Sunday, September 16, 2018

Grad School, Mental Health

It's been an exhausting weekend of performing and meeting with old professors/advisers to discuss my plans for graduate school. Luckily, my Sunday evening plans had been canceled, saving me the trouble of using spoons I just don't have right now. I have a lot to think about, and some of this feels like starting the process all over again.

My former research adviser noted that the main weakness in my application would be my lack of research experience beyond undergrad--pretty much what I expected as well. She also made the point that my research interests and desire to see my work put into practice when working with individuals with disabilities may align well with certain rehabilitation sciences programs, which may place less of an emphasis on extensive research experience during the admissions process. I've identified a few more program options over the past several days, but I honestly didn't expect to have to shift directions this much. I think I am still going to apply to my top choices in neuroscience/psychology while exploring these other programs.

I know I have a little less than 2 months to get everything in, but that honestly feels like such a short amount of time given everything that I have going on, especially if I have to contact a dozen or so additional people. I suppose I know what I'll be doing in my spare time this week.

Shifting gears a little...

I spent a lot of Saturday night following the show in a sort of trance, though I descended towards full-blown meltdown territory on the car ride back to the hotel. We had planned on staying out a little later, and I felt like I was fighting myself the whole time. I struggled to sit still and avoid screaming. I'm nowhere near that point this evening, but the urge to scream and thrash tends to come and go these days. I know I need a break. I'm taking one as soon as I can, while trying to avoid the need to say yes to everyone about everything. I'm scared that I won't make it. I'm scared that everything will fall apart again. I normally wouldn't even care, but I'm finally working towards something that matters to me instead of just getting through each day. But that's proving more taxing than I thought. I don't think it would be nearly as bad without the travel every weekend, and I know that's something that I'll have to consider in the coming months.

I feel like I keep losing my train of thought. I'm tired all the time but can't sleep. I wonder if this increase in medication dosage has actually made things worse. It doesn't feel any better, but I don't want to keep increasing doses because that's what always seems to happen, with pretty dismal consequences. I still wonder if I really need the medication--if I can resolve my issues by taking control of my environment more effectively--but I don't think that's a decision I can make right now. If the medication worked in a way that allowed me to do that, I could understand. It just seems to get me moving and out of bed, but with all the same mental anguish and anxiety. I'm so over all of this that I want to give up, but I also know that that leads to its own set of problems.

I don't know what the hell is going on in my life anymore.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Rambling about "Motivational" Speakers

Oh look. More generic "inspirational" messages from people trying to be motivational speakers. Like, does this crap actually help anybody? I feel like I just watched 5 minutes of fluff and 20 seconds of an actual point. Granted, some of these people have done a lot for the community, but sometimes I have to roll my eyes because, while it may be just me, I take little comfort in those "everything is going to be alright"/"look at me! i did it so you can!" videos. I prefer people who provide a critical analysis of the problematic shit that fuels feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and isolation among queer individuals. I'm not really here for your feel-good pieces, but I suppose that's what's most marketable because people love their easy answers.

I know there is a need for young queer people to hear positive messages, though, so I acknowledge that my feelings might be a bit misdirected. But I think they also need to know that it's okay to not be okay. That simply putting on a brave face and powering through isn't always the best choice for your mental health. "It gets better" has always been a problematic phrase for me.

Because it doesn't just get better. Not on its own anyway. You learn to make it better. You learn to claim agency in your own life, you learn to set limits, you learn to cope. It gets better when you realize that you have the power to make it better, even if that's just in small ways. And, as I've said before, better doesn't always mean easier.

The last thing I need to hear when I'm really not okay is that I'm going to be okay. Maybe that's true in a way, but unless I deal with whatever is making me not okay, I won't actually be able to let it go enough to be okay. My brain doesn't work that way. I obsess over mistakes I made 20 years ago, so you can imagine what real problems do to me. Sorry for rambling a bit, but I think I'm getting to a breakthrough point here. What do I need in those situations? First, I need to get it out there. I need someone to talk to me about what's going on, and not just on a surface level. It'd be nice not to have to have those conversations with myself: "What is the worst thing about the way you are feeling right now?" "Do you think anything specific/any combination of things is making this worse right now?" "Can you improve this by taking care of any of those other things first?" I appreciate supportive statements as well, but I feel that generic advice is unhelpful in these situations. I think that offering advice without knowing the full situation or asking what has or hasn't worked is kind of presumptuous. If one more person tells me I need to try deep breathing exercises, I will scream. Seriously.

I've learned a lot about how to manage my own mental health. And how not to. When I finally get to the point where I can't, it's usually because EVERYTHING has failed to help. I've never really had a decent therapist. At least not one who has been able to provide truly novel insights. I'm a shit show right now. I'm doing my best, but I'm not doing well. Sometimes I feel like running away. Running home, even though I am home. I've gotten to the point where I get anxious/overwhelmed by having to do anything at all. I'm taking a break from a lot of things starting sometime in October. I'm hoping this helps. A few days/weeks at a time just doesn't seem to work. I still fear that I'll have to return to the hospital before long. The thoughts hit me at random times. I feel like screaming quite often. I hate this medication and what it does to me physically. I wonder if I really need it. I wonder if getting past the withdrawal phase would change things. But I'm scared to try, and I'm scared to ask. It's not that I have a bad relationship with my doctor, but I wish I felt like I could really open up. It just feels...very sterile, I guess. 

The thing is, I am having more of those days where I feel fucking amazing. Where I'm bouncing off the walls ready to do everything, but still unable to focus on anything long enough to get a lot done. The problem is that I can hit rock bottom the same day. This can happen multiple times in a day, even in an hour. I keep wondering how I will ever be able to live with this outside of my own house. I've been fortunate enough to have a place where I can hide from the world to deal with this for years. If I want to move forward in my life, I won't have that luxury. Maybe that's been part of the problem, but I know I won't have the balance I need. I don't know what this means I should do, but I feel like I at least have to try. I'll just end up regretting it if I don't. 

I wish I could talk about everything that's going on, but I'm entering some new territory. It's largely positive, but things are probably about to get a lot more complicated. 


Thursday, August 23, 2018

This is 30

A few years ago, I remember writing something in a journal of mine that eventually became an Instagram post, fully filtered and angled appropriately, back when filters weren't entirely frowned upon by the faces in the shadows of the internet:

"Let me always feel like the best is yet to come."

So, I'm 30 now. That's a lot to take in for someone who feels both 15 and 55 at the same time. Obviously, nothing has really changed in the span of a few weeks, other than what I've known to be changing over the last several years. I'm still bald as fuck, and maybe that's the worst of it physically. I can't drink like I used to, but I don't want to anyway. However, the one major change that's been messing with me for the past 5 years is that my ability to handle mental and emotional stress has gotten progressively worse, rather than better. I can't seem to go a year without making a trip to a mental hospital. Medications just seem to lose their efficacy after a few months, and ECT left me at a loss for some of the most important memories in my life, and I'm terrified to risk that again. What's the use of being happy if you can't remember why you should be?

I know the reasons behind this are partly physically, partly psychological, and that the two are inseparable. I hurt myself. I'm broken and very likely can't be fixed, although--if I'm being really honest here--I haven't exactly been trying for the past year. Earlier this year, we drove 4 hours to Pittsburgh for an interventional radiology appointment, which we were informed was cancelled for me only when I had already checked in and filled out all the necessary paperwork. I was so frustrated by that that I think I just gave up. I spent three full years constantly focused on improving the pain, so much so that there wasn't really room for anything else in my life. I've made that room by pushing my medical concerns aside, but they still occupy a great deal of my emotional resources. My goal now is not so much to be pain free, but to be at a level of pain where I can still do the things I love to do. I want to dance again, on the floor and in the air. I want to be able to jump and land without feeling those painful vibrations throughout my torso. I want to be able to do simple things like make the bed and pick things up off the floor without holding on to something. I've gotten pretty good at avoiding tasks and working around my limitations, but I'd rather work through them. I want to feel useful. Even though that shouldn't be a requirement for a fulfilling life, it is for me. As I've said many times before, I want to stop feeling like I'm weighed down, both physically and otherwise. A little pain doesn't bother me, but there's only so much that one person can take. 

I fear that these physical limitations will only worsen if I keep up like this. I do a pretty good job of managing what I can by staying in shape, by keeping my muscles strong and functional, but I'm starting to feel like that's not enough. I've lived here over a year and still don't have a PCP. I also may not live here by this time next year. I feel like I've been hiding from life, sometimes by choice, sometimes not. 

I'm applying to grad school for the second time, but this time, my options are located all across the country. We're still working on what happens if I get into a school somewhere else and Jackson gets a different job at the agency. I've written before about my fears regarding my ability to handle the intensity of a graduate program, so I won't harp on that for too long. There's another possibility that terrifies me, though. What if I don't get in at all, again? What happens with my life? What direction will I take, and would there be any point in trying a third time with little chance of gaining any extra experience? I think my mind is already preparing me for that mental breakdown. The last time I received those rejection letters, I had just moved to Pittsburgh, ready to start a new life in a familiar place. I entered a new relationship a few weeks after moving there. Within a few months, I was in the psych ward again, and I haven't really had the time to stop and think about life for very long since. There was my injury, my medication-induced psychotic break, moving every 6-8 months, his cancer, his dad's cancer...It just never stopped. So I kept moving forward with life, without really knowing when I'd be able to stop and think about what I wanted it to be. 

I spend a lot of time alone these days, working from home. I've had a lot of time to think about grad school given what I do now. This is also the longest I've held any kind of job without having to quit due to overload. I know this is the right path for me. I'm just hoping that it's not too late for others to see that as well. I'm hoping that, yes, the best will be to come in this next decade of life.

It's been almost 10 years since I began my transition, since I first posted a video in March of 2009 crying my eyes out about how much harder my life was about to get. While it's hard to believe that parts of college were over 10 years ago, I remember many things pretty clearly. For the other stuff, it's probably best that I don't remember it. I remember seeing my chest in a binder for the first time, my first drag show, the beginnings of HMH and TransPride, the places I lived and the people who came to know me. Many of them have long since moved on from Pittsburgh, with more and more leaving as time goes on. Most of the people that made Pittsburgh home for me are gone, but there are new faces, and I'm the one they look up to now (or despise, with no in-between). Pittsburgh will always hold a special place in my heart, and I frequently feel drawn back, and I can't always explain why. Cruze is closing in a few weeks, and that itself feels like another nail in the coffin. 

Last month, I got the chance to do something few people will ever get to do. I became the first completely pre-op trans man to model for Andrew Christian. I still can't believe it. It still feels unreal. I was supposed to do an AC fashion show at the end of the month, but due to some issues with overbooking models (or so I'm told), they pulled me since I was traveling the farthest. I spent very little time in LA, but it also felt like home, but in different ways. It had that new-home feel. It felt exciting. Full of opportunity, but a bit overwhelming at times. I still don't know where I belong, and I expect that it will change throughout my life. I still miss my friends. I long for us to be together again. I've figured out that that's what they mean when they say the "good old days". Things were a lot simpler overall, and we were all in the same place trying to navigate our lives. We celebrated our victories and mourned our losses together. I hate to feel these connections slipping from me. I guess this is growing up.

It's late. I'm about to head to the gym after being sick for over a week yet working non-stop. Sometimes, it feels like that's all I have to keep me sane and out of the house. I don't know where I belong, or what I'll be doing 5 or 10 years from now, but I want to be in a place where access to like-minded people isn't so limited. I want to be in a place where I feel in control of where and when I go, even if I never learn to drive myself, which seems more and more likely every time I think about it. My issue is that, until I feel more emotionally and mentally stable, it's hard to tell which options would be best. Here's hoping that this next year of life brings me the answers I need, or at least sets me on the path to finding them.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

LA Trip: Still Processing

I haven't quite fully processed the past week, which seems like it's lasted a full month. Last Monday, I flew out to LA to be part of an Andrew Christian photo shoot--the first non-op trans man to do so. My level of comfort fluctuated throughout the day. Despite AC being an internationally renowned underwear company, it was a nude photo shoot, some of which involved some pretty neat underwater photography. At the end of this month, I'll be doing an AC fashion show in Columbus. I met Andrew last week, and I'm told he'll be in Columbus as well. Is this real life?

I'm insanely proud of myself, yet I still feel like I could have been in better condition. I still feel terrible about my body, but I think that's been changing, even over the past week. I can't describe how comfortable I felt on Tuesday. I never thought that word could describe me, completely naked and surrounded by a full crew, experienced models, and three other trans men who have already had top surgery. My comfort wavered a little during the day, but something about the experience felt so natural. Holding a conversation while naked seemed to get easier as the day went on too.

Like I said, I'm still processing all of this. I'm still working on my body image issues. If that were all that's going on, I might be further along. I managed to do something else that's been terrifying me for months: I asked people to write letters of recommendation yesterday. Applications don't open until September 1st for most schools, but I want to stay ahead of the game this time. I want to have enough time to tailor my statement to each school. Plus, I need to have my shit submitted by mid-November to avoid having to take the GRE again.

These are two big fucking things right now. Then there's drag, my schedule for which is about to get a little crazy come November, when I travel to Memphis to perform.

I'm waiting for my phone to charge enough to go to the gym. Not only am I preparing for this fashion show, I'm trying to keep my mental health under control given the stress of life in general. They recently doubled my dose of Abilify, so tracking these next few weeks is going to be important. I'm still having a lot of focus issues, and I'm starting to consider asking for help with that again. I'd finish work much more quickly if I could stay on task for more than an hour at a time. I'm used to being the kind of person that doesn't move for 8 hours, so not being able to maintain focus is really weird to me. It's been about two or three months of that, and I can't exactly figure out why.

I'm actually surprised I've maintained enough focus to write this, though I still feel slightly distracted.

I'm going to try to readjust my sleep schedule again, which feels like fighting a losing battle every time. They took me off the medication that was supposed to help me fall asleep because, as always, it stopped working very shortly after I started taking it. Even when combined with an antihistamine. Then there are the times when I sleep for almost 2 days straight. I haven't even been able to figure out a pattern.

I'm starting to ramble. Maybe I'll be able to get more out later this week.

Oh, there's one more thing.

I turn 30 on Saturday.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Nope

I'm not okay, and all I want to do is wake up up, even though I know there is nothing you can do to help me. I just can't stand being alone with my thoughts right now. I am overwhelmed to the point that I can't do anything that I actually enjoy anymore. I'm trying to survive this, but all I can do is get up and work. I have nothing left, and there's no reason for that other than it's just how I am.

I can't even get the rest of this out. I just need to go lie down.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Potato

Tonight is one of those late nights alone that has my mind pulled in about fifteen different directions, each one needing more attention than I have spoons to give at this point. I just got back from the gym, so I'm filled with the overwhelming desire to do everything yet too overwhelmed and unfocused to get anything done. 

I'm hoping to apply for grad school this fall. I haven't taken the GRE again. I've only briefly talked with the people I hope to have write my letters. I haven't even begun studying. I'm terrified that I won't do as well this time since my brain has been fried. I'm terrified that I won't get in. I'm essentially paralyzed and can't make any more progress. I'm even terrified of making the list of things I need to do. And I'm not sure what things need to go on it and what things don't. 

I don't want to screw this up again. I'm worried that I'll never get another chance.
Or that that third chance won't even be worth taking.
I'm worried that I won't be able to handle the environment during or after school.
I'm worried that my journey has to end. 

I know all of this, yet I still can do nothing. 
The guilt of being so out of control just exacerbates the problem. 

What's more is that I feel like I've failed my fiance again because I never feel like I'm good at helping in certain situations. No matter what I try, nothing seems to work. I just want to give you the right answers. To solve everything. But I can't. And I hate it. 

It's so quiet. 
I have a photo shoot Saturday.
I have a show Sunday. 

I need to make time to study. To set a date for this test. 

Do you see what I mean? 

I know I can do this, so why am I so stuck? Mental health, you nasty bitch. 

Also, 
I think I just got four more mosquito bites. 

I don't know how to explain the feelings I have right now. Of love. Of loneliness. Of fear. Of confidence. Everything tends to happen all at once, or to come in waves, which sometimes takes me from high to low and back again in a matter of seconds. It's dizzying. And the fear that that will never end...well, the knowledge that, yes, it absolutely will continue for the rest of my life and there's nothing I can really do to change that, sucks. 

I don't want damage control to be the story of my life, and I feel like it has been for a while. 
I want my thirties to be different. 
That feels weird to say. 
I still feel 12 years old. Just as confused, if not more. 
A friend and I figured out that secret a long time ago.
Everyone is just faking it. No one knows how to adult.
No one knows what the fuck is going on, and we're all secretly waiting to be found out. 

Work has taught me how to fake it until I make it. I just submitted a project proposal for a chance to work on a neuroscience portal for a major pharmaceutical company. They asked me to do it, and after a few rounds and 6 pages of absurd detail later, I did it. I had not one clue what the fuck I was doing. But I learned. I frequently have to work on papers outside my area of expertise, and google scholar has become my best friend. 
I also just killed a mosquito. So two wins for me, I suppose.

That's my story. Constantly feeling somewhere between "I'm actually really good at what I do" and "I'm a talking potato".

But maybe someday I'll be a potato with a PhD. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Musings on Exercise and Brain Function

Working out has saved my life more times than I can count. The chaos of Pride, my fiance's new job, and a full performance schedule until pretty much the end of the year caused me to lose focus on my workout routine. Day by day, I became less and less capable of functioning. More and more things started to feel overwhelming. Then one day, I was barely able to breathe without screaming. I couldn't avoid the thoughts of ending it all just to stop feeling that way, despite my seemingly contradictory existential death anxiety, which likes to creep in at random times throughout the day and night. It only took about two weeks for me to get to that point. I knew going to the gym would solve my problems almost instantly, but I was too far gone to make it alone. 

He sacrificed sleeping that night to go with me. He gave himself a migraine just to pull me out of the darkness when I couldn't do it myself. I don't know how to thank him for all the ways he shows how much he loves me. Words are never enough. 

It's day 2, and the world already seems a little less terrifying. I feel more capable of taking on new projects. I'm less afraid of failing. That's not to say that these don't represent major obstacles anymore, but working out allows me to broaden my view of the situation so that I can find ways around them. 

This is what I want to study. I want to research how something as simple as lifting weights can fundamentally alter brain chemistry, structure, and function. Particularly in people like me. I've seen these effects in others too. I've heard story after story of how physical activity has transformed the way people view themselves and the world around them, and I've been fortunate enough to be the catalyst for change in many of these situations. Knowing more about the neural mechanisms underlying these changes will provide greater insight into brain function in general, and in various populations. 

There's so much work to be done. For example, wouldn't it be interesting to compare the effects of resistance training to those of commonly prescribed antidepressants/antipsychotics, or the combination of the two? To cardiovascular training alone? In people with depression versus controls? What does the brain look like before and after resistance training? Does functional connectivity change, particularly in executive function networks? If so, can resistance training be implemented to help people with disorders affecting executive function? 

The funny part about all of this is, working out is the only thing that is going to allow me to have the functional capacity to do any of this research. A few days ago, I thought about scrapping the idea of grad school altogether. If I could barely function doing what I do now, how could I ever manage the work involved in getting a PhD and finding employment in the field? 

I'm pretty sure these ramblings will find their way into my personal/research statement, which is definitely impersonal at this stage. 

I'm starting to feel like I've got this. Who knew some lat pulldowns could be so powerful?