Messages in a Bottle #1: Ghosts of Christmas Past

Journaling just for myself has never felt like self-care. The bully-in-my-brain sees it as indulgent and self-justifying, and it has never felt satisfying to write anything creative that only my eyes would see. Plus, I find ways to hate anything creative that I write. I’m a much harsher critic than the Internet. I gave up officially journaling for therapy after my first-ever 12-week course of CBT. Student Mental Health Services shoved me into standard short-term CBT way back during my PhD because it was easier for them than their therapists digging deeper to discover that my classic anxiety and depression were side effects of less-common ADHD and C-PTSD.

I gave up CBT after that first generic catch-all course in favor of more somatic-based therapies, which I researched for myself. However, because I really did have ADHD even when undiagnosed, I initially threw myself into CBT with hyperfocus intensity for those original twelve weeks. I didn’t often share my answers fully with my therapist, but I at least answered them honestly for myself. My immersion included buying an expensive, leather-bound journal to use to fill out the homework. I filled out about half of the two-hundred-page journal between homework and attempts at personal journaling. I never knew what to do with that journal, because it contained personal thoughts that, for a while, brought me shame. I couldn’t throw it out, and I couldn’t figure out what else I could write in it that could go thematically with answers to therapy questions about my past that I never even showed that CBT student therapist. I just kept it with me.

I’ve been in therapy consistently because most of my psychiatrists have required therapy as an adjunct to stimulants for ADHD. It’s mostly a legal CYA because stimulants are Schedule II, not really for my own good, so a lot of those therapists have not been very good. I’m an old pro at therapy, but extremely new to trauma therapy that isn’t self-directed, especially given how deeply I learned to fear those who should have helped me. Sadly, only the therapist I see now, so many years after that first CBT course, has ever been one whom my insurance both accepts for their requirement for adjunct “therapy” with stimulants and has had the qualifications and enough of my trust to work with a trauma history that includes state institutions and social workers who should, on paper at least, have helped the poor, the disabled, and the other most vulnerable of our society.

During the years when I was in therapy, but didn’t trust medical professionals given the nature of my trauma history, I did all “trauma work” completely on my own. I dabbled in various self-directed workbooks, writing prompts and random journal attempts. I often tell others who are having shitty experiences with the mental health system to do this, especially to explore DBT/ACT self-help and Judith Lewis Herman’s books. I don’t say this as a cop out, but because self-directed trauma work really did help me. I’d keep my responses in that journal, because it was there and because it was locked. That silly leather-bound journal has followed me through six apartments and three cities over the course of the years.

I didn’t want to bring a full laptop with me on Christmas holiday because it was a) heavy, b) it was more easily broken in my luggage than my tablet and c) if I brought my laptop, then I’d feel compelled to do work. Doing work on vacation is a slippery slope back into giving a hostile boss and an American workforce culture that doesn’t give a damn about its employees my life in other ways that will never reap rewards worth my physical and mental health. My Partner once told me to make sure to only establish a realistic amount of effort at any new job because, “if you start out by giving 110%, then if you ever have to take it down a notch to a realistic 100%, people will only see it as opting out.”

He told me about a slacker at one of his jobs – the type who proudly stated he gave his 100% at work, just split up among five days! – who was immediately promoted when he offered an uptick in productivity. Meanwhile, another office go-getter – the one who had always worked the late nights and never used his vacation days – had kids. He had to start leaving on time to pick up the kids from daycare. He had to occasionally take a sick day to care for a sick kid. He took some family vacations where he spent time with the kids, instead of his email. He always made up the work at home on his own time, but he went from a consistent 110% to a consistent 100%. He was the guy who was passed over for the promotion given to Mr. Slacker!

We both took that to heart, as behavioral economists, as personal evidence of the consequences of the cognitive fallacy* that humans suck at comprehending absolute magnitude, only slope and rate of change. In the same way people with very little feel better about themselves if they are at least the “least poor” on the block – and rich people feel stingy if they can’t keep up with the Joneses – people can’t comprehend the absolute magnitude of employee effort, only whether it is increasing or decreasing. Any decrease in relative position – whether in happiness or in productivity – is a catastrophe. Any increase is enough to keep Americans voting for folks who screw them over a thousand times in absolute magnitude because they feel better about themselves relative to someone else. (*Note all humans show the reference-income effect, so don’t warp my words into some twisted Protestant justification that people deserve what happens to them in life. All humans have trouble with that type of cognition, and there are evolutionary reasons why!)

I didn’t bring my laptop on holiday. However, that meant I had to come up with an alternative if I wanted to write any blog posts. I’m impulsive – I write on Evernote randomly when the mood strikes. If I am not in the writing mood, I can’t write anything. If I am in the writing mood, I must write right then, or I’ll forget what I intended to say. I rationalized that blog posts were close enough to therapy posts to use the same journal. I’m stubborn and cheap. That journal is gorgeous. I liked the romantic idea of writing in something like it on holiday, and I didn’t want to have to buy another. It was/is expensive! Expensive enough that writing in a journal with old ghosts seemed preferable to forking over money for a new one!

I brought that old journal on vacation. I loved that its combination lock – with the same three-digit password I use for everything – meant that I didn’t have to keep track of a key. I loved that if I managed to leave it behind (always a possibility with ADHD and brain fog) no one could look inside of it even as they called me to mail it back to me. We ended up having a much more adventurous trip than expected, and I was surprised that I wrote several posts specifically about our activities. Unfortunately, because they were about how my trip was unintentionally adventurous, they are not posts I can pass off as having been written after I got back. They are also tied to specific days, such as Christmas. I didn’t want to have to hunt and peck a full blog post on a phone. Anyone who has seen my comments knows that typing on my phone only reinforces my ADHD tendencies toward skipping words, spelling errors and/or incomplete thoughts. I can write a (somewhat) coherent blog post worthy of my education, but my comments are a mess! I decided I’d share those posts after I got back anyway.

My Partner and I took shifts getting up at the random times – sometimes 3am – when the cloud cover was predicted to be low and the solar wind high, trying to see the aurora. During those times, I also found myself reading some of my older journal entries. I often write comments on other blogs that say something like, “I have had years where I felt alone, but it can get better” to someone having trouble, but it hasn’t really been that long that I have I felt more in control of how I share my trauma and mental health story. It really hasn’t been that long that I have shared anything about anything with anyone. I still struggle with trusting my awesome Partner – and especially my possibly-first-ever decent trauma therapist – and I go back and forth about how much to write, even anonymously, about trauma on this blog. Judith Lewis Herman, whose books meant so much to me during my initial coming to terms with my trauma history – and with my need for targeted therapy for it – says that:

“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable. Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried. Equally as powerful as the desire to deny atrocities is the conviction that denial does not work. Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their stories are told. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.”

I’ve typically avoided ever showing weakness, even in this blog, because I learned the truth of her words from lived experience, well before I ever read them. It has taken me a long time to get to where I could view past trauma and ADHD as shitty roles of the dice, not something I deserved somehow or moral failings of mine. I think it would be empowering, hopefully for some of my readers as well as for me, to eventually share words from when I was more vulnerable. It wasn’t scary to read my old thoughts from before I had the knowledge I had today from the present, from the safety of the travel tradition I created for myself in that present. It was empowering, but it has taken me a long time to get to the point where I felt that way – and I’d like to get to the point where I shared some of those thoughts as truth telling. I’m going to preemptively create a tag for historical writings, which I will call Messages in a Bottle. Anything tagged with that label was written previously. Eventually my use of “previously written” could mean 2010, or 2014, etc.

For the immediate next few posts, it will just mean blog posts written over Christmas in a blizzard. I really did have an oddly adventurous trip, by our standards. I go on vacation exactly because I don’t have family I can go home to or share stories with. I’m okay with that, most of the time. I have my Partner to travel with, and I have a few good friends now who ask about my trips when I get back. But, hey, I also like talking about my travel to hold on to the memories a little longer. Messages in a Bottle posts might be a good option to ease the transition to the cold*, real world. (*Really cold. Like, “left one blizzard on the trip to face one at home” cold…)

I’ll include some pictures, too, of the trip as incentive to read my next few posts, even though they are “old”! My first picture, below, is of the blood moon we saw. I feel like it is appropriate to close out a post about old ghosts…

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