conditions to begin with, but the recent 19” of snow that the city received a week before made the two mile jaunt to Cousin John’s apartment in Upper Manhattan even more of an every-man-for-himself adventure.

It’s amazing how debilitating a little bit of nature can be for a bustling city like NYC; essentially bringing it down to its knees for more than a week. There’s simply no where to put the snow.

So, what would normally be four lanes of traffic on Broadway, was trimmed down to two narrow ones as the tall piles of snow filled with partially buried vehicles intruded into the drivable lanes. On top of that, people still needed to get in + out of the shops lining the streets. They stayed true to themselves; double-parking where ever they very well pleased regardless of whether or not it brought traffic to a stalemate.

Driving those two harrowing miles was like navigating a war-zone. Thankfully, my Pittsburgh city driving skills did serve me well. However, I was very aware that rules of play in Pittsburgh often do not translate + are not as copacetic in other metro areas.

I remembered from previous trips to the Big Apple that gridlocking is not cool at all + will land you a ticket.

Stephie vs the Big Truck
Of course, I got myself into a few gridlock scenarios along Broadway about 10 blocks into the journey. The worst one was when I was behind a large delivery truck. I was going with the flow when I found myself stopped in the middle of the intersection + the traffic-light began changing with no where for me to go + no turning back.

I endured the incessant horn honking just fine since New Yorkers will honk at just about anything + everything anyway. But, I wasn’t prepared for the intimidation + aggression I received as I was stranded like a little island in the midst of traffic flowing around my VW Golf, fondly nicknamed Mathilda, a sturdy + tough little Bavarian Snow Princess.

Out my passenger window I could see nothing but the grill of a dump truck. That driver, peeved that he couldn’t make the turn into the lane that I was occupying... began to force his way in.

Stephie 1; Big Truck 0
In the past, I would have simply taken the intimidation + sacrificed my needs for another’s demands, regardless of how unreasonable said demands may have been. However, my recent metamorphosis had changed me in countless ways.

Thus, me + Mathilda ruled the road on this road-trip as a pair of spunky little broads who don’t take any crap from anyone, even if that ‘anyone’ was several times larger + could have easily rolled right over us like a tank without a scratch or a second thought.

When traffic started moving in front of us, I began inching, too, intent on getting my spot back... or getting into a fender-bender.

I won that game of chicken + my rightful spot in the queue.

Assumptions vs Intuition

The longer I drove through the city, the better I became at distinguishing assumptions from intuitions. I could start to sense when a driver was going to stop dead in traffic + I could plan my exit strategy in split seconds before it happened to navigate the situation smoothly.

My three years of middle school basketball experience also came into play: when you make a move, you follow-through with it; you never hesitate + you don't back down. The exception to that rule is the fake-out which causes your basketball opponent to instinctively react in one direction so you can maneuver around them swiftly.

Applied to driving, the fake out, an indecisive start-stop action, causes an unpredictable reaction in the other driver who either drives into you, drives into another vehicle, drives over a pedistrian or drives head-on into a blunt object like a telephone poll.

So, when I pulled a necessary ‘Pittsburgh Left,’ which here is a means of surviving everyday life but there in NYC will get you murdered, I followed through with it, trusting my intuition was correct that I could make it through with only a long honk from the opposing traffic; not a t-bone collision.

Validation at my destination
By the time I reached John’s street + double-parked to pick him up so we could ditch my car in his parking garage, I was fully acclimated + confident to navigating NYC. Just a block down the street, John said, rather surprised, ‘I’m impressed, Steph, you’re a natural New Yorker; you hold your own well behind the wheel.’

He couldn’t have known how much I valued his compliment or how it would become a defining theme for my extended weekend stay in the big city [as well as the rest of my year... maybe my life; realizing that I can hold my own behind the wheel of my life.].

That's my story. Now what?
My vision for Demystifying [My] Depression is to be a safe haven for stories of hardship + trials/tribulations with mental illness. Not to focus solely on the past + the hurt, but to provide hope + help for the future.

My story is quite dark, though I am very open + candid about it. But, I only want to share the pain of it so that in juxtaposition, the liberation from its stranglehold is that much more inspiring.

At the depths of my [12th] episode, I knew full well what was coming + I desperately spent more time at work (during my last month, before being let go because of it) scouring the internet looking for help + hope. Sadly, 95% of what I found online was false hope (pharmaceutically funded answers), 4% were superficial Top-10 lists for overcoming depression (eat well, sleep better, exercise, blah, blah, blah).

Thankfully, at page 20 or 30 deep in my google search results I found one or two sites that were first person accounts of where they had been, how they coped + how they continue to manage today. That is the kind of blog + hope that I wish Demystifying [My] Depression to provide.

Literally breaking the silence, because we've all suffered in silence for. Far. Too. Long.

[As depression-hacker, I challenge assumptions to live life uninhibited. Hopefully, my stories will inspire others to do the same. If nothing else... inspire people to simply begin to question: Why? That seemingly little + innocent question can spark a revolution of change. Let the games begin!]

1 comment:

  1. As a product of my environment, it’s no wonder I had no idea how to process emotions and therefore experienced the same migraines, overwhelming anxiety + deep depression that my parents, grandparents + great-grandparents had experienced.