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May 16, 2012

Operating Manual: How to Help Me When I’m Upset

Filed under: Uncategorized — thirdxlucky @ 11:27 pm

This is a spin-off from an idea of maymay’s: “#FreeIdea: make “self-care & personal guidebook” blog template w/OOTB page titles like ‘How to help when I’m upset.’” I don’t know how to set up a template but I really liked the idea, so I thought I’d play around a little bit with formatting and some thoughts on the sort of categories that might be included in a How to Help Me When I’m Upset reference. I’m hoping this will be a useful, continually in-progress reference for myself and people who care about me. I would love to have similar references for other people in my life!

In short: I built a simple framework with some basic info and context upfront, followed by a list of ways of “being upset” that commonly show up for me, each broken down into sub-categories of triggers (“What Might Bring It On”), symptoms (“How You Can Tell”), and kinds of support that I know to have worked well in the past (“What To Do”). This is very long and perhaps excessively comprehensive (I built it over the course of an 11 hour bus ride), but it was a good exercise for me to think through this stuff. I’ll continue to update this as thoughts come to me or as I learn more through paying attention to my own emotional responses, as well as thinking about ways I might make it more easily navigable and digestible to others.

If you’d like to make your own How To Help Me…, please feel free to snag any parts of the text or structure that are useful to you. 🙂

Operating Manual: How To Help Me When I’m Upset

Contents
1. Why this document?
2. The Basics
3. How I Ask for Help
4. Being a Safe Person
5. Some Ways I Get Upset:

6. And Finally…


. . .

1. Why this document?

I tend to be a pretty grounded and emotionally stable person. (Although reports vary widely. 😉 ) I generally make fairly clear-headed decisions and I’m good at taking care of myself on a day-to-day basis regardless of how I’m feeling. That said, I can also be very moody at times and it’s not unusual for me to experience extreme emotional and psychological states that suck for me and for everybody around me. This has been especially true lately as I’ve been processing a lot of long-buried stuff from my childhood and going through some big life transitions at the same time.

When I’m having a really hard time, I know it can feel overwhelming to people who want to support me but don’t know how. I wanted to create a reference for people in my life as well as a space for myself to keep track of what I’m learning about how to take good care of myself. Although I’ve tried to leave psychotherapeutic jargon out of it for a variety of personal and political reasons, this is essentially a catalog of coping mechanisms for when I’m too dysregulated to communicate clearly about what I need. They’ve been developed mostly via experiences with compassionate, patient loved ones who have helped me figure out what works through trial and error. It’s also worth noting that sometimes I get upset and want to continue being upset. This is a legitimate thing for me to choose. The only reason I’m able to talk as cogently about my feelings as I do in this document is because I’ve spent a lot of time, especially over the past year, actively sitting with various kinds of emotional discomfort to understand more about what they’re like. But if I’ve asked you for help, or am in some kind of emergency situation or otherwise don’t seem okay, here are some ideas for what to do.

Also: Those who know me well will note that this is probably the least political thing I’ve posted in a very long time. Trying to both catalogue my emotional self-care practices AND contextualize them within oppression culture was too much for me to handle all at once. But yes, there are kyriarchical components to each one of these situations. For example, in the Panic section, I could have listed “manifestations of the intersection between misogyny and sanism” under triggers, but I didn’t. In part, this is also because I intend this as a practical reference. By and large, I rarely find it supportive of my mental health to combine mental-health-support with talking about politics because, except with a very short list of people, it usually involves having to debate, defend, or explain my (admittedly discomfiting) political positions rather than just getting to use them as tools for processing a situation. If you “speak my language” enough to talk politics when I’m really upset, that is absolutely one of the best ways to help me ground — but the folks in my life who can do this effectively are probably limited to Becky, Dakota, Maymay, Asa…and maybe a couple of others. Otherwise, I will probably be much more comforted by a hug than by any articulation of how the System is or is not screwing me in this particular moment. (And even if you are one of the aforementioned folks, hugs are good too. 🙂 )

And also: There are a lot of different ways I could’ve organized this. I tried to focus on making it a resource for people who want to know what to do when I’m upset. So, I talk mostly, here, about what these experiences are like for me in the moment. Not so much about where I think they might come from or what narratives I tell myself to understand them. However, you can safely assume that every single list of triggers on this page could also include: Interacting with my mother.

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2. The Basics

This document is primarily about how to support me in the moment when I’ve been triggered. However, there is a short list of things that almost infallibly contribute to my mental health and emotional well-being. They’re also things that are difficult for me to do consistently because I’m pretty much allergic to routine. If I seem out-of-sorts, one of the best ways you can support me is by checking in with me about the things on this list, encouraging me to prioritize them, or offering to do them with me. #5, of course, is one I can’t do on my own:

  • Eat. Every 4 – 6 hours. Something other than cold flour tortillas.
  • Sleep. Yes, EVERY night. And preferably for 6 hrs or more.
  • Exercise. Hiking, swimming, or doing physical labor are the best, but even just going for a walk to the park or stretching 15 mins a day makes a real difference.
  • Write. Blog. Journal. E-mail my grandma. Anything, as long as I’m putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
  • Human touch. I am powered by hugs. I go a little nuts if I spend long periods of time without affectionate physical contact. (I actually think this is true for most humans – and the fact that most people don’t get touched at all, or only get touched in coercive or sexualized situations, might explain a lot about why contemporary society feels so fractured and unstable.) In a pinch, if I’m somewhere (like, say, Antarctica) where it’s really difficult for me access touch with people I trust, massage can have a similar if lesser impact to cuddles. In fact, given all the other benefits massage has, if you’re concerned about me but far away, one of the most effective ways you can emotionally support me is to somehow facilitate me getting a massage.
  • Read the Tao te Ching. My favorite version is the Stephen Mitchell translation and the full text is online here.

If you just want more-or-less universally applicable tips for The Care and Feeding of Rebeccas and not all the nitty-gritty specifics, you can probably stop here. 🙂

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3.How I Ask for Help

  • More often than not, I don’t.
  • Because I’m bad at asking for help, the most helpful thing you can do is just check in with me when you happen to think of it.
  • I often ask for help by asking you to do things with me that are supportive of my mental health but that I probably won’t do on my own e.g. go for a hike, have dinner, generally get out of the house.
  • If I know in advance that I’m going to do something potentially-triggering, I might ask you to hang around and be back-up in case things go badly.
  • When I’m really down, I’m more likely to reach out broadly via the Internet than to specific people. Although I’m getting better at this, I’m often afraid of “imposing” on specific people, so I try to make the fact I’m struggling public and let people choose their level of engagement. This doesn’t mean I don’t want you to call me. In fact, YOU might be exactly the person who I want to call me.
  • Except, y’know, don’t actually call me. Talking on the phone feels super awkward to me and I typically avoid it except with a very select group of people – especially when I’m upset. I’m much more comfortable with txting, IM, Skype, or meeting in person. (If you do call, please leave a voicemail.)
  • Viscerally expressing my feelings is a good sign. If I’m crying, pacing, talking rapidly, etc. that usually means I’m pretty much okay or about to be okay. I process fast and move through emotional states at what I think can sometimes be a disconcertingly rapid rate. If I’m crying one moment and fine the next, don’t worry, I really am fine for the moment. And I’ll probably be crying again later and that’s okay too.However, if I’m shut down, having trouble talking, or refusing to engage with you, that’s a red flag. If I get “catatonic” like this, please talk to me gently, remind me that you’re here, that you see what’s going on and that I matter to you. The sound of my own name is really grounding for me at times like this. Also, this is the only time when it’s okay to try and “snap me out of it” instead of just letting me process – because I am probably not processing, I am probably just locked up inside my own head telling myself a bunch of pernicious lies over and over and over again.
  • If I’m hovering around awkwardly for no apparent reason, I probably just need a hug that I don’t know how to ask for.

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4. Being a Safe Person

A “safe person”, to me, is someone with whom I feel like it’s okay to express strong emotions and process through trauma reactions without being deemed “crazy” or otherwise punished for it. The number one thing you can do to be a safe and supportive person is to have faith that I’ll be okay. I’m extremely resilient and I’ve probably made it through a lot worse than whatever I’m going through right now. I talk about suicide sometimes but it’s very unlikely that I’m going to do it. I made a deal with myself a while back in which I chose my commitment to being and building with my loved ones over my occasionally recurring desire to die. I don’t have the tools or knowhow to kill myself and I have consciously chosen not to research them. I have a standing agreement with a mental health professional who I trust that if I’m ever seriously considering it, I’ll call her first. I may not feel like I’m going to be okay in the moment, but I will be. Your belief that I’ll get through this bout of suffering safely helps support my own faith in myself.

Also: If I’m talking to you calmly about intense subjects like suicide, death, despair or grief but I seem engaged and talkative, I’m probably okay. I think about these subjects a LOT because they’re part of my life, but also because they’re part of my work and I have an intellectual and political interest in exploring them that goes beyond simply tormenting myself with visions of my dead loved ones. 😛

Here are a few other basics Dos and Don’ts that help me feel safe being vulnerable around someone:

  • DO check in and ask me questions about where I’m at emotionally.
  • DON’T give me advice or try to “fix it” unless I specifically ask you to do so.
  • It’s okay to tell me about things that have worked for you/people you know in similar situations, as long as it’s framed as you sharing your own experience, not telling me about mine.
  • DO coordinate with other people who I’m close to. I want folks in my network to know what’s going on with me. I also know that supporting someone through their trauma is hard work, and that the people doing that support need support themselves.
  • Please DON’T gossip about my emotional state. There’s a difference between, “Rebecca’s having kind of a rough week. I bet she’d appreciate an e-mail” vs. “Man, I walked in on Rebecca yesterday and she was just crying her eyes out. I think something must be really wrong with her…”
  • In short: It’s okay to share details with others who you know I trust, especially in terms of how interacting with me is making you feel. I’d appreciate you using discretion when sharing details with people in your support network who aren’t a part of mine.
  • DO listen and trust me when I talk about my experiences. Even if you think I have a distorted perception of reality, I really am feeling the feelings I’m feeling. Challenging or trying to help me refocus my perspective when I’m lucid and processing later can be really helpful, but trying to “snap me out of” an acute emotional state will probably just make me feel unsupported, unsafe, and angry with you.
  • DO trust what I tell you about my needs in the moment. At the same time, try to stay conscious that I may be trying to protect you from the intensity of my feelings, especially if we don’t have an established rapport around mutually supporting each other.
  • DON’T make my feelings about you unless I’ve specifically told you they’re about you. This triggers my Caretaker/Damage Control mode and encourages me to focus on making you okay instead of making myself okay. (Giving me someone else’s problems to focus on instead of my own can be an effective way to short-circuit a meltdown in a high-stakes situation, but otherwise, please be careful with it.)
  • DO prioritize taking care of yourself and make sure you feel emotionally safe and supported enough to be supporting me.
  • For what it’s worth, you absolutely DON’T have to do any of this alone. In fact, I tend to feel the most comfortable, easy, supported and safe in groups of three people. So, y’know, bring a friend. (But probably not two friends. That seems like a lot of people to cry in front of.)
  • IF YOU CAN make me laugh, especially at myself, while not feeling like you’re making fun of me, you win a gold star. 🙂

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5. Some Ways I Get Upset

If You Find Me Crying

I cry for lots of reasons. I cry easily in casual conversation and it’s normally okay just to let me cry. Occasionally, you may come across me somewhere privately just having a total sobbing meltdown. This is usually an indication that I’m processing some trauma and the best thing you can do is just be present with me without trying to “fix it”. If you’re someone with whom I have an existing physical-touch relationship, it’s okay to ask if I want to be touched and, if I say yes, then hold me, touch my hair, rub my back. I can use small words like “I love you”, or “I’m right here”, or “It’s okay”…but I probably don’t want to talk and I especially don’t want to (and probably can’t) talk about why I’m crying. When I’ve calmed down, make space for me to share what triggered me with you — I might or I might not. My nose runs like crazy when I cry. I always need Kleenex.

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. . .

If I’m Depressed
I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to “snap out of” depression. This mostly just leads to prolonging it and taking it out on people around me who I love. Over the years, I’ve tried learning to take it more seriously and to take as good care of myself when I’m depressed as I would if I were physically ill. (Although I don’t take as good care of myself as I should, then, either. ;P) Bottom line: If you do the same sort of things for me when I’m depressed that you would if I had the flu, I will hugely appreciate you.

Low-level lethargic bleary depression, as much as I hate to admit it, seems to correlate directly with how much time I spend on the Internet — but I never know if that’s a cause or a symptom or both. But it tends to show up more acutely for me in three major ways and each one looks somewhat different:

EXISTENTIAL ANGST (Depression)

How You Can Tell

  • Eh. This is pretty classic. It manifests as fear of sickness and death, inchoate despair, feelings of meaninglessness, hyper-consciousness of mortality (my own and other peoples’), etc.
  • I walk around spouting cliches like, “What’s wrong with me?” “What the fuck am I doing with my life??”
  • I weep a whole lot randomly throughout the day but don’t usually have the kind of massive emotional releases I do with other kinds of depression.
  • This one also feels the most trivial, possibly because it’s so abstract and I have a lot of intellectual resources around it. This is just sort of, like, me hanging out with despair on a very casual basis.

What Might Bring it On

  • I don’t really know what triggers this. It just seems to happen at random intervals. Sometimes I can sort of tell it’s coming and give people a heads up about it.

What to Do

  • Don’t worry. I’ll probably get over it.
  • The best cure for existential angst is, ironically, existentialism. 😉 If you’re familiar with existentialist philosophies, talk to me about them! I find their pull-no-punches attitude incredibly hopeful without being cloying or polyanna. If you’re not, you can just remind me that we’re all going to die and that’s okay – in fact, that it’s pretty amazing. Buddhist Psych seems to be good for this, too.
  • Anything you can do to help me be in the present moment is great. Ask me questions about what’s around me, how my body feels, etc. Invite me to meditate with you.
  • Remind me why I’m valuable to you. Especially if I’m a real mess, it’s mostly because I’m feeling worthless and like there’s no good reason for me to be here.
  • Having structure and responsibilities I can’t get out of really help me manage this. Often, the only responsibilities I reallyfeel obligated to involve taking care of or hanging out with other peoples’ kids, so asking me to pick your child up at the bus stop or something is a pretty guaranteed way to help me manage depression. And hanging out with other peoples’ kids is often a great antidote for angst in general.
  • Existential Angst is such a widely caricatured experience of depression that it’s usually pretty easy for me to laugh at myself in this state.

BODY DYSPHORIA (Depression)

How You Can Tell

What Might Bring it On

  • Going long periods without eating.
  • Diet talk. Talk about eating disorders. Oppressive body-policing language and bullshit.
  • Changes in my body that make my clothes fit uncomfortably.
  • Being described as “feminine”, “maternal”, or a “goddess”.
  • Menstrual cramps etc.
  • Anything to do with pregnancy. (My own, not other peoples’. Usually.)
  • Being physically sick, injured, or otherwise in pain that I didn’t intentionally cause.
  • Team sports.
  • A lot of stuff related to sex and particularly compulsory heterosexuality.
  • A million other things I can’t process right now.

What to Do

  • What’s most helpful is someone to just listen non-judgmentally and not try to make me feel better. The other day, Dakota listened to me talk about the pros and cons of surgery and just…listened. Nobody’s ever done that for me before and it felt really amazing.
  • If you have your own experiences with body dysphoria, feeling disconnected from your body, or hurting or hating your body and you can empathize with me around them, that helps me feel less alone.
  • I probably don’t want to be touched.
  • Please don’t tell me I’m beautiful, or that you love my body or anything about physical attractiveness. Not right now. It generates an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance where I’m trying to reconcile other peoples’ perceptions of my body as a desirable object with my own experience of my body as an enemy combatant – and the depression aspect of my war with my body is more-or-less not about what other people think of how it looks; it’s about how gross it feels to be made of flesh.
  • Don’t just tell me that having a body is a good thing or that it’s the reason I’m alive or whatever. I already know that. It doesn’t matter. I can’t thinkmy way out of this feeling.
  • Encourage me to move. Stretch. Walk. Swim. Whatever. Come with me.

THE WELL OF LONELINESS (Depression)

How You Can Tell

  • I am convinced that nobody loves me. Nobody understands me. All my relationships are a lie and I am a naïve, desperate, clinging fool. All my creative work is crap. I’m completely alone in the world. Nobody is going to care when I die. In fact, they’ll probably be relieved.
  • I fluctuate between being extremely clingy and avoiding human contact.
  • I write long e-mails or send barrages of text messages telling people how strongly I feel about them and then try to take it all back immediately afterwards.
  • My “masochistic misanthropic” streak comes out: I hate everybody. Fuck ’em. (If they’re all going to reject me I’m just gonna reject them first.) I get very taciturn and quiet (for me) in public places.
  • I try to do “relationship processing” that feels more like picking a fight, or I try to convince people to “prove” that they care about me even though I won’t believe them when they do.
  • Crying a lot while writing; gasping, choking-for-air sorts of sobs; silent screaming into my hands or a pillow.
  • This feeling is pretty acutely painful but the most painful part doesn’t usually last more than a few hours at a time — unlike the other two which can drag on at a low level for weeks or months.

What Can Bring it On

    • Again, I really don’t know. All the same stuff that brings on other kinds of depression, plus something to do with feeling socially overloaded and spending too much time in Extrovert-Mode.
    • Also: Scenes. Everything about any kind of scene or cool-kid culture brings this feeling up in me hardcore.
    • But sometimes spending a lot of time by myself can bring it up, too.

What To Do

  • There’s really nothing anyone can do about this in the moment, because its nature is that I feel disconnected from people in a way that makes me distrust everybody’s motives. The best thing you can do is not take anything I say to you personally and wait for it to pass.
  • Counter-intuitive as it sounds, the number one thing I need to do when I feel this way is spend time alone. This might result in me getting up in the middle of the night to go sleep on the couch or something. Again, please don’t take it personally.
  • I have a suspicion that, more than anything else, this kind of depression is going to stick with me for the rest of my life — and it never gets any easier. I’ve seeded my environment with symbolic anchors to help me weather it, including some things I’ve written and my exploding heart tattoo.
  • When I’m in this state, I’m convinced that nobody even remembers I exist when they’re not with me – so reminders like small gifts, cards, sweet txt messages I’ve saved etc. that loved ones have sent me out of the blue help remind me that people think of me when I’m not around. There might not be much a supportive friend can do when I’m feeling this way, but if you happen to think of me sometime when I’m not around and let me know, that might help me out the next time I’m down.

A Few Things I’ve Written About This

04.22.2012 – Remedies for Hollowness
02.04.2012 – Ache.
01.17.2012 – “Yeah. ‘Cause existing is such a curse,” – Everett Piper
04.14.2010 – Folks What Loves Me

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. . .

If I’m Grieving

How You Can Tell

  • It’s hard to describe the difference between depression and grief, because they can look similar on paper and sometimes bleed into each other. The best I can say right now is that depression seems to be a lie about meaninglessness, while grief is an authentic communion with despair.
  • Lots of crying. Difficulty talking. Spending lots of time alone.
  • I don’t come out of grief as easily as I do other “upset” states, but I also tend to be relatively lucid when I’m in it – so you can probably just ask me.

What Might Bring It On

  • Actual loss –- past or present, my own or other peoples’.

What to Do

  • Grief is REALLY good for me. I have a lot to grieve and I’ve kept it bottled up for most of my life. Help me make space to feel this feeling and remind me that it’s painful but important. Express support for me feeling it fully.
  • If I’m grieving, I probably want to share stories about who or what I’m grieving for. Ask me about it. Encourage me to write.
  • Share your own experiences of loss with me. Even better if we can share our losses symbolically over food or wine.
  • Grieving is the only extreme emotional state in which it’s a good idea for me to get drunk.
  • Make me laugh. Humor is the grace of grief.
  • Please help me remember to eat.

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. . .

If I’m Stressed Out

How You Can Tell

  • Pulling my hair or scratching my head incessantly
  • Making lots of lists, especially by hand
  • Seeming constantly disconnected and distracted when I’m around other people
  • Talking about how I have SO much to do then spending hours on Facebook etc.
  • Talking really frantically about the nitty-gritty details of things. Repeating things over and over. Crying with frustration.
  • Trouble getting up in the morning. Just lying wide awake staring at the ceiling for a long time.

What Might Bring it On

  • Overcommitting myself
  • Feeling insecure about the prosaic aspects of my life
  • Money stuff, house stuff, etc.

What To Do

  • Help me organize. My physical space has a HUGE impact on my mental state when I’m stressed – but I get kind of deer-in-headlights by how overwhelmed I am and can’t start anything. Help me clean my room, do the dishes, etc. Just sit with me while I budget or deal with tax bullshit.
  • Remind me that I don’t HAVE to do everything – or probably almost anything – that I feel like I have to do.
  • And, like almost everything else, encourage me to move

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. . .

If I’m “All Wound-Up”

I’m always hesitant to use the word “manic” because it’s a much more clinical and less colloquial description than something like feeling “depressed” or “stressed out”. People who are clinically diagnosed as manic have to deal with a lot of shit I don’t, such as all the complications of having one’s mental states diagnosedby an institution, so I don’t want to appropriate the language that refers to that experience — even if the mental state I’m describing might be somewhere along a similar spectrum. I like the term Lafe uses for when he’s feeling, well, manic: “All Wound-Up!” So, I’m using that.

(I really have no idea where any of these states I’m describing fall along their concomitant institutionalized-psychiatric-medicine “mental disorder” spectra. Sometimes my mental health stuff feels totally debilitating and like it impacts every aspect of my life; other times it feels like a total non-issue and like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill by, say, writing about it on the Internet. For a number of reasons, I’ve never pursued a diagnosis, and I’ve been privileged enough not to have one forced upon me. So, I really don’t know. I’m just going to keep trying to talk about it in ways that work for me and try not to get too wrapped up trying to figure out where I fit in some kind of mental-health hierarchy of legitimacy.)

So, this a weird one because it often feels really good to me, especially if I’m indulging in it with other people. It isn’t exactly a way of “being upset.” But I understand that it throws my life out of whack (which is totally fine sometimes) and, more importantly, if I indulge in it too far it’ll often tip me into depression, stress, or panic that is no fun at all. I’d like to be able to harness it as a creative force without totally blowing out my ability to take care of myself…I’m still working on that.How You Can Tell

  • Not sleeping. Staying up late to write, waking up early and seeming energetic.
  • Constant hypergraphic scribbling or texting myself incessantly.
  • Feverish e-mails or oral dissertations about really complex, grandiose, political/theoretical ideas that I’m confused you don’t understand or aren’t as excited about as I am.
  • Just talking really fast in general.
  • Paying a huge amount of attention to how I dress, makeup, etc. (WoundUp!Me looks stellar most of the time.)
  • The kind of cleaning sprees where I completely dismantle the stove, etc.
  • I used to go on shopping sprees, usually with the aim of totally transforming my house, my wardrobe, my body — y’know, whatever magical conversion was going to Make Everything Better. Not so much anymore ’cause, y’know, I can’t afford that shit.
  • Super bounciness!

What Might Bring It On

  • Again, with this one, I have no idea. It just seems to happen. Something to pay more attention to…
  • Interacting with other people who are manic
  • Intense intellectual stimulation
  • Chemical stimulants
  • Anything related to Occupy used to get me so wound-up that I had to quit going to GAs…for whatever that’s worth.

What to Do

  • When I’m wound-up, self-care goes out the window because I don’t feel like I need it. It helps to be reminded to eat, try to sleep, stretch, breathe, etc.
  • Offering to sleep next to me. My tendency is to stay up all night, but if I know someone is waiting in bed for me, I’ll choose to go to sleep at some point.
  • For some reason, things that make me warm seem to help me come down: Hot showers, hot baths, hot tea, hot food, hot weather, heating pads, being held and cuddled really tightly while I fidget. Maybe my body associates warmth with slowness?
  • Often, it takes me a while to even notice this one is happening. Point it out to me (gently, please) when you see it. Not, “I think you’re really manic,” but rather, “This specific thing you’re doing is causing trouble for me in this particular way.” Or maybe just, “You seem really distracted lately. I miss you.” Most other things on this list are things I’d happily stop feeling if I could, so being told about how they’re making you miserable just makes me feel guilty – I’m already obsessing about how miserable I’m probably making you, anyway. But being “wound-up” is something that it helps to have community calibration around.

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. . .

If I Panic

This is the big one. My anxiety isn’t a fear that I’m about to die; it’s a fear that I’m about to go completely off-the-deep-end bad-acid-trip batshit insane. So, this is the scary one where I vividly imagine horror movie fears like swarms of beetles coming out of the sink drain and that my lover has turned into a possessed shark-toothed zombie in bed with me. It’s also the scariest one for others to watch, I think, because there’s no way for me to communicate what’s going on in the moment if you don’t already know. Every other emotional state on this list I can see some redeeming value in that balances out the ways that it’s uncomfortable. But panic attacks (or whatever), as far as I’m concerned, can fucking die and burn in a fire. I don’t care if they give me access to my deep subconscious or something. If that’s true, my subconscious is a terrible, terrible place and I do not want to know what’s going on there. I am seriously down to reorganize my entire life so that I never have to have them again. But I probably will do, so…

How You Can Tell

  • Flinching. Jumping. Flailing and random gestures.
  • Hyperventilating or sometimes screaming.
  • Talking to myself/the walls/the air in front of me, saying things like, “No. No. No. STOP. NOT NOW.”
  • Erratic dodging movements.
  • Turning lights out and then scrambling to turn them back on.
  • Apparent fear of touching physical objects AND random touching of walls or knocking on things.
  • Wide-eyed. Bursting into tears.
  • Basically, if it’s happening in the moment, I probably look like I’m being attacked by something. If I’m just afraid it’s about to happen, I might look a little nervous or obsessive-compulsive.

What Might Bring it On

  • Lack of sleep, physical stress
  • Any reference to swarms of insects or infestation. (Even the word ‘infestation’ can be triggering.)
  • Unidentified buzzing noises
  • Thinking about overpopulation
  • Talking or thinking about panic attacks
  • Being in water – including baths, showers, pools, hot tubs, etc.
  • Horror movies, books about torture, being alone in my house on in the middle of a windstorm with no power, or anything classically “spooky”
  • Places where I’ve had panic attacks before
  • Most often, it just comes out of fucking nowhere with no warning

What to Do

Before an Attack

  • If you’re familiar with my triggers and we’re in a situation or conversation where you can see some of them coming, I always appreciate when people steer the conversation in another direction, or give me a heads up or, at the very least, explain what’s going on to other people if I get up and leave abruptly with no explanation.
  • This isn’t funny. Please don’t fuck with me about it. Don’t try and encourage me to “face my fears.” If we’re talking about something and I’ve been looking uncomfortable for a little while and I ask you to change the subject, for god’s sake, please just change the fucking subject.

During an Attack

  • DO NOT TOUCH ME. I know I look terrified and you want to reassure me, but please don’t try to hug me. If you’re comfortable with it, though, you might stand close enough that I can choose to touch you. Understand that if I am panicking in your vicinity, I am probably imagining something really terrible happening to you, like you are being eaten alive by ants or something. The thought of you touching me may be terrifying to me, but it can help me to be able to touch you and reassure myself that you’re real.
  • Eye contact, if I’ll make it.
  • Talk to me calmly. Don’t expect me to respond. Just keep talking. Tell me it’ll be okay, that it’s not real, that I’m not going crazy.
  • Hearing my name can help sometimes.
  • Help me take deep breaths. Remind me to breathe. Breathe with me. Fully in/out yoga breaths with pauses halfway through each one.
  • If you’re okay with hearing about it, encourage me to describe what I’m seeing. Sometimes saying it outloud will help it dissipate.
  • Remind me that it’s not real, but you can also validate that it feels real and that it’s scary.
  • Sometimes it helps if you can hold space for it to just be okay/safe for me to freak out. I’m fighting to control the panic, partly because I’m afraid of it and partly because I don’t want to scare  you. But sometimes it goes faster and easier if I can just ride it out.

After an Attack

  • Hold me as soon as I’ll let you. Let me flinch, push away, and come back as I need to.
  • After a bad panic attack, I’m usually kind of a zombie for several hours to days following. I may need a shoulder to cry on. It helps to have art materials and be able to draw or other forms of non-verbal processing. It’s good for me to spend time in the sun.

There’s a special case here: What happens if I panic during sex. This isn’t something that comes up for me very often anymore, mostly because I’ve made a conscious effort to try and stop having the kinds of sex that tend to trigger anxiety. What those triggers are and what to do if they come up are things that I’ll talk specifically about with lovers, not in the public domain. But I wanted to put this here because the most helpful thing a partner can do around this is be aware that it’s a possibility going into sex with me and have conversations with me beforehand about it — so that, if it does happen, we don’t have to deal with the double-edged sword of both the panic itself and me feeling guilty and shitty for springing a panic attack on you out of nowhere while we’re in bed together.

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. . .

If I’m Angry

If I’m angry at the world
Just let me be angry. Visceral anger is the most taboo emotion in my universe. I so rarely get to feel it, get to turn it out onto the world rather than into the soft parts of my own body. It’s so freeing to be able to just scream FUCK EVERYTHING! sometimes and not have to explain myself. It’s a good feeling be MAD at somebody or something, to be able to vent and rant and howl. I’m clever and funny when I’m angry. Hell, get angry with me!

If I’m angry at you
Give me space. I’m probably hurting a lot. I’m hurting because I hate being angry at people I care about. And, for this reason, I’m conflict-avoidant to a fault in my personal relationships. It’s something I’m working on. I feel more comfortable communicating about why I’m angry through writing than in person, but it’s generally more productive for me to do it in person, because I don’t obfuscate my feelings as much. But give me some space first, let me work through the rawness with someone else first, and then…

And then, I don’t know. I think that depends on the individual relationship and what your communication about anger looks like, also. I suppose every relationship should probably have its own set of custom guidelines around What Happens When We’re Angry At Each Other — because this isn’t really a “How to Help Me When I’m Upset” thing, so much as it’s a relationship communication thing.

If I’m angry at someone else
It depends a lot on why I’m angry. Love all the people; hate all the systems. I don’t get angry at humans for political reasons; I get angry at institutions, structural positions, cultural practices and oppressive expectations. So if I’m ranting about someone I don’t know very well and how their politics are totally busted, see: If I’m angry at the world.

On the other hand, if I’m angry at someone with whom I have a meaningful relationship and all I can talk about is how their politics are busted, chances are I’m obfuscating because I don’t want to deal with my actual feelings about whatever they did that actually hurt me. Now, someone might’ve hurt me because of something related to their politics, positionality, etc. and I can start there. But I’m not angry at their politics, I’m angry about what they did and how it felt. Just let me talk through it with you. I probably don’t need you to defend the person or try and explain their side of things unless I ask; otherwise, I’ll feel the need to defend myself and “prove” why they’re a jerk — and that doesn’t help me or them. Since this is someone I care about, my default once I calm down is already going to be to give them the benefit of the doubt, and I can probably sift down through the layers myself until I figure out why I’m really hurting. Sometimes just reminding me that I’m talking about someone I love can help a lot. But really, just listening is most of what I need.

If I’m angry at myself
I don’t really know what to say here. Just remind me that you care about me, I guess. I’m angry at myself a lot. It’s at the base of most of this stuff. I try not to let on too much.

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6. And Finally…

Finally: Stuffed animals. Seriously. I know it sounds silly and regressive or whatever, but with almost every kind of upset I can feel, having some cute fuzzy plush object to squish will help me calm down and make me feel more okay.

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Addenda:

– I’m curious to think about what other pages and categories would go in a larger Self-Care and Personal Guidebook type template.
– If possible, it might be useful to add links to specific things I’ve written to provide people with context for specific triggers or experiences I’m having.
– Since most of the people reading this will probably be folks who have hung out with me through a rough patch or two, I’m open to also hearing your suggestions for ways to help that I may have not noticed or that I’ve missed or forgotten about. This is totally a working document and a lot of it is just guess-work.

If you actually read this whole thing, I’d be curious to know that — just to know who, y’know, knows what about me. 😉
(Hm. Apparently, Katelyn says she tried posting a comment a couple of times and it doesn’t seem to be working. I wonder what’s up with that.)

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5 Comments »

  1. I read this whole thing 🙂

    It’s awesome that you put this together as a reference for people who love you.
    I’ve been thinking that I need to put together something similar for people in my support network. Maybe I can use this as a template 🙂

    Comment by Nehet — May 19, 2012 @ 10:10 pm | Reply

    • Please do! And, when you do, I’d love to see what yours looks like (if you’d be comfortable sharing.) I’m curious to see various peoples’ ways of going about this. 🙂

      Comment by thirdxlucky — May 20, 2012 @ 12:24 am | Reply

  2. Today’s W00t shirt reminded me of the “manual” I need to write:

    (Dory is my favorite Pixar character, ever.)

    Comment by Nehet — May 20, 2012 @ 6:35 pm | Reply

  3. I just read this. I’m probably going to go over it again with my lj in front me, so that I can do something similar.

    Comment by followpan — December 16, 2012 @ 2:27 am | Reply

  4. I read your manual. I’m going to do something similar on my lj, though it’s likely that it will be less detailed, at least in the “what to do” section.

    Comment by followpan — December 16, 2012 @ 2:30 am | Reply


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