This Probably Isn’t Normal: A Poem

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One night in college, after a series of relatively minor but unfortunate events, I found myself unable to go to sleep because I couldn’t stop checking my alarm clock. I was sitting up in my bed, lights out and sound machine on, unable to put down the clock, no matter how sleepy I got, or how crazy I felt.

The thoughts and behaviors I was experiencing back then are often associated with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, BUT I am not assigning this diagnosis to my situation, because I never actually sought help for the issue, nor received a professional opinion. Also, I do think that the label is casually tossed around way too often, and I don’t want to contribute to that.

This post started out as a regular ol’ narrative, but I soon found myself wanting to make a poem out of it. If you’ve read my previous poem, you’ll know I’m no poet – but I have fun with them anyway, even when they’re relatively serious 😉

Once upon a time
During college – junior year
I developed a nasty habit
That sprouted from a fear

I overslept one morning,
And this bothered me to my core
Because I would be very late for class
By the time I walked out the door

I fretted my professor would hate me,
Or at least find me careless or daft
I made up my mind to be more careful
And this is where the universe laughed.

You see, as “fate” would have it,
I had set my alarm wrong again
What kind of person makes this error TWICE?
That thought got under my skin.

I knew that I was only human
And humans make mistakes
But I was really angry with myself
And I refused to give me a break

The habit started simply enough
At night, I’d double-check my alarm
Then “just one check” grew to two, then three
I didn’t think it’d be any harm

I’m sure you can tell where this is going:
My “checks” snowballed to 50+ times
I couldn’t stop thinking about my alarm,
And I became anxious at every bedtime

What if the time is set wrong?
Or what if it’s set to p.m.?
What if the clock somehow turned off?
…Maybe I’ll just check it again

I’d make myself exhausted
I’d cry from the aggravation
My rational side tried taking power,
But the logic train had left the station

My body’s primal need for sleep
Would finally, blessedly, take over
But should I awaken in the night
The thoughts would just carry right over

Anxiety is its own kind of torment
A prison from which there’s no escape
I often felt I was holding myself together
With Elmer’s glue and pieces of tape

With some time and a lot of effort
I broke myself of the madness
But I still get nervous that it wouldn’t take much
To just slip back into the practice.

 

Therapy is a Mental Work Out

In my yoga class the other night, I had an epiphany. Yoga-induced epiphanies are probably pretty common, but I’m going to guess that most of them revolve around how to achieve inner peace within our chaotic world.

Mine wasn’t.

Let’s back up. I attend a yoga class on Tuesday evenings after work, and over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that there have been quite a few more yoga-doers than usual. Considering we’re still early into 2016, I’m guessing my suddenly-busier class is the direct result of New Year’s resolutions.

Although I don’t usually make a resolution myself, I genuinely admire those who do. Resolution-makers want to live healthier, happier, more-enriched lives, and are (hopefully) taking the steps needed to make that happen.

These courageous souls are attempting to cut back on wine or delicious fattening foods.

They’re joining gyms.

They’re…gulp…exercising.

I’m especially in awe of the people who just jump right in and go from Couch Potato-ing to Insane Psycho Spin Class-ing overnight. That shit’s admirable. The closest I get to taking a spin class is attending a yoga class that happens to be held in a spin studio.

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Even if the new routine doesn’t last as long as they’d hoped, at least the resolution-makers are giving it a shot. Meanwhile, I’ll growl and punch you in the face if you try to take my chocolate away.

Getting a gym membership isn’t the only way that I’ve seen people attempting to help themselves or others – as a children’s counselor, I’m seeing more kids in therapy now than I was last month. Granted, this is probably more of a Susie-needs-help-but-let’s-get-through-the-holidays-first phenomenon more than an actual “resolution,” but the idea of making positive changes and starting over fresh in the new year is still much the same.

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Keeping all of this in mind, I was in the middle of downward-dogging in my class when this epiphany hit:

Attending therapy is a lot like working out at a gym.

The more I thought about it, the more similarities I came up with. After all, both (may) involve:

  • Acknowledging that there’s some sort of challenge or problem
  • Seeking out a means to working on that problem
  • Talking with a professional to get support and/or guidance
  • Being honest about uncomfortable and vulnerable things
  • Giving up flawed coping mechanisms in favor of healthier ones
  • Doing a lot of “heavy lifting” (whether mentally or physically)

Call me biased, but I do think the mental work involved in therapy is a bit more intense than the physical work of being at the gym. At the gym, you might do several different exercises in one trip – maybe you warm up on the elliptical, move to free weights, and then cool down with stretches on a mat.

But being in therapy means doing a lot of exercises at the exact same time. Imagine your hippocampus jogging on a treadmill, while your Broca’s area does bench presses and your prefrontal cortex swims some laps.
Nevertheless, both activities can be really scary, especially in the beginning. Both might be accompanied by a loss of hope and motivation when there are setbacks. Both might make you feel worse before you get better.

And both take a lot of courage.

I Amygdala You

I’ve found a great way to aggravate people.

Now, I’m not saying that you should go around irritating others. I’m usually not the kind of person who enjoys doing things like that, though I know those people exist – usually in the form of older brothers. But if you ever find yourself needing some sort of revenge against someone (and slashing their tires seems a bit harsh), this idea would probably be effective.

Here’s what you do:

  • Step 1: Earn someone’s trust and friendship. This may take awhile, depending on the quality of your social skills.

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  • Step 2: Once you’ve earned this person’s trust, prepare yourself to become a sounding board for his or her feelings. This is an unpleasant but necessary part of friendship.

 

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  • Step 2a: When the person finally starts talking about feelings, relationships, or other sentimental crap  things, he or she will likely say something along the lines of, “It’s like my heart is saying one thing, and my brain is saying another.”
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This is where you attack.

  • Step 3: Grin maniacally and pipe up with, “Actually, the heart is an organ that pumps blood throughout the body! It has no thoughts or feelings!”
    • Bonus points if you appear overly excited when explaining this to them.

The person will very quickly get annoyed, because they were trying to have a heartfelt conversation, and you clearly ruined that. They may even try to argue by saying, “Yeah, I know that the heart technically doesn’t have thoughts. I just meant that I’m thinking with my emotions.”

…Which, of course, you can energetically respond with, “The emotions don’t come from the heart, silly! They come from a little structure in the brain called the amygdala!” (Show them this diagram, if necessary.)

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Your friend will be super grateful for the anatomy lesson, and not at all peeved that you were an insensitive jerk. Or, they’ll hate you, and you’ll have gotten revenge for whatever minor crime they committed against you. Either way, it’s useful.

This technique works in other kinds of situations as well:

  • The next time your partner looks at you fondly and proclaims that they “heart you,” smile back and sweetly say, “And I amygdala you too, muffin.” SO romantic.
  • If you’re at a funeral or some other solemn event, and the person in charge invites people from the audience to come to the front and “speak from the heart,” stand up and loudly declare, “My heart does NOT speak! But I’ll talk from the emotion center of my brain – it has lots to say!”
  • When singing along to any song that includes the word “heart,” replace that word with “amygdala.” The number of syllables won’t match up, and the rhyming will be ruined, but damn it – you’ll be anatomically accurate! And that’s worth … I don’t know, something.
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Believe it or not, there are also situations where this technique may actually backfire. Weird, I know.

  • If a person is clutching her chest and saying she’s having a heart attack, it’s unlikely that her amygdala is acting up. (Not impossible, but unlikely.)
  • On the other hand, if someone simply complains about a “hurting heart,” they could technically be referring to either their chest heart or their brain heart. In order to clear up any confusion, if you ever see someone making this complaint, it’d be best to lunge at them and scream, “What do you mean?!? Is it your LITERAL heart or your FIGURATIVE heart?? What is the geographical location of your pain?! Help me to help you!!!”

The above situations are the only times that this technique would be a bad idea. Otherwise, it’s perfect.

Totally Legitimate Scientific Theory

In college, I took a course in neuropsychology and loved learning about different parts of the brain and their various functions. I learned neat phrases like, “dorsolateral prefrontal cortex” and “anterior cingulate gyrus.” I have only a thin grasp of what either of those things mean, but my ability to insert them in conversation makes me really fun at parties.

One thing I learned is that our good friend The Frontal Lobe, which I like to call “Fro Lo” (okay, this is the first time I’ve ever used that phrase) is responsible for planning, decision-making, memory, and behavior.

Fro Lo helps you put together plans for a Saturday picnic, remember where your house is located, and inhibit your impulse to laugh during funerals. When your friend suggests getting drunk and dancing topless on the roof of your own house, if you respond with, “Nah that’s okay, I’ll just stay in and watch Netflix,” you can thank Fro Lo for doing its job.

Here is my crude interpretation of what the frontal lobe and his lobe-y friends are up to in the brain:

 

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Whenever I see diagrams of the brain, I can’t help but think that my brain seems to be divided up in a very different manner. For example, I like to think that I’m pretty well-behaved, and my mind never seems to stop thinking/obsessing, so it seems like my frontal lobe should be slightly larger than normal. To compensate for this change in size, my cerebellum is probably somewhat smaller; this theory checks out because I have little to no balance or coordination (and anyone who has seen me dance or  play sports would agree).

My brainstem is likely the correct size, though, because I feel about averagely talented at things like breathing and blinking.

This theory is totally scientific and completely accurate.

I think my brain would be more truthfully depicted in a pie chart. Let’s go back to my Fro Lo, for example. Ideally, it would contain a neat, organized arrangement of intelligent information, well-planned ideas, and pleasant memories.

Instead, my frontal lobe probably looks something like this:

brainpie

  •  Useless facts = Information that is in no way needed in my daily life, but once struck me as interesting, so it’s in my memory to stay – maybe forever. These facts might be useful for someone, but the point is, they serve no purpose in MY life. I can tell you that women blink more than men, that triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number thirteen, and that only 5% of babies are born on their actual due date. Want to know the clinical term for Mad Cow Disease? It’s Spongiform Encephalopathy.     These useless facts do come in handy during games like Trivial Pursuit, though. I’ve also used the facts as some sort of bartering mechanism; when people help me do menial tasks that I should be able to handle on my own, I like to “thank” them by informing them that the capital of Uruguay is Montevideo.
  • Song Lyrics = The words to any song that I’ve ever memorized in my entire life. This includes everything from classical music learned throughout seven years of choir to the most excellent of 90s songs (I’m looking at you, Backstreet Boys). If you’re ever in a situation where you urgently need to know the words to Destiny’s Child “Say My Name” or Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” I’m your girl.
  • Quotes from Friends = Let’s just say, I’m a big fan, and leave it at that. Just kidding, I have plenty more to say about it! I own all ten seasons on DVD, and have seen each episode more than I can count, and probably more than is healthy. No matter what topic is being discussed, I can find a relevant quote or plot to rattle off. Remember the “fun fact” about triskaidekaphobia? Straight from Friends. I have never failed a single internet quiz about the show, and I’m fairly certain that’s something to brag about. And if you complain about your overbearing mother, I might just say, “Hahaha, yeah that reminds me of a Friends episode where Monica’s mom is super condescending to her and it makes Monica insane.” (Side note: that’s a scenario that happens in multiple episodes.)
  • Information relevant to my career = This is where knowledge about life span development, dynamics of domestic violence, and mental health diagnoses all reside. You may have noticed that all of the unimportant facts, memorized songs, and sitcom quotes are taking up much more room in my brain than information that is actually helpful and necessary.
  •  Phone numbers to elementary school friends = This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Back in elementary, cell phones barely existed and certainly weren’t given to 10-year-olds, but actual real-life address books weren’t exactly cool either, so everyone just memorized their friends’ numbers. And apparently, my brain has decided that these numbers are more important than other things. Things like conjugating irregular Spanish verbs, or knowing how to do stuff on Excel.

Fortunately, I don’t think I’m the only one whose Fro Lo is arranged a bit differently…

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Now it’s time to ask yourself one of life’s great philosophical questions: what would a pie chart of your frontal lobe look like?