Thursday, April 22, 2010

Doing Battle With Demons

Much as I would like this to be about writing actual warfare with demonic entities, it is alas rather more metaphorical. The demons in question are things that I live with on a day to day basis.

Everyone has their personal demons. For some it's all things alcoholic, for others their health. Life - or perhaps Someone - appears to have gifted creative people with a disproportionate share of personal demons. There's certainly no shortage of musicians, artists or authors with tragic life stories and the kind of self-destructive behavior that usually goes with losing to one's demons.

Mine have been... loud lately. It happens. I can go months, even years, with the medication cocktail keeping everything under control. Then something shifts, shakes my balance a bit, and they're back, whispering their perverse little notions into my mind and trying to convince me that the world would be a better place without me in it.

It's not that bad yet. I've gotten better at recognizing the early warning signs and doing something about it. One of the somethings is - surprise! - splatting to everyone I consider half-way friendly about what's going on, on the grounds that the more I talk it out, the more chance there is something someone says will be the right trigger to chase them off. This time.

I even know what's causing this outbreak - it's work-related. I'm mentally and emotionally worn out. Unfortunately, I'm also not getting any kind of time away until September when I'm going to be exhausting myself visiting Australia. Since the layoffs were announced at the start of the year, there's been no letup in the constant grind of too much to do, not enough time to do it, and everything is more critical than everything else. Add in project scope blowout and a whole bunch of other work stress factors, big and little, and I've run out of me.

The real problem with this, at least as far as the Mad Genius Club is concerned, is that it plays havoc with my writing when this sort of thing hits. I can go weeks without writing anything when an episode hits - or worse, everything I write turns darker-than-dark.

How do you get past these crashes? What - if anything - helps you to dig out of the hole and get back on the level again?

Oh, and self-pity doesn't work. Chocolate does, at least until the pounds start piling up.

19 comments:

matapam said...

I learned how to build an emotional barrier around myself, to separate what is "me" from what is "work."

I needed it for an entirely different reason than you've got now, Kate, but I was shocked by how much of my self-image was wrapped up the Seven-to-Gawdknows career. I quit working when our first baby arrived. We'd planned well, bought the right sized and right priced house, had savings, cars paid off but still low mileage. Blah, blah, blah. We did everything perfectly.

My ego was crushed.

I had plummeted from "Geophysicist and everyone looks impressed" to "Housewife and everyone's vocabulary drops to about fourth grade level when they talk to me."

Three fourths of it was interior. I was prejudiced against myself. I had to beat on my subconscious until it finally admitted that I was in fact the same person I had been six weeks ago, that quitting had not somehow ripped half my brains and worth-to-society out.

Is it anything similar when a job goes bad? When the stress builds up does it feel like _you_ are the stressor? Make sure you are separating yourself from the job, and realizing _inside__bone-deep_ that it is the job that is the problem and that the job is not a piece of yourself.

When you walk out the door in the evening, leave the job there, and try to leave the stress there with it. It's not easy. Our own back brains can do the damnedest things to our fore brains.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate, I feel for you.

Sending you lots of positive vibes!

Ori Pomerantz said...

Does joking about it help? Remember, if you're too busy, that means nobody sane would try to do your job. That's job security.

Kate said...

Matapam,

It's normal to identify with the job... That's one of the biggest problems with quitting/retirement/laid off etc.

When a job goes feral it's much more a sense of being at the business end of an avalanche trying to hold it back and knowing that you'll be buried.

I try to leave it when I head home - with varying levels of success. Generally the worse it is, the more "wind down" time I need - which can start running into sleep time courtesy the joys of narcolepsy.

If there are any writers out there who have simple lives I'd love to hear from you! Every writer I know has levels of complex that leave your head spinning. And yeah, that does include me.

Kate said...

Rowena,

Thanks! I'm holding steady for now. Even getting some writing done. In dribbles, mostly, but it's words.

Kate said...

Ori,

Jokes are one of the ways I discharge it. Sometimes, you've got to laugh or you'd cry. Particularly when it seems like you're a 5 ball juggler and you've got 6 chainsaws in the air and they keep throwing the damn things at you :)

Stephen Simmons said...

Kate, I honestly believe that creativity is a product of adversity. Without the adversity, we wouldn't have the need to create things. Lotus-eaters don't need to be very inventive, after all. On the other hand ... there's a different array of jewelry. (Sorry, couldn't resist that one.) On the other hand, too much stress, as you already know, and all that energy is consumed just in coping.

I don't know if I can put into words how I deal with the demons. I learned most of it very young, growing up in an alcoholic household. What it boils down to, essentially, is keeping track of "this stuff inside this circle is ME, and everything outside the circle is NOT-me." Get a handle on that level, then move to the circle of things-that-are-absolutely-most-important-to-me, next. And don't let anyone ELSE put things into that second circle. Only *I* get that power. Period.

Everything outside the second circle? I'll get there when I can. When I'm ready, and have the energy. In the meantime, if it ain't on fire, it will wait for me.

Chris McMahon said...

In terms of getting back on the horse, splitting things into smaller packets always helps. Its a basic thing, but one I always seem to forget. Start back small - just ten minutes or jotting down a few ideas in a journal - then build up.

Try to disengage from deadlines and re-connect with the core inspiration/feeling of the piece.

Best of luck with the demons.

Mike said...

Probably scattered, definitely too long, and may not be too helpful...

First, a book about cognitive distortions that I found useful. Feeling good: The new mood therapy by David Burns? There's a short list of some of the patterns of thinking that he talks about and explores ways to handle (all or nothing thinking, overgeneralization, disqualifying the positive, etc.) over here http://community.livejournal.com/writercises/250962.html

Similarly, Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, with its guidelines about how we get ourselves into learned helplessness, and our worldview of good/bad events (persistent, pervasive, and personal control is how I remember the three dimensions -- what do we consider as the persistent background over time, what do we consider as the pervasive setting across space, and do we consider ourselves mostly in control or just suffering?). One that I'm still working on from this book is the concept of rumination -- my wife, for example, loves to recall bad stuff from years ago, and go over it again and again (as I run up the walls!). I have also heard good things about his Authentic Happiness and What You Can Change and What You Can't, but I haven't read those yet.

Which actually brings me to one of the points that I have to remind myself of regularly. There are only so many hours in each day, and I can only do so much. So I need to celebrate what I have gotten done each day, and not beat myself up or let others beat me up about the relatively unlimited number of things that I didn't get done. Prioritize, and realize what is reasonable.

One of the hardest points for me in working was realizing that just because other people didn't get things done, didn't necessarily mean that I had to do them. I had a sign for a while in my office that said, "A lack of planning on your part does not imply an emergency or crisis on my part." The sad part is how many times I had to tell people this and insist on it for my own sanity. I even had people angry because they knew that they could dump stuff on me, and nine times out of 10 I would get the impossible done. Until I decided that I simply couldn't do it anymore. And that's when they got upset, because I wasn't letting them take advantage of me. How dare I make them responsible for their own work?

One that I've added recently to my bag of tricks is the distinction between smart Howard and dumb Howard work. Howard Tayler from Schlock Mercenary talked about some tasks requiring that you be at the top of your game, while others you can do most any time. He talked about letting himself do dumb Howard work when he didn't feel up to doing smart Howard work. I looked at my work and realized that there were times when I was pushing myself to try and do smart work when I really wasn't up to it. So if I have a headache, or whatever -- I let myself do dumb work. There's certainly plenty of both kinds, but separating it and doing the smart stuff at the right times, and then happily doing dumb stuff when it's the best you can do, has helped me feel better.

Too much advice, too many words. I think the key is understanding that there are people and situations that I call psychic parasites -- naysayers, negative personalities, people who drain your energy -- and you need to avoid those. There are also boosters -- people who have fun, who laugh and make you feel energized. Find those people and situations and stick with them. There's a lot of beauty and joy everywhere, take a close look at a flower, or laugh with a youngster. Heck, read some poetry...or some science fiction, even.

Hope something in here helps.
'nother Mike

Kate said...

Stephen,

I'm inclined to agree with you - look at Switzerland. 800 years of peace, and what are they known for? Banks.

Your advice is something I've had to learn painfully over the - oy, nearly 20 years now since the breakdown. Either by training or inclination I tend to take on too much responsibility, and forget that I can really only be responsible for things I can control.

On the flip side, I can do a pretty decent job of counselling, just by virtue of a bit of empathy and having been there myself - something all my friends discover sooner or later.

Kate said...

Chris - one day at a time is something of a mantra. When it gets really bad, it's one second at a time.

The "fun" part about that is that if I don't make LOTS of lists, I forget stuff that's not in my face right now - like spacing my niece's birthday. Ooops.

Kate said...

Mike - at work so I can't give this what it needs. I'll get back to you after work today. But good points :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

My problem is that depression affects brain function. I have trouble writing and even more trouble reading. During the Annus Horribilis I was reduced to comic books. DISNEY comic books.

As for career affecting mood -- my problem with writing as a career is helplessness. around 03 I simply COULDN'T write. At all. So I bought this highly recommended book on burn out.

It said the three things that could drive a person to burnout were:

a) a sense of no control over one's career. (writing? bingo. I mean, Terry Pratchett had numbers worse than some of mine for ten years in the US. Why? No bookstore placement. NYC didn't think he'd sell. That was it. The fix? New agent/publisher. What did he have to do with the results, then? Well, other than finding new agent/publisher (and even there a writers' say is limited. Trust me.) nothing.)

b)low pay in relation to responsibility/work hours. (Writing? Well, unless you're Rowling...)

c) low prestige -- as in people think what you're doing is easy or they could do it better. (Writing?... uh "I've always thought I could write one of them book things, when I have the time." Yep.)

The amazing thing is STILL wanting to write. Must be a mental illness.

Kate said...

Mike,

I've been through the cognitive therapy round and most of the others. I'm doing well - I've got myself down to a relatively minor wobble every few years instead of a suicidal episode about once a year.

All your suggestions are excellent advice, and anyone who's having issues should follow up on them. Me? Been there, got the T-shirt, wore it out long ago.

Kate said...

Sarah,

Absolutely. I use the sudoku game on my computer as one - of many - gauges. If I can't play the easy level without slowing down, I'm not in a fit state to do anything that involves thinking. If I open the app and close it again because I can't make the effort, it's time for one of my periodic splats all over my friends.

And yes, on the issues of control, income and prestige. I play mind-games with myself. Manuscript goes out, I convince myself I"m waiting for the rejection - that way an acceptance is a pleasant surprise. Income - it's happening part time, barring the lottery. Prestige - I gave up caring about THAT long ago. People think they can do it, let them try. I'm not responsible for other people having delusions of adequacy.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Mah Jong here. And same thing.

Kate said...

Sarah,

Mah Jong works for that, yeah. It's all about figuring out your early warning signs and doing something to head off anything worse.

Mike said...

Good point about the early warning signs! When I teach risk management, part of what we beat into the students... er, make that lovingly instruct the students... concerns identifying the possible risks, then laying out a plan for handling them (avoid, mitigate, transfer, or accept), figure out whether there are preparations and/or warning signs to help take care of them, practice to make sure you know what to to when the problem hits, and then paying attention and doing it. Hum -- pre-emptive moves (such as backups) are very useful for risks. Might even help defuse the demon attacks?

Mike said...

"All your suggestions are excellent advice, and anyone who's having issues should follow up on them. Me? Been there, got the T-shirt, wore it out long ago."

Just an observation. Perhaps it is because I am at least partially OC (It is not a disorder, it is a way of life), but I'm not sure that the various mental disciplines -- sensitivity training (early 70s), EST (although I never did EST because it was too expensive, just heard about it from other people), meditation, Zen, cognitive therapy, and the list goes on -- are something that I would ever say I have achieved, or I've been there and done that. As the Buddhists point out, it is the eight fold path, an unending journey. Certainly there are plateaus and places to stop along the way, but in a very real sense, the disciplines are something that I practice day-by-day, even minute-by-minute. And isn't it grand that when we take a look at it again, there's always something fresh and new lurking in there?