Clean Room, Calm Mind

By Claire Golden

Like many college students and recent graduates, I live in a small space. This means that even a small mess can quickly become overwhelming because it takes up most of my living quarters. I am naturally a messy person, much to the chagrin of everyone who has lived with me. (Shoutout to my younger sister for putting up with the Yarn Blob when we shared a room!) However, over the years I have discovered that having a messy room has a negative impact on my mental health.

When I’m feeling depressed, I lose motivation. That leads me to set things on the nearest horizontal surface, whether that’s the nightstand, table, or floor. Then my room becomes a Depression Den (as the Internet likes to call it), which causes me to feel even more depressed, and the spiral continues. I suffered from Major Depressive Disorder a few years back. Fortunately, now I only deal with seasonal winter depression, but I’ve found that both conditions lead to the same result. When my room is littered with clothes (both dirty and clean), books, papers, and things everywhere, it doesn’t help my mind feel any less like a disaster.

It feels impossible to clean up a Depression Den, so sometimes you might have to ask for help. I lived with my parents during college and my mom would offer to keep me company while I cleaned. This prevented me from getting distracted with various knick-knacks and books and also gave me some moral support. Now that I live with my boyfriend, we put on a documentary and clean together. If cleaning your whole room feels like it will never happen, then choose one area to tidy — I always feel better when the floor is picked up. Or, set a timer for a manageable amount of time. Even five minutes of cleaning is better than nothing.

Ideally, I would take a few minutes every day to tidy up, but my mind just doesn’t work like that. So I tidy when I feel capable, and create impossibly tall stacks of books when I don’t. I’m far from perfect, and the state of my room reflects that. In the end, you have to do what works best for you. But I encourage you to set aside a few minutes to care for yourself by making your living space calmer. It might just help brighten your mood, too.

“Fake It Till You Make It”

By Claire Golden

One of the best pieces of advice my mom ever gave me occurred when I was worrying about something — my first day of college, driving a car for the first time — the exact situation doesn’t matter. I worried aloud to her that I didn’t feel ready. Her response? “Fake it till you make it.” This advice has helped me through many a scary event. 

I’ve pretty much never felt ready for something scary. When I went to my first day of college, I felt like a little kid pretending to be an adult. I felt that I wasn’t smart enough for college. Everyone would know that I was just a fraud. So I just faked it. I wanted to be perceived as a competent, friendly, smart person, so I did my best to act that way. I’m not saying to pretend to be somebody you’re not — I’m saying to act like you’re confident, and eventually you’ll start to feel that way.

Carrie Fisher put it much better than I ever could in this quote that I think about often.

Image Description: Quote from Carrie Fisher that says “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it, and eventually the confidence will follow.”

I’ve since learned that many other people felt this way, too. The truth is that most of us are just faking it, because most of us don’t know what we’re doing. We’re all figuring it out as we go along. So act as if, and the confidence will show up. Even if it’s just a tiny bit of confidence, and even if it takes a long time to show up, one day the scary thing will be a tiny bit less scary. 

If I had waited to be confident before I attempted something, I would still be waiting. So don’t wait. Do it even though you’re scared, and one day you will be less afraid.

The Banish-Anxiety Box

By Claire Golden

Admittedly, this title is an exaggeration, because I know of no way to banish anxiety completely. However, in my last post about anxiety disorders I promised to share one of my favorite techniques for coping with anxiety. So here it is!

Since anxiety tends to focus on either fretting over the past or worrying about the future, one of the best ways to cope is by grounding yourself in the present moment. To do this, it’s useful to engage your five senses. I put together a box with tools for each sense. When I’m anxious, I reach for this box and play with the things inside until I feel a little less on edge. It’s important to put these resources together ahead of time because it’s difficult to function in the moment. In the same way that you don’t wait to pack until five minutes before you leave for the airport, you shouldn’t wait unil the moment of an anxiety attack to put together your kit. It’s a great way to care for your future self and take a little bit of control back from anxiety.

My anxiety box is actually a drawer in my desk. It used to be a physical box that sat next to my computer. When I commuted daily to college, I had a small zippered pouch that I used instead of a large box and contained a miniature version of this kit. Below is a picture of a small box I use as well as some of my crochet, which helps me a lot with anxiety.

Sight

  • Pictures of cute animals and loved ones
  • Memes
  • “Satisfying” videos of slime or kinetic sand
  • Watch videos of relaxing things like ocean waves
  • Read a book
  • Make a wall of your favorite quotes that you find encouraging, so you can look at it when the world feels especially scary

Sound

  • Meditation or relaxation videos (YouTube has lots of relaxing ASMR videos)
  • Listen to music — and maybe dance to it
  • Listen to nature sounds (I love falling rain)
  • Draw or color something, paying attention to the sound of your writing

Smell

  • Lotion
  • Candles
  • Go seek out your favorite smell. For me, it’s cracking open a book — I love the papery smell.
  • Take a bath with some fancy bubbles or soap

Touch

  • Fidget toys (I love Tangles)
  • Craft such as crochet, knitting, embroidery, origami
  • Play-Doh or Silly Putty — my favorite is Dave’s Thinking Putty which is so fun to play with and comes in all sorts of awesome colors
  • Stress ball
  • Use a peel-off face mask or something else for self-care
  • Hug a family member, friend, pet, or stuffed animal (pictured is my dog, Maisie, who is always happy to oblige)
  • Give yourself a hand, foot, or shoulder massage complete with lotion – put a massage tool or small container of lotion in your box

Taste

  • Lollipops
  • Gum
  • Sour candy
  • Include a favorite recipe to bake your favorite treat —- this works for smell, too!
  • A warm cup of tea (peppermint helps calm me down)

I hope this list can be of some use to you like it has been for me. What is your go-to trick for stress relief? What would you add to this list?

When You Just Can’t Stop Worrying

By Claire Golden

It’s normal to be nervous from time to time, and some anxiety can be helpful. For instance, if you’re nervous about giving a speech, those feelings can encourage you to prepare and practice. But there’s a difference between being anxious sometimes and having an anxiety disorder. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 19% of adults in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder…almost one in five people! So what is the difference? And how can you tell if you’re one of the more than 40 million people who has one?

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There are five main types of anxiety disorders: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Social Anxiety. I have a few of these myself and sometimes refer to this as my “alphabet soup” because of all the abbreviations. GAD is the most common and is usually what people mean when they talk about “having anxiety.” Put simply, in order to have GAD, you have an overwhelming sense of worry and being out of control most days for at least six months. This is extremely different from situational anxiety, like before a date or the first day of classes.

In my experience, the hard thing about anxiety is that there often isn’t anything concrete that you’re worried about. You’re just worried. Sometimes I’ll say to my boyfriend, “I’m nervous.” He’ll respond, “Do you know what you’re nervous about?” And I’ll say, “No, I don’t!” (Usually followed by a hug or him bringing me the cat to cuddle.) It’s frustrating, because if there was something specific that was worrying me, I could deal with that problem and the anxiety would go away. But I just feel like something bad is going to happen without knowing what. It’s like suspenseful music playing in a horror movie, where you know something is about to jump out at you.

The distinction between just being worried and actually having an anxiety disorder is one that our society doesn’t recognize, but is important to understand. People who don’t have a disorder, can find it hard to understand why an anxious person is so worried. They might want to fix the situation when there’s no concrete problem to fix. But it just doesn’t work that way..

If this resonates with you, consider contacting your doctor or make an appointment at SHAC to receive a diagnosis and discuss next steps and treatment. I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve learned a lot in the course of understanding my own anxiety. In my next post, I’ll be sharing some coping techniques that have helped me immensely. I was diagnosed with GAD when I was six years old, so I’ve been dealing with this for a long time. I used to be too scared to tell people about it for fear of the stigma, but it’s become my mission to break down some of the walls around mental illness. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and whatever your brain may tell you, you’re not alone.

Expectations Unraveled

By Claire Golden

Last week I impatiently waited for the delivery truck to arrive. I’ve always been excited about getting things in the mail (it’s one of the things I can still enjoy even with lockdown), but this mail was particularly special…author copies of my debut novel were arriving! 

Unraveled released on Dec. 14 from Gurt Dog Press (in ebook, paperback, and hardcover). I was a nervous and excited wreck all week. Anxiety can’t tell the difference between good and bad events, so I had a stomachache even though I was over-the-moon happy. I’ve poured hundreds of hours into this book over the last five years, and when I finally held the finished copy in my hands, I experienced a feeling I’ve never had before — a mix of happiness, shock and gratitude. So, what did I do?  I took my book child to the park for some pictures.

The book publishing journey hasn’t been quite like I pictured it. I didn’t anticipate all the waiting:  to get edits back, for a cover design, for the book to release. With the pandemic, things also look different. My book doesn’t get a release party and I can’t do a book signing in person. But I’ve learned from this experience that even when things don’t look like you expected, they can still be wonderful. My publisher held an online book tour, my online friends commented on every post with enthusiasm and support, and my extended family ordered copies from across the country. In short, I am a super lucky author, and even though release day was unusual because of the pandemic, it was still awesome.

Unraveled arrived in a world much different than the one in which I started writing. And that’s okay. I’m also a different person than I was when I started writing. The book contains a little piece of my soul, and because of that, it’s rather scary for it to be out in the world where everyone can read it. But it’s a good anxiety, because it helps me grow. If I plan to keep writing books, which I do, then I’d better get used to people reading my work! 

I’ve heard from LGBTQ+ teenagers who found the book encouraging, from people with OCD who were glad to see the mental illness portrayed in fantasy, and from people who just enjoyed reading it. Having people connect with my characters has been one of the best moments of my life, and nothing short of a dream that’s become reality. In the end, my expectations didn’t matter, because everything turned out better than I could ever have imagined.

More Than A Habit

By Claire Golden

Content warning for discussion of mental illness and skin-picking.

Did you bite your fingernails as a kid? Maybe you still bite them now, or maybe you grew out of it. For most people, it’s just a bad habit that they can stop with enough concentration that  doesn’t affect their  life in a significant way. But for a small percentage of the population, skin-picking is a big problem.

I’ve picked my fingernails and lips since I was a kid, only I never outgrew it. “Stop picking” was a constant refrain from my parents, who were just trying to stop me from injuring myself. I didn’t want to hurt myself; it simply felt impossible to stop. Like how you can’t stop yourself from scratching an itch, I couldn’t stop myself from doing the behavior. My grandma once took me for a manicure, which was painful on my tender fingertips, but the pretty nails didn’t last very long.

I picked my skin constantly, for hours a day, regularly wearing three or more Band-Aids at a time to cover up sensitive spots on my fingers. One day, when I was 14 years old, someone looked at my hands dotted with five bandages and asked, “Oh my gosh, what happened?” This was a wake-up moment for me because I honestly hadn’t realized this was out of the ordinary. My friend’s shock at my beat-up fingertips clued me into the fact that this wasn’t right.

When I was 18, I learned that this condition has a name: Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior, or BFRB. There are a multitude of BFRBs, and the TLC Foundation for BFRBs is a great resource to learn more. The most common is trichotillomania, or hair-pulling, which you may have heard of. Or you may not, because BFRBs aren’t very well-known. Too often they’re seen as just a bad habit that someone will grow out of. I was fortunate to attend a therapy group for people with BFRBs, and receive Habit Reversal Training therapy, which essentially focuses on recognizing the urge to pick and redirecting it to something else.

Now my work desk is laden with fidgets for me to play with instead of taking my stress out on my skin. You can’t cure a BFRB, you can only learn to live with it — but mine is much more under control than it was several years ago. Now I only have to use a Band-Aid a few times a month instead of several times a day, and I’ve learned to reach for Chapstick instead of picking at my lip. (Sort of. I’ll admit I’ve been picking while I write this, but perfection is unattainable.) 

If I can get one thing out of my experience with a BFRB, it would be to share the knowledge with others. If you, too, are a BFRB sufferer, please know that you aren’t alone and there’s nothing wrong with you. Your mind just works a little differently, and that’s okay! There are ways to cope and people who understand what you’re going through. I encourage you to learn more about this condition, whether or not you have it, because increasing awareness c helps people. And now, I’m off to apply some lip gloss so I stop picking.

A Novel in a Month

By Claire Golden

November is almost over and I am 30,000 words deep in the first draft of a novel. Perhaps you’re already familiar with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a yearly challenge when writers all over the world set out to write a 50,000-word story in a month. I’ve participated every year since I was 15, succeeding some years and falling short others — but every year has been a valuable experience and has taught me so much about myself as a writer and the stories I’m trying to tell.

As the days get shorter and colder, writing is something I to look forward to doing. It gives me purpose. When my own life is stressful, disappearing into another world is exactly the break I need. Discovering NaNo turned November from a month I dread into my favorite event of the year. It’s an amazing feeling to take a story that only existed in my head and turn it into something on paper…even if the first draft is completely terrible. That’s the point of a first draft! I actually wrote the first draft of my young adult fantasy novel, “Unraveled,” during NaNo. It will be published next month by Gurt Dog Press.

This is the first year that I won’t be in school while doing NaNo, because I graduated (and am now an alumni blogger). But whether in school or working, balancing noveling with everyday responsibilities is difficult. I’ve had less time to watch Netflix and read for fun because I’ve had to devote that time to writing instead. But it’s a good exercise in delayed gratification — if I keep working hard, I will have a novel at the end of the month. 

Writing a novel sounds unachievable, until you break it down into small pieces. If you write 1,667 words a day, which takes me just about an hour, you can have a completed book in just a month. Whether you’re a seasoned novelist or have never written for fun before, I encourage you to join us at nanowrimo.org. The best thing about the experience is the community and support. Feel free to add me as a buddy — I’m cog98. I’d love to see you there!

Checkmate

By Claire Golden

As we enter Wave 2 of Lockdown, we are also entering a new wave of boredom. Animal Crossings: New Horizons isn’t new and exciting anymore, cooking has grown dull, and the shorter days are making it harder to get outside for exercise. I found myself in need of a new hobby, and discovered it through a Netflix show that lots of people have been binge watching: The Queen’s Gambit.

Perhaps you’re a fan of this Netflix original series too – the story of a young girl who becomes one of the greatest chess players in the world while struggling with substance abuse. It drew me in from the first episode and stuck with me after the end. It also inspired me to start playing chess again. 

Not to sound too cool or anything, but I was part of the homeschool chess club in middle school. So I already knew how to play, as did my roommates, who were also inspired by the show to rediscover chess. I ordered a magnetic chess board for the princely sum of $13 and we all waited eagerly for it to arrive. When it did, we tore open the package, set up the pieces…and I proceeded to be absolutely decimated in my first game.

I’m not particularly good at chess. But it doesn’t matter. I just enjoy the process of planning out my next move, looking for counterattacks, and attempting to protect my own pieces. After learning that the middlegame is my weak point, I read some articles on middlegame theory and won the next game. Then I told my boyfriend what I learned and he won the next one. And so on. It’s fun playing against him and we have chess matches while we’re cooking dinner and waiting for the oven to preheat.

Chess has a surprising benefit for me: While I’m playing, I can’t think about anything else. I have severe anxiety and am pretty much constantly worrying, but there isn’t time for that when you’re trying to plan out your next moves. A game of chess takes us about 30 minutes to an hour, and for that length of time, my mind is occupied. And after the game, I’m mentally tired, which means my brain doesn’t have as much energy to worry. 

I certainly didn’t expect a Netflix show to be so beneficial for me and my roommates, but it has been. COVID-19 might be winning right now, but we just have to tough it out a while longer, and I’m confident that we will come out on top. And for right now? Chess is helping keep my anxiety at bay. Unexpected, but I’ll take it.

You Will Always Be My Friend

By Claire Golden

On Nov. 3 last year I said goodbye to my pet chicken Harriet, whom I’ve written about here before. It wasn’t easy, but  what I’ve learned is that life goes on — even when you think it won’t. Even when you think it will hurt forever, it gets better. So, if you’re dealing with the loss of a pet, I want to share my experience as encouragement that you can get through this, too.

Viking pride with Harriet

One of the hardest things about losing Harriet was the complete disruption of my daily routine. I always started my day by letting her out of her run, cleaning the coop, and checking for eggs. Then, when I got home from college (I was a commuter student), I would sit in the backyard with her and tell her about my day. Sometimes I did my homework with her perched on my foot. 

When she died, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Now when I came home from school, there was no stripey chicken running out to greet me, no birds help me with my homework, no feathery cuddles. I had maintained an Instagram account for Harriet for a few years, and now I had lost this creative outlet. I missed her beady orange eyes and her high-pitched whine.

Climbing on me to reach the best berries

I had to find new routines. Fortunately, my boyfriend came into my life at the same time that Harriet passed away. Harriet had been sick for months, but pets hold on to life because they know we need them. I think Harriet knew, in her little chicken brain, that I would be OK without her because I wouldn’t be lonely. As you try to figure out what your new routines will be after the loss of a pet, reach out to your support system when you need them. I formed a close bond with his cat Bubba, who filled some of the void that Harriet had left, and taking care of Bubba became part of my new daily routine. Cow Pigeon actually helped me a lot while I was grieving because he was another bird I could photograph and coo over. Now after dinner, instead of chicken cuddles, I read books with my boyfriend. And thanks to him, I am never lacking for hugs.

Summertime hammock cuddles

The great thing about pets is that they love you unconditionally and without judgment. Harriet was the first creature I told about so many things. She let me cry into her feathers; she came running to see me when I came home from a hard day at college. There’s just no replacement for that. After she died, I wrote her letters when I really missed her and it was almost like talking to her. Perhaps this is morbid, but I put her ashes on the shelf next to my bed so it was like she was roosting next to me at night. I have a plush chicken that looks like her which I hug when I wish I could hug her. All of these things help me feel like she’s still around. (As I write this, in fact, a little plush chicken sits next to my computer.)

Got your nose!

And I do believe she’s still around in some way, because love doesn’t die. I see her in every striped chicken, in a particularly beautiful sunset, in the ladybugs that started popping up everywhere after she died. There’s a quote from my favorite book that always gets me right in the feels:

“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars will be laughing when you look at the sky at night…. And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me… You will always be my friend.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Harriet will always be with me in the ways that matter. When you love a pet, they change your life for the better. No matter what, she will always be my friend. And I will always be hers. So I look up at the stars, and I imagine her living.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

By Claire Golden

Three weeks ago, after about 200 days of quarantine, I cut off about ten inches of my hair with scissors from the Dollar Tree.

This wasn’t a spontaneous decision. All year I’d contemplated getting a haircut, but I just never got around to it. Then coronavirus hit, and going to a hair salon was no longer an option. Even though I was getting more and more tired of my long hair every day, I wasn’t going to put somebody at risk for what was ultimately a frivolous wish.

Finally I couldn’t take it any longer, and I combed my hair, sat down in front of the mirror, and cut off first one side, then the other, with my bright pink polka-dotted scissors. Here’s a “before” picture ft. my chicken Harriet, compared to my new blogger profile picture at the beginning of this post.

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Lots of people have been turning to DIY haircuts in the face of the pandemic. If you’re going to give it a try, here’s what I learned:

  • Use sharp scissors: I recommend using a good pair of scissors so you don’t have to saw through your hair. When I went back to fine-tune my results, I used a sharp pair and had much more success.
  • Cut wet hair: Wet hair is easier to contend with than dry hair. Brush it first and part it the way you normally would. 
  • Ensure symmetry: Divide your hair into two sections and pull them over your shoulders. Sit down in front of a mirror, make sure your head isn’t tilted, and then clamp your hair in your fingers before cutting above your fingers. 
  • Less is more: Remember, better too long than too short — you can always cut more later! 
  • Ask for help: Ask a friend to fix the back if you need help. 

It went much better than I expected. My boyfriend’s mom said, “If my hair looked like that after I cut it, I would never go to the salon again!” So I count that as a success.

I didn’t anticipate just how much better I would feel after the Quarantine Hair Chop. Over the last few years, long hair had begun to feel limiting to me. I was a different person leaving college than I was entering, and it didn’t feel right that I still looked the same on the outside. Cutting my hair was a way to signal the end of that time period and the beginning of something new. I don’t look the same because I’m not the same — these past several months in particular have changed me.

A friend’s comment particularly resonated with me: “Some people say that bad feelings linger in hair, so by cutting it off, you’re getting rid of the past.” Cutting my hair was cathartic, and it was exactly the change I needed.