Que Sera Sera, Coursera

In mid-August, I was feeling fairly well.

I had begun experimenting with driving locally.  Sticking to a strict 5 mile radius, I headed out for short grocery runs, the library, the gym, my stepson’s job and the modest “downtown area” of the neighboring town.  I kept with the rules of not driving when it was raining, dark, during rush hour or when there was no one home to rescue me if I couldn’t completely my journey.

The new freedom and independence went right to my head.  I began feeling like I could take on the world and get right back into it.  I swore that before I knew it I’d be able to drive all over the place, whenever I wanted, where ever I wanted.  I’d be able to keep my house clean again consistently, hold dinner parties, be with friends and actually get back to work.  Life was looking great and I was ready to conquer!

All great plans need a test run.  There are inevitable holes in any design that need discovering before being set into motion, lest it become a sinkhole of death.  In my previous life, I worked a mandatory 55 hour work week that usually became 60-70.  I did this while I had a social life and a clean house.  Before that, I had worked a normal 40 hour job while I took a full time course load in college.  In both slices of my past, I managed to read 2-3 novels a month as well.  In other words, my schedule was pretty busy. I decided my test run would be relatively small but address some major components of recovery for me.

I joined the gym.  This would prompt me to have to drive more as well as be out and about with others.  The gym is challenging for a few reasons: 1) I’m spending money on it and I have a guilt complex about this since I’m not working; 2) it is very difficult to be overweight in a facility full of fit and trim people.  However, I’m determined to be healthier in body as well as mind so why not the gym?  I learned the gym may be filled with fit and trim folks, but they really don’t notice anything but their own form in the mirrors.  I did feel one set of judgmental glances, but…. c’mon… I’ve dropped 4 sizes this year.  I’m proud of that.  Let’em judge.  (Woo hoo! See? Healthier!)  The only thing with the gym is that although I’m around others, I’m not really interacting with them.  That’s ok.  There were other things I could do.  Keep in mind my disorder isn’t a form of social anxiety but it is a general, wide-spread anxiety. Without working, my interactions with others is limited and I feel I need to be with other people in order to feel more “normal” (and no, we’re not going to try to define normal….)

While at the library, I saw a flyer for a fiction writing workshop.  This workshop had been offered earlier in the year but when I tried to sign up then it was full and could only add my name far, far down on the waiting list.  As my books were being checked out, I asked if there were any openings left for this session.  There was!  I signed up!  I got home and said, “I must be out of my mind!”   What?  Why, you ask?  Surely there’s no pressure in a writing class.  Simply complete random assignments of creativity given to you by a professional author and read it in front of perfect strangers.  NO PROBLEM.  I rationalized: I love writing; I need a push to get myself back into fiction writing; this gave me a little more interaction with people, with the added pressure of deadlines.  After all, if I expect to go back to work, I need to learn to deal with deadlines again.

So far my test run had the following challenges:  social situations, deadlines, driving, and commitment.

This should have been enough.

In hindsight, I probably should have stuck with just the gym or workshop.

Did I mention I was feeling like I could take on the world?

In a previous post I had mentioned I’m a fan of Book Riot.  One of their features mentioned an MOOC called Coursera.  (MOOC means massive open online course.  Don’t worry. I had to look it up too.)  They have a bunch of free web-based courses and I promptly signed up for Social Psychology.   Great!  Now I had another set of deadlines with the added challenge of seeing if I can retain information.  My memory was once like a party trick.  I would be able to see a name in our appointment book and tell you who they were, what kind of job they want, where they worked and to which companies I would or wouldn’t send him or her. Now I have trouble recognizing my neighbor at the grocery store.

I was excited.  I had a plan and it didn’t seem too overwhelming.  The only financial commitment was the gym and I had my incredible DH’s approval.  Everything else was a personal commitment and I really wouldn’t be letting anyone down if I cancelled anything.

Except for myself.

Isn’t that just dandy.

I started full steam.  I went to the gym and I started the social psychology course as soon as the lectures were posted (which was a week early).  I read through some of my old writing to remind myself I was once good at fiction and short stories.

So what happened?

Wellll……..  The gym has been side tracked for a few reasons.  One, I pulled something in my leg— not at the gym, mind you.  I’m not sure how I did it, but I could barely walk for a bit.  After not doing a heck of a lot for the past month, I went for a short walk today and it felt it twinge.  I need to get back into it slowly.    The other is I encountered some problems driving.  Early in September I set out to the store while I was a little stressed out.  That was a bit of a mistake.   I had a hard time getting back. Then I went out feeling ok but too close to dusk.  The angle of the sun and the shadows had me guessing where the road was and I had to stop.  (Not to mention the number of suicidal deer that decided they didn’t need to wait for me to pass before crossing the road…)  I’ve been incredibly hesitant to get behind the wheel since then.  (Side note: I learned in the Social Psychology course this is called the availability heuristic—a cognitive rule that judges the likelihood of things in terms of their available memory.  Be impressed. Please.)

The writing workshop was fun.  I expected the group to be comprised of older residents who knew each other. I was partially correct.  Just about everyone in the group has been taking this workshop every single session for years.  The age group was mixed.  I think we ranged from 30-60s.  One lady I learned in the last class was going through chemo treatments.  She looked to be our most senior classmate.  I’m wondering if she probably wasn’t as senior as I think.  The assignments were difficult.  I wanted structure to jumpstart my writing but I felt this was too much.  It may have felt that way because I haven’t written anything with an assigned subject or specific guidelines in at least 20 years.  I feel like I did well.  I accomplished what I was hoping for:  I wrote every week and I met some fun people.  In fact, I may have actually started to forge some local friendships.

And finally the Social Psychology course… I think this was the most challenging for me even though it did not require driving, socializing or even consequences for missed deadlines.   My scholastic career was exemplary. I never worked very hard in school but I had excellent grades and was accepted into prestigious colleges (I didn’t attend any… long story… not ready to write about it yet).  My success in school is very much a part of my identity.  It justifies my claims of intelligence and diligence even though once a person is out of school and gets past the first two years of working, a GPA isn’t discussed or acknowledged.  (Hint—if you’ve been out of college for more than 2 years, HR people do not really care what your GPA was. Keep it on there for a year after you graduate and only if it’s a 3.0 or higher, please….).  Retaining information has been difficult since the anxiety became disabling.  I wasn’t sure if I was ready for my sense of intellectual pride to be shaken.  The deadlines were very difficult and keeping up with the readings felt impossible.  There were a few unexpected stress triggers as well.  The first was the expectation to grade others’ assignments.  In order to get full credit for my own assignment, I needed to grade 5 others.  If I didn’t, I’d lose 20% of my own score.  I was not expecting to have my actions impact someone else’s grade.  I know this was a free course and completion of it did not attribute to a degree program.  However, after going through the forum discussions, a good number of people were taking their grade incredibly seriously.    Two of the assignments had emotional triggers for me.  I worked through one, and the subsequent peer assessments.  I decided it was healthier for me to skip the other one altogether.  I weighed the impact of the trigger and decided it wasn’t worth it.  It felt good to make a conscious decision about it.  I knew I wasn’t running away from it.  My decision was based on the idea I was testing the boundaries of what I could handle and I knew I wasn’t ready to confront this particular trigger.

What did I learn?

This post is long enough as it is so I’ll spare you the actual learning discoveries of the proper form of squats, the definition of magical realism (HA HA ha ha ahem) and spontaneous trait inferences.

I learned while I have come incredibly far since this disorder knocked me on my ass just about 2 years ago, I still have a long way to go.  I joke on Twitter that I have difficulty doing too many things at once and that by “too” I really mean “two”, but it’s not a joke.  My capacity to focus is still very limited and incorporating multiple things into my life at once is not the best way to proceed for now.  Expectations, either from others or myself, need to be simple.  I was much more symptomatic throughout September and I attribute it to putting more on my plate than I can handle.  My recovery took a step back—as in I need to work on reining in the symptoms that have been running amuck this month….but I moved forward too.  I worked hard this past month and I have clearly redefined the boundaries of this disorder.  I’m going to work on one thing at a time now… once it becomes comfortable and fluid, I’ll add in something else.

When I was awarded disability, I was told I would be reevaluated in August 2014. My goal is to be able to inform them I don’t need to be reevaluated and am ready to try to get back to work.

And if I’m not ready by then, so be it.  I’ll be reevaluated and then set another goal.

To my family and friends, thank you for dealing so well with me this past month.  I know my symptoms are challenging and I feel guilty for your frustration.  Your support means everything to me.  I appreciate you more than I can ever express.