Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Better-ish


As a Gay Sitcom Dad, I’m always in search of typecasting ideas. 

For example, a couple of years ago I wrote in “Tragedy Tomorrow” that most days I saw myself in striped pajamas as the Movie Dad from Life is Beautiful, shielding his son from the horror of the Holocaust. Only “once or twice a year” did I manage to achieve the ultimate parental glow:  on a particularly good day, I’d end a conversation with one of my children “feeling like Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.


In the last few months I’ve experienced another exponential improvement in my mental health. The timing is particularly fortunate – with the exception of five days’ respite over Winter Break, I've been a full-time single dad ever since my ex moved back to the Midwest in August.

Nowadays I can pull off ultra-sensitive single dad/lawyer Atticus Finch mode whenever I sit down for a soulful conversation with one of my children. But I like to mix things up. Some days I lean more toward Oscar Wilde – the world needs more Witty Gay Sitcom Dad. However, my fallback role is Jeeves. It’s best for everyone if my kids think of me as omniscient and omnicompetent.


Last Wednesday, Jeeves failed me completely. I was discussing the Olympics with my eleven-year-old son. He didn’t believe me when I insisted the Tokyo games will be held a couple of years from now, four years after the last Summer Olympics.

Later that day I had a similar conversation with one of the Baritones from Vancouver Men’s Chorus. We were trying to figure out when we sang “Love Shack” by the B-52s. By my mental calculation it was a couple of June concerts ago. Not four.

I was absolutely convinced it’s been two years since VMC’s “Road Trip” show and the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Fortunately Jeeves and I didn’t bet anyone a new X-Box.


This strange two-year gap in my internal chronology shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Heres what I wrote a couple of years ago in “Woke”:

I am currently living in my own Hallmark Christmas movie.

Last Christmas is a blur. I retained only a couple of memories from last year’s VMC concert. Mostly I hid in dark corners. Indeed, most of 2015 - 2017 is lost in a fog. After increasing frustration with practicing law and raising kids in Seattle, I grasped at the false hope of moving to Bellingham for my dream job. Instead, a tragic confluence of bad choices, bad luck, and bad people destroyed my life. 

This Christmas is different. I can tell I've turned an important corner in the last few months. My mental health is noticeably better – not just the wearying projection of normalcy, but my actual mental health. I get out of bed and do stuff. The kids are thriving in Bellingham. I voraciously read and write again after years of drought. Things make sense for the first time in decades. Although I miss my faraway friends from earlier epochs, I’m putting down roots and making friends again. Not only did I enjoy singing in VMC’s holiday concerts, but I finally overcame my anxiety over socializing with all those nice Canadians just across the border. (They’re mostly harmless.) I even managed to sing a fleeting faux-Jewish solo without melting down.

It’s like I woke up out of a coma just in time for Christmas Eve. A holiday miracle. 

This is the point in the Hallmark Channel movie where everyone hugs and cries. Then I ask, “So what did I miss?”


What feels different this time is the rest of the fog has lifted. The scariest part of living with mental illness is when you know you’re not yourself. Anhedonia smothers you like a blanket, and loved ones describe strangely uncharacteristic behaviors you don't remember.  

Now I feel like myself, even when I feel unwell. The good news is that most of my fuzzy memories have finally snapped into place. The bad news is that my brain concluded the simplest way to adjust my internal clock was to delete two years from the timeline. It’s sorta like switching to Daylight Savings Time. Or like when England converted from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar, and eleven days were dropped from September 1752.


So how am I doing with some of the other challenges I’ve described on this blog? For one thing, telephone customer service representatives across North America and the Indian subcontinent can rejoice. They don’t push my buttons anymore.

As longtime readers will recognize, this change is a big deal. Numerous early blog essays were devoted to my horrifying experiences dealing with Comcast’s wretched customer service. In contrast, for the last month I’ve been struggling to get my mother’s iPhone connected to the rest of us as part of Apple’s byzantine “Family Sharing” program. So far I’ve had five long telephone conversations with Apple technical support, as well as exchanging numerous emails. 

As my parents can attest, I’ve calmly handled the entire Kafka-esque experience. At one point, someone from Apple sent me an email suggesting that I log out of my own AppleID, and log back in. The next time I spoke with a technician on the telephone, she gasped and said “ooh, that was a bad idea.”

According to Apple, my mother will only have to wait another two weeks to access the family music account. At least she can now check Facebook and Fitbit again. Meanwhile I still can’t get my laptop, iPhone, and computer to synch. But somehow life goes on.


There’s been much less progress with some of my other PTSD-amplified anxiety symptoms. For example, I still struggle with serious bruxism, i.e. teeth-grinding.  

A few months ago, the pain in my jaw was excruciating. For the first time in my life, I scheduled a nonregular dentist appointment. I was convinced that I needed a replacement filling or a root canal. Fortunately, the X-ray didn’t reveal any serious problems. Unfortunately, my teeth grinding is out of control once again. Meanwhile, our dog Buster chewed up my night guard along with several more pairs of socks and underwear. 

So for Christmas my parents got me socks and a new night guard.


My daughters were born two weeks apart. Rosalind was adopted three and half year after Eleanor’s birth, and the girls have zero in common biologically, physically, or otherwise. We have an unusual hashtag in our family:  #NotTwins. For example:

Last month, one of my daughters sat me down and said “Papa, you realize you’re supposed to look people in the eyes when you talk to them, don’t you?”

Later that same week, my other daughter hugged me and said “Papa, I’m glad you don’t stammer when you’re home with us.”

I use the catchall phrase “social anxiety” to refer to various overdetermined layers of tics and behaviors. Some of mine relate to codependency, which my insightful Bellingham physician Dr. Heuristic identified four years ago when he diagnosed me with PTSD. Fortunately, I’ve successfully faced codependency after years of Codependents Anonymous and other treatment steps. Even the most relentless narcissists from my prior life finally realize I’m not going to return their texts and give them one more chance.

Other social challenges result from the tyranny of the closet and the lingering effects of trauma. As I wrote in “Avoidant,” most theories of human psychology, from Freudian analysis to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, place great weight on what we avoid. Avoidant thoughts and behaviors indirectly reveal how our mind works, or doesn’t work. As I gradually sift through layers of painfully repressed memories, I’m increasingly able to interact with other people.

Finally, some of my social quirks are just part of my personality. But they’ve always been heightened in predictably stressful contexts, such as miscarriages of justice, or spending time around other gay men. As I wrote last month in “Artificial Emotional Intelligence,” this has been one of the biggest challenges Ive faced over the last four years: 

PTSD had the effect of moving me several notches further away from “normal” on the autism spectrum, particularly in my interactions with other gay men. I’ve lost much of my already dubious ability to read ordinary social cues. Faces are a blank. Nowadays I can’t tell if someone is hitting on me, or challenging me to a duel.  

Lately I’ve been reading John Elder Robison’s book Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian. I can relate to many of his tales and tips about life as a social misfit. On the other hand, the recent improvements in my mental health have included exciting progress in this area. I recognized my biggest breakthrough a couple of weeks ago, when I was treated by 911 medics and sent to the hospital for the first time in my life. (A bunch of fierce Canadian drag queens pushed me down the backstage stairs at the Granville Island Revue Stage. Allegedly. It’s a complicated story. You’ll have to read “Falling Can Be A Drag” for yourself.)


When abusive treatment by my new Bellingham employers first triggered strange new anxiety symptoms, the most visible sign was a dramatic increase in my formerly mild case of trichotillomania – the compulsion to pull out your hair. I began ferociously rubbing my forehead and yanking out what's left of the hair above it. Most of the time I’m unaware it’s happening. By the end of particularly stressful days, my scalp is raw. To mitigate the effect, I learned to fiddle instead with over-sized pipe cleaners – “fuzzy things.”

Ironically, my trichotillomania is worse than ever. I’ve exhausted the supply of fuzzy pipe cleaners at the Michael’s craft store in Bellingham. So I may have to plan a special trip to Seattle this week, just to stock up on fuzzy things and coronavirus supplies. 


If you insist on searching for a silver lining in the plagues I’ve endured over the last four years, particularly the impact of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or rather the impact of my former employers’ horrifying treatment that triggered PTSD symptoms), there is one obvious candidate:  my new-found freedom from decades of debilitating writer’s block. If nothing else, writing has been essential to each improvement in my mental health.

However, I’m tempted to argue the most important change has been to transform my trauma-inspired “fixed mindset” into a “growth mindset.” Here is psychologist Carol Dweck's definition of each type of mindset:

In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it. 

One image from Dweck’s book Mindset sticks with me. It comes from her description of a child psychology experiment. Researchers can accurately distinguish between students with a fixed mindset and those with a growth mindset by assigning each child a set of challenging brainteasers. In my mind, Dweck’s example of the boy with a fixed mindset sounds just like my son now, or me for three decades – wearily sighing at the prospect of work and failure. In contrast, Dweck’s growth mindset youth rubs his hands together and exclaims “I love puzzles!” 

Being forced to deal with one real disaster after another over the last few years eventually taught me how to bounce back from repeated failure. Life is good and getting better. Still, I hope my PTSD-induced symptoms will go away someday. Maybe I will be magically cured once my villainous abusers finally take responsibility for their actions. Or when the courts order them to take responsibility. I know it’s just a theory, but humor me. 

Nevertheless, if losing two years of my life and pulling out my hair every day forever are the worst things that ever happen to my family, I’ll take it.




Previously in Rock Bottom Stories: Maximum Leverage.”   Next: “Least Gay Great Day Ever.”


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