life

Safe(ish.)

Man, where do I even start?

By now, you probably know that a bunch of insurrectionists stormed the Capitol Building, where they were more or less welcomed with open arms by the people tasked with preventing that kind of thing. At least, until some rioters apparently tried to make their way to Pence’s office, resulting in one tragic death. Excruciatingly stupid, but tragic.

We were put under a 6 PM curfew. There’s a state of emergency until the inauguration. People are already talking about disciplining the police, who seemed complicit at worst and mind-bogglingly ineffective at best, and having the national guard walk around the city with guns. The Department of Defense is blaming the police, the police are blaming the DoD, and I’m pretty sure the mayor has some solid ground to blame both. House Majority Whip James Clyburn thinks the whole thing may have been an inside job, as insurrectionists were able to target his unmarked office while ignoring his marked one.

Without doxing myself, I live near where all of this went down. Like, really near. To say this has been a nerve-wracking shitshow would be an understatement. I’m not even going to get into the difference in police response to the insurrectionists vs. BLM, because more eloquent people have already done that many times over, and, to be perfectly honest, I generally don’t express myself well when I’m on the brink of a rage aneurysm. I will say that it has definitely served to underline the idea that police apparently can interact with protesters in a nonviolent fashion, and choose not to.

There were pipe bombs. There was a hastily-constructed gallows.

About half of the population of various pro-Trump venues blamed antifa for staging the insurrection to make them look bad, the other half posted selfies from inside the Capitol Building. Others posted their relatives’ pictures with pride. It doesn’t really matter, because the insurrectionists learned absolutely nothing from other protests and refused to wear masks, so identifying them hasn’t exactly been difficult.

One of my S.O.’s co-workers had rioters on their porch, and had to chase them away with a bat. The rioters said he “better have a gun next time.”

We’re safe here for now. Word is there will be more riots. Even if there isn’t, it means there will be more curfews and guards. Even if the insurrectionists are punished for their actions, it’s the people who actually live here who’ll have to deal with the consequences. (Probably in perpetuity, too, considering the fact that people in airports still have to take their shoes off before they’re allowed on a plane.)

I just… I’m so tired.

life

Isolation Vacation

As it turns out, there’s a buttload more to working from home than setting up a desk.

I think neither my partner nor I would’ve been able to predict the effects it had: worse sleep hygiene, confused cats, a general air of unease, a much harder time separating work and life, working an extra three hours or so a day. The trouble is, if you have to work from home, you don’t get much choice in the matter — you either have a separate space for an office and the kind of mental walls that help you keep your work life and home life separate, or you’re kind of boned.

So we engineered a way to take a vacation in the most low-risk, isolated way possible.

Getaway offers tiny cabins a little less than two hours outside of D.C. It worked out perfect for us — we booked and paid for the cabin online a few months in advance (they fill up quick), picked up some extra provisions during our last grocery trip, filled up on gas when we normally would anyhow, and made the trip without having to stop. Checking in was completely contactless, too. We received a text with the lock code, keyed it in to the number pad on the door, and stepped into a very comfy, charming one-room cabin.

It was pretty much perfect. There was a spacious bathroom at one end, with a large shower and accessibility bars. At the other, there was a big, marshmallowy queen sized bed under an enormous window that looked out onto the woods. The cabin also had a pretty well-equipped kitchen, with a two burner stove, sink, pots, pans, silverware, and dishes. (There was even a bowl for traveling dogs.)

It snowed pretty heavily, which kept us from really taking advantage of the trails or the fire pit. Even so, it was really wonderful being able to snuggle up in bed with a cup of tea and some pancakes, under that huge window, and watch the snow through the trees. The night sky was gorgeous, too — I stayed up late both nights to stargaze.

It was just cozy, you know? Peaceful. Idyllic. No work emails, no calls, no wifi to answer them even if we wanted to. Just the creaking of the trees in the wind, snow, and the stars at night.

It turned out to be a great atmosphere for brainstorming, too. My S.O. and I did some storyboarding, and he wrote a really awesome short story (that will hopefully go up somewhere in the future). I had about a thousand ideas, but didn’t really get into writing or making art while I was there — I took a few notes and made some sketches, but I didn’t want to lose too much time trancing out in a creativity fugue like usual.

Even the way home was pretty. It rained after it snowed, and the nighttime temperature drop made the water freeze around all of the bare trees until it looked like they were covered in diamonds. The sky was blue, and the sun glittered through the trees’ ice-covered claws until even an ordinary road next to a set of power lines looked like something out of Narnia.

Everything was so bright and pretty, in fact, and we felt so refreshed, that we didn’t really want to go home right away. Stopping somewhere populated wasn’t really an option, but that’s okay.

There’re always roadside attractions.

We’re both kind of suckers for them (by which I mean that, if there’s a World’s Largest Something between here and California, we’ve probably stopped by). The biggest windchime? Been there, rang it, had a slice of pie. My S.O. had barely opened his mouth to say he wished there was something cool on the way home before I had a list of things that were a) large, b) unpopulated, and c) at least slightly ridiculous.

And that’s how we found a giant nutcracker. (Well, mostly the head.)

He used to be a paving company’s tar silo. When a paint company bought the property, they painted it and converted it to this fellow. Honestly, the setting had a pretty unique sense of melancholy — there he was, with the approaching clouds just beginning to gray the sky, strewn with unlit Christmas lights, staring unblinkingly out at a McDonald’s across the street.
It felt very Lynchian, though I’ll be damned if I can explain how.

Our appetites whetted by the urge to see more huge things, we next drove back to D.C. to find an actual giant.

Fortunately, it being the middle of the week, during a pandemic, and also December, the place was pretty much deserted. Several areas were closed off, so I wasn’t able to get closer to the sculptures themselves, but the image was still very striking. There he was, this metal titan struggling up from the beach sand, face twisted in anguished effort.
Then, in the background, a lazily turning Ferris wheel.

I don’t know if any of you have played Kenshi, but there’s one particular area that gives me a similar feeling. There’s just something about massive metal hands clawing vainly at the sky that’s so damn eerie. When it’s juxtaposed against a beach and a carnival ride, it’s surreal as hell. I love it.

Now we’re home, snuggled up with two cats who had Many Things to Say about our absence. If you’re reading this the day it was posted, it’s the winter solstice. Keep your eyes peeled tonight for the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, and have a happy Yule.

Blog, life, Plants and Herbs

In the conifers.

As much as I love cypress trees literally any time of year, November to early December is my favorite time for them.

Why?

Because they make everything smell fantastic.

Bald cypress trees turn orange and shed their needles in autumn to early winter — as I write this, most of the ones here are, indeed, impressively bald. The result is a carpet of needles mingled with sticky, resinous cones.

The cones are particularly interesting to me. They start out as small, hard green buds. Sometimes you can find them on the ground as early as October, but they don’t really ripen for another month after that. Then, they expand and become almost crumbly, their scaly surfaces separating and falling apart to reveal the fragrant seeds inside. That’s when it’s really nice to find a stand of them and pick up a few from the ground. I live for the smell of the rich, autumn soil, the earthy-spicy-sweet smell of decaying leaves, and the fresh, piney, almost citrusy scent of cypress resin. If I can meet some mushrooms or a neat patch of lichen on the same trip, I’m ecstatic.

(I’m a pretty easy organism to please, all told. I’m pretty much a beetle with different ideas.)

We went and gathered a few cones not long ago. I keep a small jar of them on my altar, right next to a bald cypress knee. The seeds, I sneak into various concoctions — nothing ingestible, though. While cypress trees are generally not considered poisonous, they’re not edible, either. It’s a bit of a bummer, if you ask me. I’d love to be able to have it as a twist on pine tip tea.

After that, we took a trip to the arboretum. Naturally, there’s not much to see this time of year — the flowering dogwoods are not, the lilac is long since asleep, and the oaks and maples are skeletal — but there’s a kind of architectural beauty to a lot of the bare trees. Now is when they get to show off colors and patterns in their bark, the strange, Escher-like twists of their branches, and all of the other things leaves hide in spring and summer.

Most of the conifers, of course, are still going strong. I met a Norway spruce that I found especially pretty — I hadn’t realized that their immature buds look like flowers before, their papery brown petals unfolding like tiny roses.

It wasn’t late when we arrived, but this time of year, the early sunset and angle of the planet slants the sunlight in a way that makes everything look almost surreal. It’s a cold beauty, but I love it.

A cat snuggled up in a hotel bed.
life

I’ve been translating my cat.

I mean, that’s not what’s kept me busy for the past twenty or so days, but it’s a small project I’ve embarked on.

(What did keep me away was an absolute ton of paid writing. It’s hard to write all day and then still feel like I want anything to do with words by the time I’m done. This is especially true when that writing involves hours of researching things like metallurgy and UV-C lighting. By the end of it, my brain is tired and feels like the tail end of a discarded boba tea.)

About a week ago, my S.O. and I found the app Meow Talk. It claimed to be able to record cat noises and translate them into something understandable to humans. I consider myself pretty perceptive when it comes to figuring out what these nerds are trying to say to me, but, admittedly, I was curious. How accurate could a cat recording app really be?

A fangy-toothed cat sleeping upside down.

As it turns out, eerily so. It correctly interpreted all his weird little greeting chirps as “Hello.” He also tells the fridge “I love you,” and responds to my attempts to smooch him with “I AM IN PAIN.” Like I said, accurate. Meow Talk isn’t even paying me for this endorsement. I’m just genuinely surprised and tickled that someone was able to interpret my cats weird little trills and yowls. I haven’t yet managed to capture one of his weird 3 AM TED Talks to no one, or the paid mourner-style wailing he does every time we move a piece of furniture, but I’m working on it.

It doesn’t really work on Kiko, but she primarily communicates through touch. If someone makes an app that can turn little paw-taps into human speech, I’d be all over it. So far, I’ve managed to figure out her “please sit by my bowl and watch me eat,” “smooch my head,” and “roll over, I need to nap on your stomach. It’s an emergency” bops, but she’s developed a very robust punching-based language that defies interpretation a majority of the time.

If you have a cat, especially a vocal one, I recommend messing around with the Meow Talk app. It’s fun, if nothing else, and could be informative. Especially if your cat has a weird attachment to appliances.

life, Neodruidry, Witchcraft

A Soggy Samhain

It was cold and rainy here over the weekend, though that was fine by me — we weren’t exactly spoiled for choice when it came to bonfires and dumb suppers this year. Besides, though rainy weather does my brainmeat up all wretched, it does make me want to clean and air everything out.

So cleaning, cleansing, and refreshing all of my wards is exactly what I did. I would have refreshed my altar too, but I did that on the last new moon — dusting it, wiping it down with a special blend of oils, herbs, and flower water, burning more herbs in my hearth-cauldron, lighting candles, the whole bit.

I often like to take all of the herbs that are getting to be past their peak, ones that I’ve had lingering in my herb jars, drawers, and cabinets for a bit too long, and burn them on Samhain. It just feels right to burn the old herbs, thank them for their usefulness, and either save the ashes (depending on the herbs) for black salt or return them to the soil. I didn’t get to do that this year, but that’s okay — I don’t really have a big stash of old herbs anyhow.

I also filtered the oil I’d started on October’s first full moon, which gave me an inexplicable craving for pizza (courtesy of all of the dittany of Crete. That stuff smells delicious). Now I’ve got a neat little bottle of fresh raven oil chilling in my secret stash, which makes me pretty happy. I’d love to be able to work this combination of herbs into another form — incense, maybe — but many of them are the type that just tends to be throat-pluggingly smoky and bitter when they’re burned. They might work alright if they’re in small amounts and sufficiently worked into a sweeter-smelling base, but that’ll take a little experimentation.

This month came with its usual compliment of especially vivid dreams and messages, but I won’t bore you with those details. I hope the feeling lasts, though. I’m always at least a little sad to see them go once the veil’s no longer as thin.

So how was everyone else’s holiday?

life

Dirt, Moss, and Cypress Knees

One of the really hecking sweet parts of having more physical endurance now is that places I already loved to go have opened up a lot more to me. Take Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, for one.

It’s a very quietly beautiful place most of the year, other than summer when the lotuses bloom in a sea of brilliant pink. It’s never very crowded, there are always plenty of places to sit, and you rarely hear people over the orchestra of insect calls and birdsong. Even the city traffic dulls to a low, forgettable roar in the background.

Even though the gardens are arguably at their best in summer, I like them the most in autumn. My favorite part of them isn’t the lotuses, really (though I have a certain appreciation for their alien-looking pods), it’s the bald cypress trees.

I love bald cypress trees. They’re my favorite tree. I love their scent (I once knelt down to take a picture of one, and ended up ruining a good pair of jeans by permanently staining the knees green. I felt embarrassed afterward, like a child ruining a set of school clothes on the playground, but sweet, fresh smell of crushed cypress needles was almost worth it). I love the way their needles turn brilliant orange in autumn. I love that they’re one of the few weirdo conifers that actually loses their needles in winter. I love the way they grow, in the liminal space between land and water. I love their alien-looking knees — mistaken for people, animals, and even monsters once they get large enough.

A bald cypress tree with a set of knee-like protuberances on its roots.
Knees!

Anyway, before I launch into another paean to bald cypress trees, all of this is to say that we took a long walk in the park and it was pretty nice. The boardwalk is especially pretty this time of year, with the leaves falling on it like confetti in shades of burgundy, vermillion, violet, and saffron.

There weren’t as many flowers, of course. I found some kind of yellow asteraceae, and these very pretty silver cock’s combs, but that was about it. I did also spot some aggressively purple berries on (what I think is) a viburnum, though. Judging by the number of bare twigs, the birds have been hitting them up for snacks pretty hardcore. I know cardinals will happily eat them — I used to have a bright red buddy who hung out outside of the window of my old apartment.

My partner and I sat on a bench for a bit, enjoying the sound of the insects chirping, birds warbling, and wind soughing through the trees.

“What… What are you doing?” He asked.

“Taking off my shoes,” I replied.

“Why?”

I shrugged. “Something about ions. Mostly because it feels good. Dirt. Moss. You know.”

“Fair enough.”

(He eventually followed suit and realized I was right — the cool ground felt wonderful, and the moss was very soft.)

As I write this, it’s Saturday night, I’m snuggled up and waiting to watch a livestream by Gareth Reynolds. I’ve got my partner, my cats, and a fantastic slice of pie. All told, not a bad end to the day!

life

Un/Whee

I can feel it.
Unreasonable.
Heavy.
It settles like an old velvet duvet — familiar and stifling.

“ENNUI,” I say out loud, “I declare an ennui!”

One thing I’ve learned about my mental health is that names are power. If I feel a panic attack coming on, saying, out loud, that that’s what’s happening makes it a tiny bit easier to deal with. This feeling is different, but I name it anyway.

I can always tell when it’s happening. It hits me when I’m in the middle of living life, and it’s like the color’s been sucked out of the world. Looking at interesting or beautiful things no longer inspires me. I don’t want to do anything. Nothing seems enjoyable. A tiny, evil thought in the back of my mind lies to me, telling me that this is it, I’ve reached the world’s level cap, life is about to be a long, tedious slog to the finish line.

I call it “ennui” because it defangs it, at least a little. Mental Floss points out that ennui has “connotations of self-indulgent posturing and European decadence.” It’s an oppressive existential apathy that’s hard to take seriously. Ennui isn’t as weighty as Depression, or as toothy as Anhedonia. If these neurotransmitters are going to attempt to seize power over me, they’re going to have to try harder than that. My absurdity is potent and not easily overthrown.

This feeling is scary, the lies it tells me are frightening. So, I name it something that makes it sound, to me, like the pseudo-deep affectation of a second-rate philosopher. As one of my friend’s uncles used to say, “Are you bored, or are you boring?”

Part of the trouble is that it isn’t enough to not be boring. I’d even argue that very few people are genuinely so. “Sonder” is a wonderful, if little-used, word that the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines as:

[T]he realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

With that in mind, being legitimately boring takes effort.

My partner argues that this is neurochemical. It happens too regularly, with no special reason. I could be having a perfectly lovely day, capped off by sitting on a roof and watching the sunset with a slice of Baltimore Bomb pie, and suddenly the pinks and oranges look flat and muddy and the chocolate tastes like glue.

This joy-sucking specter sticks around for a few days, perhaps a week, before being distracted by something shiny and sweeping off to go find another haunt.

Tea leaves thwart those who court catastrophe,
designing futures where nothing will occur:
cross the gypsy’s palm and yawning she
will still predict no perils left to conquer.
Jeopardy is jejune now: naïve knight
finds ogres out-of-date and dragons unheard
of, while blasé princesses indict
tilts at terror as downright absurd.

The beast in Jamesian grove will never jump,
compelling hero’s dull career to crisis;
and when insouciant angels play God’s trump,
while bored arena crowds for once look eager,
hoping toward havoc, neither pleas nor prizes
shall coax from doom’s blank door lady or tiger.

Sylvia Plath, Ennui

I haven’t found a way to make it leave sooner (or, even better, keep it from bothering me at all). Energy cleanses and other rituals help remove some of the background static, but the ennui doesn’t budge. It’s another cycle to understand and endure, as surely as brilliant orange autumn turns to gray winter. The best I can do is give this unwanted guest a name, speak it out loud, and know that it never stays forever.

Environment, life, Plants and Herbs

Sharks’ Eyes and Poison Orange

Some parts of DC are weird.

I mean, some parts of everywhere are weird, don’t get me wrong. Where I grew up, our favorite activity was spelunking in the sewers (I found a stray femur and was almost eaten by geese). When I lived in Delaware, it took me a bit to get used to the way the landscape was broken up — apartment complex, forest, strip mall, pasture, wetlands, wetlands, wetlands, city. In California, the neighborhood was a very tiny island in the middle of fields and pastures. Sometimes, you’d wake up and see all of the puddles shimmering strangely with whatever the crop dusters were spraying the day before. At night, even without seeing any cows for miles, you’d hear their eldritch moos as if they were right in the yard. The songs of coyotes carried for untold distances. Uncanny-valley strangers would come and knock on your door, ask to borrow things, and disappear. It had a very Southern Gothic atmosphere, especially for a place that was emphatically neither.

DC is weird in its own way. I love it here, and there are some extremely cool places and people. The architecture is gorgeous, and you can find some very lovely Victorian-style houses and unexpected details. Still, there are plenty of other areas here that I try to avoid if there’s any way to help it.

This was one of those.

My partner and I were picking up food at this place we found at the beginning of COVID — a little pricey, but they’ve got the best damned catfish po’boy and blackberry shortcake I’ve ever had. (I’d drop the name, but the location is called four different things depending on whether you go there on foot, find it via Google Maps, read their bags, or try to order through a delivery app. Like I said, weird.)

It’s situated in an area that, not unlike the rest of the city, combines historical architecture with modern touches. The thing is, where other areas of DC seem to give the impression that this is done out of necessity, or to fulfill actual human needs, this seems almost malicious. Concrete angel faces stare mutely out over doorways to imposing office and municipal buildings, expressions framed in equally-stony olive branches. At street level, there are stores — jewelers, Nordstrom Rack, a seemingly impossible number of Starbucks cafés — with large, thoroughly modern plate glass windows with the dead, flat gleam of sharks’ eyes.

There’s something about it that strikes me as very calculated. There’s a cultivated air of diversity here, but the kind of diversity that wouldn’t welcome anything that wasn’t a high-end department store, a Starbucks, or an eatery capable of suiting a very narrowly defined sensibility. Some of it is very pretty, but stifling, almost.

On the sidewalks, people sit too close together at outdoor tables. A maskless couple walk by, pushing a leather-clad baby carriage that mommyblogs say could pay a month of my neighbors’ rent.

People live here, too, but everything feels aggressively tailored to those who work here instead. I don’t think they’re the same population. Thinking about it too much makes my teeth itch.

I need to get the fuck out of here,” I whisper-hiss to my partner, “Because I’ve got maybe ten minutes before this place turns me into an anprim.”

I wonder if this is how fireflies feel when you put them in a mason jar with a stick and a leaf.

Fortunately, getting elsewhere only takes about ten minutes. It might be a strange byproduct of this one self-hypnosis program I sort-of-kind-of-maybe did wrong a few years ago, but the sight of the color green makes my nerves finally start to unknot themselves.

We park and walk a ways. I know my food’s getting cold, but I don’t really care. I take big breaths — there’s smoke coming from somewhere, and it tinges the smell of soil, gently decaying leaves, and damp wood with an earthy sweetness.

We find a picnic table. I always eat fast, but today I manage to finish before my partner’s done unpacking.

“Okay! Gonna go climb on that tree and look for friends!”

He’s grown used to this. I think you kind of have to, after awhile — it’s something that seems pretty firmly baked-in to me. I’m told that when I was very little, maybe four, we had some kind of family function at a beach. My dad says he heard me walking around making tiny proclamations: “Anyone who wants to go find bentures, follow me!” (Then I disappeared into some trees for awhile and he had to peel me off of a sheer clay cliff face, but that’s another story.)

When I was dating one ex-partner, it was a near-constant bone of contention that he never wanted to go exploring with me. I ended up having a lot of adventures with my dog, including finding a broken wooden footbridge that led to nowhere, covered in graffiti that dated back to the ’40s. (I’m almost positive it was Extremely Haunted.)

After that, another ex-partner used to give me survival equipment for every holiday. They figured the odds were pretty good that I’d end up disappearing into the woods some day, and they wanted to hedge their bets on me coming back alive eventually.

In short, I think most of my loved ones throughout history have adapted to the idea of probably seeing me show up on the internet after being mistaken for some kind of pygmy sasquatch.

There’s so much moss. Damp and feathery, sporophytes reaching up on stalks like delicate red threads. I could probably photograph it all day, to be honest — the structures are so beautifully complex when you get close enough.

My partner comes to join me, so we can look for mushy boys.

Some type of Mycena builds a tiny cathedral in a fallen tree. I find another type growing from a separate tree, its cap an almost ghostly translucent white. It’s the only one there, and I don’t have the heart to touch it, see what color it bruises, or try to take a specimen for a spore print.

“Oh, hey,” my partner points to a dead stump. I make a kind of excited pterodactyl noise and get on my stomach for pictures. I haven’t seen jack-o-lantern mushrooms before, but their intense “fuck off” orange and fine, deeply-ridged gills are weirdly, poisonously beautiful.

I can see why they’re often mistaken for chanterelles, though it makes me wonder what came first. Did the chanterelle grow to resemble the false chanterelle and jack-o-lantern mushrooms because it kept it from being eaten, or was it a case of convergent evolution?

It strikes me with some irony that I feel better about poisonous mushrooms than I do about the “Welcome” sign in a shop. Warning orange is easier to look at than shark-eyed windows, I guess.

life

When CBT doesn’t cut it.

I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve been through some stuff — including several attempts at cognitive behavioral therapy. Here’s why it didn’t work for me, and what I did to get to where I wanted to be.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is considered the gold standard for treating anxiety disorders. It’s a reputation that isn’t entirely undeserved — there’s a load of research demonstrating its effectiveness, both combined with medication and on its own. It’s often the first thing that a doctor will suggest when a patient presents with anxiety problems.

CBT relies on recognizing thought patterns that we have that don’t line up with reality. The underlying concept is that, when we can identify distortions in our thinking, we can prevent or intervene in those distortions and keep them from negatively impacting our feelings and behavior.

But what do you do when CBT doesn’t work for you?

If you’re me, that means feeling like a failure and going into a deeper anxiety spiral first.

I first tried CBT through a workbook. It was helpful, but definitely not a substitute for going through it with an actual therapist. So, when that opportunity presented itself, I jumped on it.
And left feeling like my anxiety was entirely my fault.

I was able to identify distortions in my thinking, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that identifying and reframing them didn’t actually seem to have much of an effect. My first therapist eventually cut me loose when I failed to make substantial progress after a few weeks, and oh boy did I feel like a lost cause.

There’s definitely something wrong with the messaging surrounding CBT. Because so much of it relies on the patient identifying and reframing cognitive distortions outside of therapy sessions, CBT comes packaged with a hearty side of moralizing — if it isn’t successful, it’s because the patient wasn’t willing to “put in the work.”

That’s not true.

When medication doesn’t work, you try a different one. When other modalities don’t work, you try another therapist or another type of therapy. When CBT doesn’t work, it might not have anything to do with your level of effort, willingness, or ability to get better.

Why CBT Wasn’t the Answer for Me

Don’t get me wrong, cognitive behavioral therapy has been enormously helpful for tons of people. I suggest that everyone at least try it, because it can be great for reducing some anxiety symptoms. There are two big reasons why I didn’t achieve the results I hoped for:

  1. It offered behavioral strategies for what might be a chemical and genetic issue.
  2. It didn’t help my specific worries.

Panic disorder can look like anxiety, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it. Panic attacks show up seemingly out of nowhere, and the idea behind treating them with CBT is that a panic attack happens when we catastrophize a sensation — like shortness of breath, or palpitations. This might be the case for some people with panic disorder, but may not be for all. Unfortunately, accepting the premise behind this treatment is what leads to some of the “victim blaming” mentality surrounding CBT.

If I’m bopping along, feeling perfectly fine, and suddenly get hit with a full-blown, unable-to-breathe-or-move panic attack, there’s no time. That overwhelming, unprovoked rush of adrenaline isn’t mitigated by identifying and reframing my thoughts. While cognitive behavioral therapy was helpful for reducing some manifestations of my anxiety, it wasn’t helpful for my panic attacks — the whole reason I was pursuing CBT in the first place. If I didn’t think my way into them, how was I going to think my way out of them? CBT gave me something to do for the twenty-odd minutes it takes for a panic attack to resolve anyway, but it didn’t actually seem to change anything. I couldn’t just think myself better. Knowing it was “just” a panic attack didn’t stop the chest pain, shortness of breath, terror, or inability to move.

It also didn’t help my obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Yes, I know that it isn’t logical or helpful to check the stove burners exactly five times each before leaving the house. I know that it doesn’t make sense to smell my hallway every hour to make sure there isn’t a gas leak. Even forcing myself to not do these things so I could achieve “mastery” over them did nothing to reduce the torment.

(I’m not alone, either. The NIH says that, “Unfortunately, CBT doesn’t work for up to half of people with OCD.” As it turns out, spotting activity in different areas of the brain may be a helpful predictor of what therapy might be the most effective for a specific patient. Not everyone with OCD has the same level of activity in the same areas.)

It didn’t help my cyclical bouts of minor depression, either. This was largely because they’re another thing I don’t think my way into, they just happen. I already recognized that they don’t last forever, but they were still as frequent and as soul-sucking after CBT as they were before it. Womp-womp.

My other problem with CBT was that there are some outcomes that just are catastrophic. If I’m afraid of performing in front of a crowd, it’s relatively easy for me to say, “What’s the worst that can happen? What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of bombing and embarrassing myself. That probably won’t happen, but what would be the outcome if I did? It won’t kill me. Nobody’s going to physically attack me. I’ll probably never even see these people again, so, if the worst actually did happen, its impact on my life would be momentary, at best. The people in the audience might go home with a funny story to tell about me, and that wouldn’t be so bad. I can defang the situation by being willing to laugh at myself.” It helps!

This was less helpful for me for, say, health anxiety. “What’s the worst that can happen? I die and it hurts the entire time. That probably won’t happen, but what would be the outcome if I did? I die, it hurts the entire time, and my loved ones suffer in the process. If I’m wrong, I’m fine, but if I’m not, it’s literally the worst possible outcome.” There’s only a slight chance that I have some potentially fatal undiagnosed health issue (something that I’ve actually experienced), but, if I do, I’m still 100% dead if I don’t act on it.

It wasn’t helpful for the anxiety surrounding a past sexual assault, either. I’ve been through that. I know how awful it was. The feelings are a product of experience, not catastrophizing. My reframed thoughts felt like lies.

In short, it wasn’t a great fit for me.

There are other issues with CBT, too. A big one is that it’s a bit of a darling for insurance companies. They love it because it doesn’t take long (a few weeks, as opposed to months or years for other therapies) and doesn’t cost much to cover. For this reason, your insurance company is likely far more willing to pay for CBT… and not much else. For a patient with significant trauma, a genetic predisposition to mental illness, neurotransmitter imbalances, chronic illness, life stress, or any number of other contributing factors, a couple of sessions and some homework probably isn’t going to cut it.

Another is that, even though CBT puts the patient in the driver’s seat, the therapist is still important. If you’re working with someone who comes off as uncaring, off-putting, or smug, you might not be in a great environment for you to learn and implement the therapy. This can be especially difficult if you’re working with someone who emphasizes the techniques over everything else — there were definitely times when I felt more like a collection of behaviors, and not like a human being with my own traumas, genetics, and brain chemistry.

The underlying premise of cognitive behavioral therapy is that your thoughts influence your behavior and mental health. If your therapist hammers at that to the exclusion of other factors, you could be missing a big part of the picture.

I’ve read some other interesting theories on why CBT doesn’t work for some forms of anxiety. One of them proposes that executive function shuts down when anxiety gets too high. Some people are able to engage their cognitive techniques before this occurs. If you already have trouble with executive function, or your arousal ramps up too quickly, this can’t happen in time. In those cases, your brain needs to rely on automatic self-soothing mechanisms that trigger relaxation via the parasympathetic nervous system and the release of oxytocin. I can’t speak to this personally, but it would explain a lot.

What I Did Instead

So, cognitive behavioral therapy didn’t work. What’s next?

After feeling like I needed more therapy to overcome my feelings about “failing” at CBT, I looked at other options. I still had medication, so that was helpful, but not as helpful as it could be combined with therapy. I knew that part of my problem was that my ex-therapist’s approach seemed very inflexible — there was no room to consider what other factors could be contributing to the problem. Every negative feeling had to be proceeded by a thought, and, if I couldn’t identify and “fix” that thought, I was doing it wrong.

So, I read over the “About” pages of a number of psychologists, eventually settling on one who mentioned methods other than CBT. And I lucked out.

The therapist I ended up seeing — with whom I’ve been very happy — uses CBT as part of a larger collection of therapies. We’ve worked on my past trauma. We’ve worked on my self-esteem. I get things to read and homework to do that have helped me grow, not feel like a failure for being unable to think my way out of a panic attack. We’ve explored everything from my diet (did you know that fenugreek could contribute to depression? I didn’t!) to physical relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation. I feel like a person, not like a disjointed cloud of thoughts that need to be corrected. My panic attacks are less frequent and easier to deal with, and I can recognize the signs of an impending bout of depression and take steps to make it less disruptive to my life.

CBT doesn’t work for me. It’s the go-to treatment for anxiety because it’s very focused and able to produce results in a relatively short period of time, but the same things that make it work so quickly also force it to exclude other factors that can contribute to a patient’s mood. If you haven’t tried CBT, at least give it a shot — it teaches valuable skills. If you have tried it and you’re feeling disheartened, that’s natural. You aren’t a failure. There are plenty of other therapies out there that can help. They might take longer, you might have to try a few different things out, but they work. You’re worth the time and effort.

life, Plants and Herbs

New Leaves and a Public Universal Friend

We went to one of my favorite places in the whole city: Ginkgo Gardens. (It is not, however, my wallet’s favorite place. I never manage to leave there without at least a hundo in plant friends, pots, or sculpture. Whoops!)

Even though my window plant shelf is pretty full, my Calathea is doing so well that I wanted to find it a few buddies to fill out some empty spaces on the etagere next to my desk. Right now, it’s mostly occupied by picture frames and whatever oils I’ve set to infuse at the moment — it could definitely benefit from the acquisition of some new plants.

And oh boy, acquire I did!

It was rainy, but that’s okay. Rain always gives me a headache and makes it a bit tougher to get around, but I ain’t made of sugar. A little misting won’t keep me home!

I could probably spend all day walking around their outdoor area. It’s not large, but it’s packed with the most beautiful stuff. (Also, I thought the masks on the statues near the entrance was a tiny bit of brilliance.)

In the end, we came home with several treasures: a Pilea, a Calathea, a Maranta, an Asplenium (you know how much I love ferns), and a Tillandsia. I also found a lovely little brass pot tucked away on a shelf…

And this guy.

When my partner and I saw it, we both went, “Oh, whoa.”

“A Friend,” I declared.

He agreed, and we immediately set about figuring out which plant made for the superior hairstyle.

The Pilea won, hands down.

After calling it a Friend, I couldn’t really think of a suitable name. (I’m terrible at naming things, so this didn’t exactly come as a surprise.) I figured Public Universal Friend was as good a name as any!

Here’s hoping the weather is treating you well, and there are many small, green buddies in your future.

This image is the cover of the folk album I am never going to make.