Bipolar disorder, mania, depression, anxiety. I'm only just discovering what those words mean for my well-being and the shattered pieces of my life. The "work in progress," it turns out, is me. Expect an exploration of my thoughts, my feelings, and my journey. And hopefully some fun stuff like my opinions on comic books, movies, and books to name a few.

Old "archive" posts remain if you want to get to know me further.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Week 3 - If I Run You Over With My Shopping Cart it isn't Personal

Pride is a strange word to apply to myself given my ongoing belief that no success I’ve ever had outweighs the catalogue of mistakes and failures that have preceded it, but one of the things I’ve often “prided” myself on is that I’m not an angry or vindictive person. In personal matters I have always considered myself a pacifist. I strive to not hold grudges because they serve no useful purpose.

Of course the easiest way to believe oneself possessed of equanimity is to simply discount the multitude of times when one is angry.

The everyday unhappiness I feel has been there at least as far back as college. On good days I wake up without enthusiasm. Most days I just wake up miserable. I plod through the day doing whatever I have to do—a lifetime of plodding to no real avail. There are moments that lighten the mood but none of those moments are lasting or significant—none of them make an impression of consequence. The anger, though, has been something new.

It’s been going on for at least the last year. I first noticed it in connection to my job. I was the general manager for two wine and cheese shops in the San Francisco bay area. I woke up angry at having to go in. I left work angry at having to return the next day. Interacting with my coworkers made me angrier—especially when I had to run interference between subordinates and the business owner. Being interrupted when working on my myriad administrative duties and constantly having to reprioritize because the owner changed his mind added to the agitation. Customers who had the temerity to linger in the store for long periods of time or ask me for help provoked a desire to scream invectives at them; how they, to a man and woman, didn’t notice me rolling my eyes as I attended them I will never know.

Perhaps most of all I was angry at myself. I knew I should have left the job but because of the near certain pay cut I would take to do so and the agreement with my employer to provide six months’ notice I repeatedly talked myself into staying. I was on call every day whether at work or not—I’d never had a vacation during which I didn’t have to do some level of work remotely. I sacrificed my health to work long hours while short-staffed—in 2016 I suffered an eczema outbreak, the first of my life, over much of my body and it resulted in numerous infections. All of this I was doing for an owner I had not a shred of respect for and who I held in almost constant contempt. From time to time I still feel furious with myself—that I wasn’t smart enough to realize what was happening and escape the situation before it became untenable.

This anger probably sounds unremarkable. I disliked my job and the stress of it was weighing heavy on me. It wasn’t just the job, though. As I said I only first noticed it at work—possibly because my job was excessively stimulating as compared to other situations. But I was experiencing it everywhere I was forced to interact with the public and by the day, it seemed, the anger intensified. At Starbucks, a place I used to enjoy going to write, I grew agitated and lost the ability to concentrate when the ambient noise increased. At the grocery store, when people cut in front of me or blocked my path so they could browse or talk, I immediately felt a desire to hit them with my basket or cart. After I lost my car and was forced to ride public transportation, an experience that daily made me tense, every person who boarded the bus or train after I did dialed up my agitation; time spent standing or sitting in close proximity to others was torture.

A notable highlight, and personal favorite moment of mine, happened a week or two before I left San Jose. My boyfriend and I got in an argument—one of relatively minor consequence. He left our condo (he’d had standing plans) and I proceeded to beat the ever living tar out of one of our plastic recycling cans, eventually throwing it across the kitchen. Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s read the first two of these entries I put the recycling bin and kitchen back together and didn’t mention the outburst to anyone. Nor, it should be noted, was I discussing my ongoing anger with other people.

The anger still pops up here and there, though in the last almost three months it’s become less frequent and intense. I haven’t thrown a garbage can in quite some time. People in crowded stores still draw my ire, though (I badly wanted to ram my cart into someone who was blocking an entire aisle at Costco two weeks ago). What is more apparent is my anxiety in public settings—something I wrote about last week. Was the anger an expression of anxiety? I don’t know, but it certainly distracted me from those symptoms. My counselor has suggested that the anger may be another manifestation of my mania; in the same way that my compulsive behavior (a topic I haven’t gotten to yet) gave me brief highs in an otherwise miserable life the anger is an emotional burst that breaks through the dismal monotony.

My motto of late has been to take things one day at a time. I’m a long way from getting well—and from resolving the mess I made in this most recent existential crash and burn. I’ve gotten to the point where I can look back and recognize that the anger in these situations exceeds any reasonable reaction but like my impulsive behavior it’s still difficult if not impossible to stop myself at the time. Until then, though, it’s possible that no garbage cans are safe.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Comic Books are Literature, Too

Comic books—or graphic novels if one prefers—do not command the same respect as non-illustrated literature. Even as movies based on the exploits of comic book characters dominate the box office the medium from which those stories spring is often disregarded by non-fans. That low perception—one of comic books as pure escapism—isn’t helped by a viewpoint held by many fans that politics should not figure into the stories told in comic books.

The notion that comics shouldn’t delve into matters of politics or current events is bizarre considering the roots of some of the more well-known characters. Captain America’s debut featured him punching out Adolf Hitler. The X-Men have been a metaphor for real world diversity and prejudice since their inception.

In some ways the escapism of comic books carries the same potential as science fiction to disguise high minded critiques in metaphor—whether dealing with small scale themes like personal responsibility or large scale issues like bigotry.

Green Lanterns 39, the finale for the “A World of Our Own” story arc, is a proud torchbearer for this tradition. “A World of Our Own” saw Jessica and Simon helping the planet Ungara which was on the verge of a civil war over the government’s decision to help refugees from a dying planet. The dissident faction believes that taking in the refugees is a strain on their own resources and a final insult after Ungara has lost the power and prestige of having their own Green Lantern. They’re disenchanted and have latched on to the refugees—the “other”—as the focal point for their anger.

Alongside that plot is a long running theme based in the thoughts of both Simon and Jessica—a fear, because of their ethnicity and the decisions made in their past, that without the power and responsibility of Green Lanterns they would amount to nothing.

Tim Seeley keeps the commentary of his story couched in a metaphor, thin though it is. And he wisely keeps Jessica and Simon from making any statement that would lead to an overt connection between the fictional Ungara situation and the real debate over immigration in the United States. Indeed, preceding issues saw Jessica question the purpose of her and Simon’s presence on Ungara as a conflict that they had no place interfering in.

The story’s message is ultimately one of hope as the dissident forces, in the end represented by the regent’s own daughter, are defeated and the people of Ungara help the refugees she is bent on harming rather than expelling or killing them.

The climax is elevated by the regent’s realization that winning a conflict like this isn’t just about beating the other side but about understanding that in an argument like this, despite their disagreements, both sides are ultimately confronted by the same challenges in life and the real road to victory is through mutual compassion and responsibility.

The issue ends on a self-reflective note not at all uncommon to the series as Simon and Jessica forgive each other their expressed doubts and marvel at their own fortune—a subtle but hard to miss counterpoint to the story’s otherwise hopeful conclusion.

Green Lanterns is fun. The main characters are flawed but hopeful. The issues are full of vibrant space action at its finest. And the series is improved yet more—as most literature is—by not being afraid to invite its readers to think. Perhaps Seeley’s writing isn’t always the most subtle. But it’s far from in-your-face. And it doesn’t draw conclusions. It raises questions, leaving the answers to be found by each member of its audience. These are qualities found in comic books the industry over, and they should be celebrated. Escapism need not be simplistic nor contemplative stories boring.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Week 2 - My Brain is My Own Worst Enemy

The first anxiety attack I remember having happened when I was in high school—I think in my senior year. My only real recollection about it is that I ended up hyperventilating and was scared out of my mind because I’d never had one before. It’s a terrifying sensation that first time—having no idea what’s happening or why or how to stop it. I had another one during my freshman year of college and like the first it’s the hyperventilating and fear that stands out. I always thought that those were the only anxiety attacks I’d ever had.

It turns out I was missing the forest for the trees on that one.

I associated anxiety attacks solely with the hyperventilation; I didn’t remember any of the other sensations—the rapid heartbeat, the chest tightness, the difficulty breathing regularly that precedes the hyperventilating. These were all symptoms I’d had with a measure of frequency for years. At home, with friends, visiting family, at work (especially at work). I didn’t know what the symptoms were indicative of, but they didn’t tend to interfere with my life or persist so I just tried to ignore them—especially since I’ve never liked doctors and avoid going to them whenever possible.

Just over two months ago, when I was staying at my sister’s house after leaving San Jose (this ultimately became me moving in with her), I was experiencing all of those symptoms for extended periods of time every day. I made an offhand comment about how I had been feeling only to have my mother say, “Theron you’re having anxiety attacks.” So that was informative.

My anxiety since the weekend before Halloween (the weekend my life effectively imploded) has felt more acute than what I had been enduring in the preceding years. Whether it really is or not I’m sure—in the past I spent inordinate energy ignoring my own feelings while at the same time engaging in manic behavior that gave me bursts of feeling alive. There have been several instances since that weekend where the anxiety was so debilitating that I literally curled into a ball, unable to function. Most of the time, though, I am at least slightly functional. The anxiety isn’t keeping me from getting out of bed, showering, and eating (though the impact of depression on those things is another matter entirely and one I’m sure I’ll get to in a subsequent post). But “slightly” functional isn’t much.

As I write this I am sitting at the dining table out by the living room. I don’t have a desk in my room, and while I can sit on my bed with my computer on my lap that isn’t the most comfortable position to write. So out of my room I go. The thing is—I hate being out in the living room. I’m not in it very often. I’m not out of my room very often. I’m not sure if safe is the right word for what I feel when I’m in my room but I definitely feel more at ease. So there’s that little bit of anxiety of being out at the table.

Writing this post adds another level of anxiety—no doubt because putting my experiences down on paper churns up all the thoughts and feelings behind them. On that score this entry has not been as bad as last week’s but I’m still finding it necessary to take breaks and practice some deep breathing to keep the anxiety from escalating.

The anxiety is usually at its worst when I have to go out in public. Days I know I have to run errands are days that I wake up anxious. The more people I’m around and the closer I am to them the worse it gets. I almost hyperventilated sitting down to watch Thor: Ragnarock in the theater. I wasn’t too much better when I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Going to Walmart or Costco? I’m usually in a rush to get in and out as fast as possible. This past Wednesday I had to spend several hours at a Starbucks after my counseling appointment until I had a ride home, and while I was tolerably uncomfortable for most of that time, once it got crowded and loud in the early evening I lost it. My anxiety shot through the roof and my head started pounding. Thank heaven for Xanax (though it must be said that I take Xanax very rarely and am on non-narcotic Gabapentin/Neurontin as a daily regimen).

Fighting one’s own instincts—because what is anxiety if not the brain’s attempt to keep one from danger—is exhausting. Knowing that I have to overcome or at least hold at bay anxiety when I get up the desire to do something that should otherwise be easy or even enjoyable is demoralizing. Because it’s not the anxiety itself that’s the worst part. It’s how it feeds on itself.

Worrying that I might have an anxiety attack can trigger one. Thinking about what brought on an anxiety attack—an important part of treatment for understanding the nature of the anxiety—can trigger one. Trying to head one off when I realize I’m getting anxious can speed it up. The rational part of my brain may know the anxiety is misplaced and out of proportion for the circumstance at hand but that in itself won’t prevent an attack.

So what to do? The best I can manage is to take things a day at a time—sometimes an hour at a time—and push against the urge to hide myself away. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But I’d rather try and not always succeed than just give up.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Not Everyone Belongs in the Asylum

One of the joys of fiction is seeing oneself reflected in stories—whether imagining oneself as the hero or seeing one’s experiences played out either literally or figuratively. Over time protagonists in stories have grown to include a greater variety of people and the nature of those stories have come to include a wider array of experiences. Even so, I was surprised to find in the pages of Detective Comics 972 a character that spoke to me the way that Clayface did.

Detective Comics is juggling a lot of storytelling balls right now. A long running theme has been Batman’s construction of a Gotham City team to work with him—a team that includes a rehabilitated Clayface. Another long-running story arc was recently introduced when Tim Drake came face to face with an older, morally compromised version of himself, and the shadow of how the team may fall apart leading to that dark future now hangs over the characters. Meanwhile the current story arc involves an attempt by Anarky and the First Victim to turn Gotham against Batman; Anarchy wants to dismantle what he sees as an oppressive system that Batman has become a part of while the First Victim is motivated by the simple desire to see Batman and his allies dead.

Amidst all these intertwining threads and swirling conflicts, this issue focused on Clayface who was lured to Arkham and manipulated by the First Victim and Anarky. It opens with Batman in Arkham confronting a Clayface who is back in full villain mode. The fight lasts only a few pages before Clayface escapes, but it isn’t the physical battle that is the focus in these pages. Batman spends the whole fight trying to reason with Clayface—attempting to reach the good person that he knows to be buried under the sadness and self-loathing that’s leading Clayface to lash out and push away the people who are trying to help him. This becomes a running theme through the issue where the small battles never become the focus.

Despite the potential to turn this issue into a no-holds-barred fight between Clayface and his friends and allies, James Tynion IV instead writes a story that addresses what is wrong with Clayface and how or if he can be helped. Tim and Steph fixate on the damage he’s causing and the people he’s hurt—acknowledging that he needs help but not prioritizing that need. Cass and Doctor October are instead set upon addressing what’s wrong with him—reaching the good person beneath the destructive shell he’s projecting while acknowledging that such projection can be destructive if not treated. Tynion ultimately brings Clayface to a kind of personal rock bottom where he’s about to hurt the person that cares most about him. It’s a touching moment—a moment where someone who is suffering on the inside is brought by his friends to a place where he can confront that truth.

Readers of this blog and followers of my Twitter feed may know that I’ve been open about my own mental health difficulties. It’s only been recently, after being pushed into seeking treatment, that I came to realize I’d been struggling with these conditions for years—attempting to cope in ways that were ultimately unsustainable and hiding how I was feeling from everyone who cared about me. Finding in this issue a character that seemed to represent me and might also speak to others in similar circumstances was unexpected but welcome. I’ve seen comic books feature mentally ill characters in the past with perhaps the most well-known example being Legion—the son of Charles Xavier. Most such characters I can recall have been treated in the manner that Tim and Steph seem to advocate—containment and/or punishment above treatment because they are often written merely as villains. Indeed, the bulk of Batman’s villains are generalized as insane and carted off to an often ghoulishly depicted asylum. That the creative team chose instead to present Clayface as a person who can be saved—as someone who wants to be saved but needed the help of those who care about him—is not merely a refreshing change of pace but also a great example of how comic books can speak to diverse audiences and their issues without sacrificing the fun and complexity inherent in the medium.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Secret Origin of Captain Phasma

Not judging a book by its cover is accepted wisdom—an axiom applied to many circumstances across all walks of life. So ubiquitous are the opportunities to apply this simple wisdom, in fact, that I don’t believe I’ve ever used it in reference to an actual book. In the case of the Star Wars novel Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson it seems I missed a golden opportunity to apply said wisdom literally.

Captain Phasma, in all her chrome plated glory, commanded a great deal of attention in the lead up to Star Wars: The Force Awakens despite appearing in the movie for less than fifteen minutes. In the wake of the movie the thinking went that such a brief appearance was merely setup for a big payoff, so—Disney being no slouch when it comes to marketing and merchandising their properties—it was no surprise when a book seeming to be about Phasma was released in anticipation of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I say “seeming to” because despite the title and cover art the book’s central conflict and its principal character development has little to do with her.

Vi Moradi is a Resistance spy who is captured by the First Order and secretly interrogated by a stormtrooper captain named Cardinal. Cardinal has a vendetta against Captain Phasma and believes that Moradi possesses information that he can use to discredit Phasma in the eyes of her superiors. What follows is a Star Wars version of One Thousand and One Nights with Moradi standing in for Scheherazade. Moradi trades chapters of her story for food, water, and the promise of eventual freedom.

Moradi’s tale of Phasma takes place ten years prior to her interrogation at Cardinal’s hands and reveals where Phasma came from and how she came to be among the First Order. Unfortunately the story lacks any sense of urgency. The reader already knows Phasma will survive any danger she encounters and ultimately rise to prominence in the First Order. What’s more, Phasma barely appears in the present narrative, and none of the book is told from her point of view. Even Cardinal’s retelling of his experience with her is limited. The result is that the titular character remains little more than a cardboard cutout who feels no more consequential than she did in either movie.

The book’s saving grace is that Dawson uses the storytelling device to great effect, and you can feel Moradi’s mind at work as she spins her tale bit by bit. If there is any character you feel like you’ve gotten to really know by the end of the book it is Moradi whose own opinions factor very much into the story. There is also an unexpected note of meta-style commentary on Phasma’s place in the movies as Cardinal repeatedly gives voice, both in word and thought, to how Phasma is plastered all over First Order recruiting posters and internal propaganda despite not being a First Order true believer. Whether intentional or not, every one of these moments in the book called out to me Phasma’s prominent place in the advertising of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi despite having virtually nothing significant to do with either movie. In its own way Phasma is an interesting read that does a good job of enticing the reader to turn the page, but as a Star Wars novel it is at best non-essential and at worst unnecessary.
I give Star Wars: Phasma
2 Kylo Reno tantrums out of 5.