The past two weeks have been overwhelming and intense, not just because of constant scheduling adjustments, increased work commitments, and a subsequent lack of downtime, but also because I am fully present for the first time in over a decade. I have been without weed for six weeks and without alcohol for four weeks. My empathic skills have overgrown and I am experiencing this assaultive and stimulating world at intolerably visceral levels. I have no stomach for violence whether real or dramatized, and the multitude of injustices in the news resonate in deeply troubling ways. I require radio silence while driving, especially on the freeway. The din of noise in my head has gotten louder than ever now that I have removed the means to numb the cacophony.
Three weeks ago, contrastingly, after self-publishing my coming out essay I felt clear-headed and empowered while riding the high of my fully embraced truth. I completed the final draft of my first blog and hovered the computer mouse over the "Submit" button while taking the opportunity to observe my body's reaction. Knowing the high volume of readership at The Huffington Post, I was freaking out - my heart was pounding at an alarming rate and my stomach churned with anxiety. The self-destructive voice in my head began detailing the many reasons that this was a bad idea:
"You're exposing your vulnerability too publicly."
"Your depression is not as severe as others' so your story is not worthwhile."
"Get in bed, pull the covers up, and don't come out until you're rational."
The detached Doug who was observing this inner screaming match took a leap of faith and clicked the "Submit" button.
"There's no going back now!"
Hours later a frightening and inexplicable allergy attack hit me hard. This wasn't just severe congestion but also hives, facial swelling, fever, and a constrictive tightening in my chest and throat. It felt like bees were stinging my eyes, my palms, the soles of my feet, and the hair follicles of my head, beard, and underarms. I was one labored breath away from calling an ambulance. The coincidence was not lost on me that a few hours earlier I had been experiencing palpable anxiety about submitting my first blog, the stress likely affecting my immune and nervous systems. I've only experienced an allergic reaction with similarly crippling symptoms once before -- 15 years ago, just after my final bow on the stressful opening night of my first professional post-college acting gig. That time I was hospitalized. This time, I popped some meds and went to bed after stabilizing.
I awoke the next morning with a distinct depressive darkness and feeling physically exhausted. By the afternoon my first blog was published. The majority of responses were from family and friends expressing solidarity or support. This is the encouragement I've needed to press forward. Many brave strangers reached out to express their own stories and struggles, and some of these people I have long admired as trailblazers in my industry. I felt like a hero, boldly moderating a discussion about an otherwise stigmatized and shameful topic. Buttressed by my self-congratulatory demeanor I wandered into the comments forum beneath my article. I absorbed a few positive posts before reading others that were motivated by seemingly disturbing means, taking the form of dismissal, hate, or outright threat.
Even more troublesome, within 15 minutes after publication I began receiving direct phone and email communication from strangers with "questionable" tactics. These people likely had obtained my personal contact information through online research and then utilized this knowledge to extend invitations on dates, to send me explicit nude pictures, or to deposit voicemails that would make my mother blush.
I was thrust into a paralyzing fear and depression the likes of which I hadn't felt in weeks. I admittedly hadn't prepared myself for this level of exposure and was still weak from the previous day's allergy attack.
I'm now fully accountable.
I looked up to the ceiling as the walls around me threatened to collapse and my breathing became effortfully willful. I began to recognize these symptoms as the first signs of an all-too-familiar panic attack from long ago. Ironic that my writing -- the metaphoric ladder I had chosen as one of my tools to climb upwards toward the healing light, was knocking me down a few pegs back into the darkness. Suddenly my reality had shifted and I faced the ludicrously daunting prospect of accepting an invitation to a friendly Labor Day BBQ. I made up baseless excuses in my head as to why I couldn't attend, which included not wanting to lose my parking spot and being forced to engage in small talk with strangers.
This is the process my brain goes through when I've slipped into a depression, rationalizing the prospect of willing myself into the world and then shamefully crafting excuses why I can't. This is the struggle. This is my reality. This is dread. This is the raw awareness and observation of my inner monologue without allowing myself the option to numb, ignore, or distract from it. I felt incapacitated, becoming one with the couch. Detached Doug crafted a disembodied, imaginary, otherworldly hand pulling me up by my chest, steadying me on my feet, and walking me to my laptop like a marionette, willing myself to record these thoughts in electronic form. This was only 30 minutes after publication.
I need to protect myself mentally and care for myself physically. I must draw a line in the proverbial sand between what is worthy of my energy and what is not. I am establishing boundaries. First, I have obtained the clarity to identify what is important to me. Next, I will keep these tenets a priority. Finally, I will not apologize to those who don't understand. A key component for me has been the rediscovery of my self worth, which before two years of intensive therapy had dwindled to relative non-existence. There are many reasons I've been pushing boundaries most of my life, whether because I was addicted to risk, testing my limits as I matured, or exploring the world as a curious artist.
In two days I had two major attacks on my nervous system, one physical and one mental. I must now learn how to establish healthy coping mechanisms. I neither judge nor feed my frequent daily cravings for numbing substances, I simply observe them. I meditate daily, but only as much as I instinctively want and without expectations. I get enough sleep, having established a conditioned bedtime ritual. I delegate responsibility, relying on my calendar to bear the brunt of scheduling-related stress. I don't watch the news, especially before noon. I turned off Auto-Play for videos on Facebook. I stay present by silencing my phone while driving and while walking dogs. I write when I'm inspired and publish only when I'm ready. I don't read comment forums and I block communication from harassing strangers. I connect with at least one close friend per day, preferably in person. I sing constantly, loudly, and usually only for myself (or dogs). I'm doing the best that I can and trying to greet each new day with wonder and gratitude.
This is my new reality.