life

I tried so hard, and got so far.

I grew my hair out.

Well, attempted to.

This actually met with some success — I got it to about 3″ long, though it seemed to reject any any all input from paltry things like combs, hair spray, or gravity. Instead, it insisted on sticking straight out from my head like some kind of mutant dandelion.

Alas, my dreams of eventually having hair that did as it was told were not to be. I felt like I found one (1), single, solitary, lone hair of a different texture, which put my brain into some kind of search-and-destroy fugue state. Long story short, I ended up staying up until 6 AM feeling through and plucking hairs until I found it. This resulted in a roughly quarter-sized bald spot, a bit of blood, and an appreciable amount of concern on my partner’s part. It wasn’t the baldness that bothered him, just the fact that I was on edge enough to end up unintentionally hurting myself like that.

Obsessive compulsive disorder: It’s not like they show on TV!

And so, in the grand tradition of getting rid of things that no longer serve me, I busted out the buzzer.

Honestly, I love having a buzzcut. The only reason I had attempted to grow my hair out was for a change of pace, and to see if I could. A buzz is the ultimate low-maintenance hairstyle, and it keeps me cool in the swampy DC heat. Plus it’s just less stressful — I can’t worry about how my hair looks or feels if I don’t have any. Unlike the patchy spots from trichotillomania, there’s no hiding a buzzcut, either. If you’ll pardon the expression, a shaved head dramatically limits the number of fucks I have to give.

Really, I don’t think this whole thing was triggered purely by the existence of one slightly different hair. I mean, I have a scar on my scalp that makes an entire chunk of my otherwise-straight mane grow in a 4c curl pattern. The real culprit?

Houses.

*organ music sting*

I love my apartment, but we’ve outgrown it. The longer we’ve lived here, the more we’ve discovered things that are rapidly turning into dealbreakers. If we owned the place, we could just change them. Alas, we do not.

And so, my partner and I struck out on the journey to homeownership. From what we’ve gathered so far, the process for first-time homeowners goes like this:

  1. Scope out real estate in the area in which you’d like to live.
  2. Call a housing counseling agency.
  3. Go through their first-time buyer educational program.
  4. Make sure you have enough money for a down payment and closing costs.
  5. No, not like that.

Stressful, yeah?

Both of us are almost pathologically afraid of debt. (My credit report looks like a 16 year old’s. I avoided student loans by drawing furry porn to pay my way through college.) The idea of buying more house than we can easily afford is, frankly, terrifying. So, short of trying to find a really good deal on a former meth lab/murder shack, we’re taking a detour.

We’re moving to a different apartment closer to the area we want to buy in. It’ll alleviate some of the pressure we feel living here, give us an opportunity to save more, and let us scope out the local culture and amenities.

Fortunately, since this’s much lower-stakes than house buying, I won’t pluck myself bald within a fortnight. Wish us luck!

life

Pfizer, round two: Fight!

Last month, I wrote about my first bout with the Pfizer COVID vaccine. Things went pretty well, dizziness aside. I anticipated that this time wouldn’t be quite so easy — if the first shot really worked, my immune system should’ve been primed to absolutely lose its shit when it encountered the booster, right?

Right.

To recap: I have idiopathic intracranial hypertension. In addition to completely sucking in its own right at the best of times, it means that I can’t take a lot of medications, and need special consideration during many medical procedures. You’d be amazed at the sheer number of otherwise-totally-innocuous things that can raise your intracranial pressure. For most people, this isn’t a big deal. If you have intracranial hypertension, it could be the difference between life and death by stroke — or, at least, the difference between life and a sudden and very uncomfortable needle in the spine.

There’s not a lot of info about intracranial hypertension. Before the program discontinued, I actually signed myself up to be a research subject so I could help add to the limited bank of knowledge doctors and researchers have about the condition. That’s why I wanted to record how the vaccination process went for me — so other people with this condition, or who care for people with this condition, might be able to derive some comfort, know what to expect, and be adequately prepared.

Anyhow! The booster sucked.

I didn’t experience any dizziness, which I thought was a bit odd. It was my primary side-effect the first time around, almost to the point where it was the only indicator the shot was really doing anything. This time, though, I had the whole enchilada: a confirmed fever (about 101°F/38.3°C), joint pain, body aches, insomnia, a very-definitely-vaccine-related headache, nausea, and even some itchy irritation in my lungs. Just like the first shot, the side effects appeared about twelve hours after getting it. They lasted roughly two days.

The first night, I think I managed to sleep a total of forty five minutes, and every one of them was weird. At some point, I sent my partner a garbled and vaguely threatening message about manga, and said my joints felt like they “were made of legos.” Somehow, despite sleeping for less than an hour, I’m pretty sure I had at least six hours of wavering, half-awake dreams. I was so thirsty, I would’ve drunk a mug of ketchup if someone had handed me one.

All told, while things were very uncomfortable for a bit, I’m happy that my immune system reacted the way it did. It recognized the viral DNA, and mounted a defense against it. To be honest, it was at least as fascinating as it was deeply annoying, just knowing that this shot was deliberately triggering disease-fighting mechanisms as old as time. That’s a neat concept!

If you haven’t received your booster yet, I’d probably give you the following advice:

  • Your side effects might be completely different this go-round. I expected to be dizzy, just more so. I wasn’t dizzy at all — instead, it seemed like I got all the side effects I didn’t have the first time.
  • You’re probably going to want to have the next day off.
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) doesn’t list increased intracranial pressure as a side effect. It’s also the drug recommended for dealing with vaccine-related fevers and aches. While I choose not to use any, it’s a potential option for other people in a similar position.
  • Have a lot of ginger tea prepped and refrigerated. It’ll help with the heat and nausea.
  • Drink a lot of liquids. They’ll probably tell you to do this when you get your shot.
  • Seriously, drink a lot of liquids. They’re not kidding.
  • Have some extra pillows to support any achy joints/sore arms/etc. during the night. I’m pretty sure my knee pillow was the only reason I got any sleep at all.
life

Intracranial Hypertension and the Pfizer Vaccine

Last Thursday, I received my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. I chose Pfizer because one source I’d read (and have since forgotten) pointed out that it had a slightly lower instance of headache as a side effect when compared to Moderna. Since I have intracranial hypertension, I figured anything that made me less likely to be in brain-crushing pain was probably the way to go.

I haven’t seen a lot of resources related to how people with IH respond to the COVID vaccine, even in my support groups. This made me a little anxious and hesitant — at first, I wanted to wait to see what other people’s experiences were, even just anecdotally. When a few weeks passed and I hadn’t found any more information than I started with, I figured, screw it. Be the anecdote.

So here’s my totally subjective and not at all scientific experience with getting the Pfizer COVID vaccine.

First, let me begin by saying that I kind of saw this coming. Curious as I was, I did a small Lenormand reading so I could prepare myself. Let’s just say that Tree + Cross is not exactly a recipe for good times. Bummer.

I read advice suggesting to eat something before going in. My appointment was fairly early for my schedule, and I don’t often have much of an appetite most mornings. I drank a cup of soymilk and figured it was close enough.

The shot itself was fine. It didn’t even hurt. I felt slightly lightheaded afterward, which I attribute to anxiety. Since I have other allergies, I had to sit and wait for a half an hour of observation to make sure I didn’t react. Everything was fine.

I went home, still feeling about the same. Drank a can of Olipop (root beer, yessss) and had chicken pot pie for dinner. My arm was sore, and my stomach felt a bit upset. I was also getting itchy, though I didn’t appear to have a rash.

Twelve hours after the shot, however… Hoo boy.

I was dizzy. Very, very dizzy. I’d hoped that a lower instance of headache also correlated to a decreased risk of dizziness, but these hopes were misplaced. Fortunately, the dizziness didn’t seem tied to an increase in cerebrospinal fluid pressure. When my CSF pressure goes up, I get very definite visual signals. This time? Nada. Just dizzy. I also had a bit of a hollow ache in my cervical spine and the back of my head, but not enough to worry about.

I also experienced (more) brain fog. At one point, I forgot how to describe fevers. High? Low? I ended up telling my partner, “I think I have a fever, but not an important one.”

The day after was particularly rough, largely because it coincided with a big thunderstorm. Anyone who’s experienced IH can tell you how the weather impacts everything — we get headaches, neck aches, back aches, visual disturbances, dizziness, phantom smells, the works. Coupled with the post-vax feelings of general crappiness, and I had to strap in for a sucky night.

By Saturday, the headache and dizziness had receded into the background. I felt well enough to go out for a walk by Lake Accotink and a quick trip to Occoquan for Beltane supplies, but I definitely felt things more as the day wore on. Moving around a lot seemed to make the dizziness return, albeit not nearly as bad as the first day. I came home, took a nap, drank a lot of herbal tea, and felt better than evening. I had to put off my Beltane observance for a day, but I think everyone understood.

Ultimately, my experience wasn’t a bad one. For one, things could totally have been worse. Secondly, feeling gross is a sign that my immune system is reacting to the shot. That’s what’s supposed to happen. If I feel crappy, it means its doing something. A robust immune response feels bad, man. As long as I’m not experiencing side effects that aren’t related to my immune response, things are okay.

If I had to offer advice based on this experience, I’d say:

  • Schedule an appointment for when you’ll have some time off.
  • Have a snack before you go.
  • Eat lightly the rest of the day.
  • Stock up on cold ginger ale, ginger tea, peppermint, and other gentle nausea-fighting remedies.
  • Try to schedule your appointment so you can sleep through when the dizziness hits. For me, that took about twelve hours.
  • Have some ice packs ready to go. They’ll help a little with the dizziness and aches.
  • Keep an eye on the weather.
  • Maybe don’t do anything super physical for a few days afterward. Like, don’t plan to start a new gym routine or run any marathons or anything.
Blog

I’m rethinking my feelings about spring.

Hi, sorry, I was asleep for the past few months.

(This is not code language.)

So, spring marks the start of some really lovely weather here — the cherry trees blossom, the weather warms up, and the world seems to come alive with birdsong:

Unfortunately, it’s also the start of allergy season. Since my body interprets perfectly normal Earth conditions as some kind of hostile invading force, I have to take antihistamines every day. Not most normal ones, either. There’s exactly one type I can take, and it causes drowsiness. I’m on sertraline, which also causes drowsiness. I also have intracranial hypertension. One of the chief symptoms of which is tiredness. See where this is heading?

(It is heading to take a nap.)

It’s nice to be able to get out more. My partner and I have been spending more time outdoors as more people get vaccinated and the threat of COVID-19 becomes a little less dire. But man, sometimes I get to the end of a walk and want to curl up in the moss for two or three hours.

I’ve honestly really missed writing here. Between paid writing work and tiredness, it’s often hard to find the energy — but I’m trying.

life

A man, a plan, a sledgehammer.

I’m firmly of the opinion that most people would benefit greatly from cultivating four disciplines: something physical, something linguistic, something creative, and something that pays the bills. It doesn’t really matter what those things are, as long as you’re able to keep at them. Some people can luck out and become multilingual professional musical theater actors and knock out all four at once. The rest of us, not so much. Still, even if you never become fluent in another language, even if your creative endeavors never turn into a profitable side-hustle, it’s okay! The real goal is to improve your physical health, release endorphins, and maintain your neuroplasticity.

Admittedly, I had a hard time finding a physical activity I enjoyed. My body’s been through a lot, between chronic CSF headaches, joint pain, deconditoning, this one weird, twisty rib that pops in and out ever since I got run over, etc. Activities that weren’t boring usually put too much stress on my body. Activities that were gentle enough didn’t keep me mentally stimulated. Then a friend introduced me to shovelglove. (Note: The original page contains some ableist and fat-shaming language.)

The teal deer is this: You get a sledgehammer. You wrap the end in a sweater so it doesn’t heck your floors. For fourteen minutes a day, every day except weekends and holidays, you pick it up and you move it. It isn’t important how you do this — pick motions that feel good and get your muscles working. It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re consistent. If it starts to feel too easy, buy a heavier sledgehammer.

As a concept, it appealed to me for several reasons:

  1. It only requires fourteen minutes a day, and nothing at all on weekends or holidays. That’s barely a blip in my schedule.
  2. It’s really freeform, so it’s hard to get bored. Turn it into an imagination game. Crank up Finntroll or Turisas, pretend you’re building a forest stronghold and fighting off bandits, and the fourteen minutes’ll be up before you know it.
  3. The movements feel useful. I never really enjoyed regular weight training because, while it’s certainly effective, the motions feel repetitive and arbitrary. This feels natural and functional, like my body is learning to do things (row a boat, chop wood, battle alien invaders) that I might actually have to do someday.
  4. You only need two pieces of equipment: a sweater, and a sledgehammer. One, I had in my dresser. The other, I got from a hardware store for like $10.
  5. It can be as intense or as gentle as you want.
  6. It makes me feel like a sexy barbarian.

I also enjoy it because I feel like it’s a good idea to have some familiarity with some kind of melee weapon, even if you’re not actually practicing a martial art with it. My partner has some pretty serious training in a variety of martial arts. I can at least brain a dude with a maul if I need to.

The only piece of advice I’d give is this: Engage your core. If you’re not familiar with the movements you choose, and aren’t careful to protect your back, it’s very easy to wrench something.

Other than that, it’s a fun, effective way to exercise, and one I actually look forward to. I’ve been able to achieve visible results — while before I had the noodly appendages of a heavy reader, my biceps and triceps are larger, more defined, and just generally better at doing stuff.

Plus spending fourteen minutes a day feeling like a Klingon is pretty rad, in itself.

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.

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.

divination, life

I apologize for my tardiness.

I ate most of my bodyweight in melon and pasta and, like the mighty African rock python consuming the equally mighty springbok, I needed to sleep on a warm rock and not move for an extended period of time.

Anyway. I’ve been doing a lot of considering re: the Jungian concept of the “shadow self.” It’s a topic I’d like to delve into further, but really deserves a post (or three, or four) of its own. Suffice it to say that I think it’s what’s making the pandemic especially difficult for a lot of people — when it’s hard to be in the same room as yourself, you’re not likely to enjoy having a lot of free time on your hands.

This led on a short free-association jaunt through various meditations, trance work, and sound healing, and I landed on a specific need: a guide to what I’m trying to fix in the first place. I know my faults, and I like to think I’m relatively self-aware, but there’s more to integration than that. There’s really no road map for how this kind of thing is supposed to go, though.

In my search, I came across the Cleansing the Soul tarot spread by Emerald Lotus Divination. “Sure,” I thought, “Why not?”

It’s not a super complicated spread, but it yields a lot of information — from the needs of the physical body, to the soul, to the inner child, to how to stay connected to your higher self. I’m not really under any illusion that the general public is super into my own inner journey here, but, if you’re curious about how a theoretical spread might look and how the cards relate to each other, this might be helpful.

I used the Animalis Os Fortuna deck, and my own spread shook out like this:

What my physical body needs: Nine of Wands, depicting the iguana. In this place, this appears to mean the need to push forward. I’ve been engaging in more physical activity, so the message here seems to be to keep at it, and keep increasing my reps. I even bought a sledgehammer to make a shovelglove!

What my soul needs: Five of Wands, depicting the axolotl. Struggles, obstacles, and rivalry. I’m competitive by nature. I’m at my best when I have an opponent, even if they don’t know they’re my opponent and I make no attempt to take the competition out of my own mind. It’s practically what the concept of Instagram hate following was made for, if you substitute “hate” with “rivalry.” I’m not too enlightened to enjoy opposition. Comparison isn’t always the thief of joy — a little healthy competition keeps life interesting, and helps spur me to be a better version of myself.

What my inner child needs: Two of Wands, depicting the salamander. A pause, and to bide my time. Considering a lot of what I’ve been struggling with lately are childhood memories, it sounds like my inner whelp needs a break. I don’t blame them.

How my shadow self is impacting my life: Knight of Swords, depicting the magpie. Impulsiveness, aggression, and overenthusiasm. Consequences, schmonsequences, he has things to do. He goes for what he wants, and everything else be damned. His intentions are pure, but he’s kind of a dick about them. That’s… Yeah, that sounds about right.

This magpie’s probably choosing a new victim to swoop on.

A way that I can begin to accept my shadow aspect: Five of Swords, depicting the peacock. Defeat, and suffering from egotism. There’s an interesting pathology that impacts people in relationships with others who show signs of narcissistic personality disorder, no matter whether those relationships are romantic or familial. Laconically, it’s usually called “fleas.” They’re behaviors that seem to “jump” from a narcissist to a victim, and, if they aren’t resolved, from that victim to their victims. Essentially, they’re protective mechanisms — tiny things you do to protect yourself from narcissistic rage and other forms of abuse at the hands of someone with a fragile, wounded ego.

I can see a flea here. My shadow self impacts my life by making me impulsive and aggressive. I jump from one thing to the next if I’m not immediately good at it, because my upbringing showed me that failure meant mockery and pain. Aggression was rewarded, while softer feelings were mocked and rooted out.

How to better process my emotions: Ace of Cups, depicting an overflowing vessel. Interestingly, this card stands for optimism and new opportunities. It also shows a cup overflowing, and the suit of Cups specifically relates to the emotional self. This cup runneth over, sharing its bounty. The advice here is to process feelings by sharing them.

Something I need to be more aware of: Ten of Swords, depicting the vulture. Oof. Vulture and I go way back, and he usually seems to show up when some kind of purging needs to or is about to happen. (Did you know that vultures sometimes eat so much that they can’t fly, and need to vomit before taking off? Fascinating! Also super gross!) The Ten of Swords is despair and ruin. It’s the end of a cycle, and the ending ain’t a happy one. In this context, it means to let go and be reborn. This cycle is over, and it sucked, so get ready to start a better one.

They also poop on their own legs to cool off.

How to stay more connected with my higher self: The Queen of Wands, depicting the cobra. I love the Queen of Wands. She stands for generosity, creativity, and drama. She has power and self-possession, she’s courageous and hot-tempered. She’s beauty, she’s grace, she can probably wreck your face. The lesson is to temper that power with kindness, and invest energy into creative work.

The pandemic has done everyone’s nerves up wretched, and I think the shadow self has a lot to do with that. It’s not easy to have a lot of time on your hands if you don’t enjoy your own company, and it’s also not a simple problem to solve. This tarot spread doesn’t offer a quick fix, but it does answer some important questions.

life, Neodruidry, Witchcraft

How Antidepressants Made Me Better at Witchcraft

Have you ever seen that meme about psychiatric medication? The one that’s all, “pills are trash, forests are medicine!” (Which, by the way, is a toxic, steaming load of horse puckey.)

It’s not an uncommon attitude in some new age and Pagan-adjacent circles. I could digress into a discussion of the destructive power of the naturalistic fallacy, but it’d take at least eleven posts just to contain it. Instead, I want to point out one thing:

Medication made me way better at everything, including witchcraft and Druidry.

A lot of people express reluctance at trying psychiatric medication, and I can’t blame them. It can take awhile to find the right one, and, after that, to work out the right dose. That’s frustrating, even scary. Some worry that medication will “dope them up,” reduce their creativity, or subdue the traits that make them them. For me, nothing could be further from the truth. Without the constant high-pitched background buzz of anxiety and panic disorder, I’m much freer. I have some side effects, but they’ve been a small price to pay.

I do occasionally feel stabs of resentment that I’m reliant on something “unnatural” — but that’s a me problem. If there were a “natural” equivalent to what I need, believe me, I would have found it. I didn’t, despite years of experimentation. I came close a few times, but there was no herbal remedy for my panic that didn’t also knock me unconscious, make me throw up, or worse.

The fact is, the idea of “perfect” physical or mental health is a construct. It’s not a birthright, it’s not even a natural concept. In Sick Woman Theory, Johanna Hedva explains,

“Sickness” as we speak of it today is a capitalist construct, as is its perceived binary opposite, “wellness.” The “well” person is the person well enough to go to work. The “sick” person is the one who can’t. What is so destructive about conceiving of wellness as the default, as the standard mode of existence, is that it invents illness as temporary. When being sick is an abhorrence to the norm, it allows us to conceive of care and support in the same way.

By contrast, in nature, an organism that is “well” is one that’s able to meet the challenges of its environment. That isn’t a super high bar to clear — it also very often doesn’t look like the human conception of wellness. In reality, few creatures would meet the definition of “well” to which humans aspire. Animals live with parasites. Crows steal lit matches and bow over ant hills, seeking relief from mites when they need to. One crow with an injured beak needed the help of his mate to eat, and she gave it. We find deer that have lived for years with teeth or bullets embedded in them, muscle and bone growing gnarls over what biology apparently considered an impolite intrusion. We find creatures that have existed, eaten, and fucked for a lifetime, tumors and abscesses locked away behind walls of thickened bone. As salmon amply demonstrate, as long as you can survive to adulthood and pass on your genes, nature doesn’t much care what state you’re in. If you end up truly unwell, you don’t survive. If you’re surviving, even if it takes an anthill, a patchwork of scars, or an understanding mate to keep you there, you’re doing well.

“Perfect wellness” is not a natural standard, and the kind of health sold by the wellness industry is not only unnatural, it is deeply damaging.

Natural perfect health is rare enough to be nearly mythical, because there is no real binary opposite to sickness. Everyone will experience a significant amount of pain and disability at some point in their life. Some are fortunate enough not to experience that until they are very old. For others, that point just comes earlier and lasts a bit longer.

We are pushed to consider caring for ourselves as temporary, which perpetuates the myth of being “well” as a default, natural state. As long as the aspirational standard of natural perfect health exists, we’ll keep working ourselves to death trying to reach it. So, the idea that you must be naturally, perfectly clear-headed in order to commune with the Divine or perform magic? It’s kind of crap.

It’s an idea that’s also used to delegitimize practices that use entheogens — practices where altered mental states are valuable, if not necessary. It derides rituals that use substances in favor of quiet, whitewashed sensibilities.

In my case, it’s just a lot easier for me to get things done when my brain isn’t dysfunctionally revved up on a constant stream of high-test adrenaline, neurons struggling to swap about four serotonin molecules between them. It doesn’t matter if the “things” I’m trying to do are dishes or divination.

It’s not wrong to prefer natural tools in ritual, but the standards that apply to a wand or an herb don’t work when you try to apply them to the self. Medication — the help that gets us closer to the functional, animalistic concept of “wellness” — isn’t an enemy or a detraction from spiritual experiences.

If you’re hanging in there, even if you need medication to keep you here, you’re doing well. Nature and the divine won’t reject you for that.

life

I guess it’s Brain Awareness Month?

To be honest, it strikes me as a bit egotistical.

I mean, the brain is the only organ that named itself. Now we’re gonna let it decide it gets its own month?

Anyway, I’m not a fan of brains, personally. At this point in my life, I think I’d rather have a sort of undifferentiated network of nerve tissue, or just be some kind of sentient alien gas cloud.

For Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, I want to talk about what a complete pain in the ass it is to be properly diagnosed with anything neurological.

The trouble with many neurological disorders is that they often don’t have a nice, neat, non-invasive blood test that can definitively tell you what you’ve got in a visit or two. There might be a weeks-, months-, or even years-long pattern of behavior that you need to exhibit first. There might be some other symptoms that, at first blush, don’t seem like they’d have anything to do with your brain. They might need to take a bunch of pictures of your brain and then stick giant needles in your spine. It’s kind of a crap shoot.

This isn’t to complain about doctors, per se — when they hear hoofbeats, they’re trained to look for horses, not zebras. This approach usually works pretty well, unless you’re a zebra.

All my life, I’ve had what I thought migraines. I regularly felt crushing pains in my neck and head, to the point of being dizzy, hallucinating, and throwing up. Sometimes, I’d notice my hands leaving “vapor trails” wherever they moved, like some kind of bootleg Etch-a-Sketch. I had an inhuman amount of trouble seeing things in my peripheral vision during driver’s ed, to the point where I never properly learned to drive. I was told it was anxiety and I needed to manage my stress level.

I could hear what sounded like distant drumming in my ears. The pressure in my head sometimes felt like someone tightening a belt around my skull. Sometimes, the thrumming and drumming sounded almost whispery, like voices. I was told I was hallucinating and paranoid and I needed antipsychotics.

After awhile, I noticed that I had double vision. A person I dated at the time told me I was a hypochondriac, and I watched “too much House.” Around the time I lost my grandmother to brain cancer, a doctor told me that these symptoms might not be something I could just keep ignoring — in fact, they sounded a lot like a brain mass of some kind. I was uninsured and couldn’t afford the imaging I needed, so I languished in medical limbo instead. (Naturally, I didn’t express my concerns to my then-boyfriend. Why would I, when he mocked me for being worried and told everyone around us that I was exaggerating?)

A few years later, I noticed that I always seemed to have retina fatigue. My eyes seemed to keep impressions of whatever I looked at, for way too long after I’d looked away. I had odd flashing spots. I thought it might be from my new contact lenses, but, just in case, I downloaded an Amsler grid to see if my eyeballs were just malfunctioning somehow. Sure enough, the wavy, warped, and missing lines told me something really, really wasn’t right. After one episode where I wasn’t able to see anything and went to the ER, I was told it was atypical optical migraines and I needed migraine medication.

It was another three years and a cross-country move before I was actually properly diagnosed. After years and years of misdiagnosis, someone finally scanned my broken head (there was no mass) and stuck a needle in my spine (but there was an absolute shitload of extra spinal fluid). My opening pressure, the fluid pressure at the beginning of the spinal tap, was roughly twice what is considered normal — 29 mmHg (39.4 cmH2O) compared to 7-15mmHg (9.5-20.4 cmH2O). Whoops!

Your body has a lot of mechanisms in place to maintain your cerebrospinal fluid pressure within a range of ± 1 mmHg. Mine… doesn’t. For some people, this is because of medication — steroids, hormones, antibiotics, certain pain killers, and even antacids can all increase cerebrospinal fluid pressure, but it goes back down once the medication is discontinued. I wasn’t on anything at the time I was diagnosed. So, my case is considered “idiopathic,” and, in all likelihood, congenital. It will never leave me, I will never be cured. I’m stuck with it until I either go into remission, or die. Welp.

Munchausen Syndrome and hypochondria exist, but they don’t describe everyone that’s struggling with the medical industry.

Sometimes, you’ve just got a zebra brain.