life with brainweasels

On fear, and the uselessness of pain

Learning a language scares me. Coming up with a study plan, plonking down money for classes or tutors or textbooks or native-language materials scares me. It takes a lot of energy to talk myself out of, well, talking myself out of things. How dare I try things that aren’t going to work?

Fear holds people back a lot in general, but obviously for the non-neurotypical this might play even more of a role. I have anxiety and depression: I spend a lot of time being afraid (and then feeling stupid or guilty for feeling that way).

This year I’ve almost burned myself up trying to get the health care that I need (navigating labyrinthine and incompetent bureaucracy, getting doctors to take me seriously, enduring some pretty awful side effects while being told to wait and see, etc.) and working through some interpersonal stuff (… I’m pretty bitter and cynical right now). 2014 so far I think has actually been the worst year of my life (after the years immediately preceding have held that title!). And for all my efforts to try to make my life suck less*, well, results haven’t exactly persuaded me that trying will make any difference worth the expenditure of energy, or worth the heartbreak when things (inevitably) don’t work out.**

Against this background, sometimes trying to learn a language feels like a sign of faith in myself that just isn’t warranted. What if I put in all this time and energy and it’s still just too much for me and I’m just not good enough? What if I try to turn lemons into lemonade via language learning and I just fail again? How hopeless and foolish and naive would I feel then?!

I started this blog to talk about how I do manage to keep studying and learning sometimes, and to put a narrative of language-learning out there that I felt was largely missing online. But I can’t always be (relatively) upbeat.

Sometimes this is what it looks like, inside my brain, and sometimes there is no lesson to be learned or any cheerful, brave takeaway. Sometimes — a lot of the time! — I don’t feel like any of this is worth it, or that anything could be worth having to deal with how awful it is inside my head. Sometimes there isn’t any moral or any reason. It just is. Not acknowledging this feels suffocating.

This post won’t give you any useful tips or inspiration, but I had to say it. I know there are some of you who feel this way and maybe sometimes you feel like you can’t say it either. You can say it here, if you want.

Sometimes shit just sucks.

(Or, to say it more poetically: “Pain comes from the darkness/And we call it wisdom. It is pain.”)

* Let me tell you all about my yoga and meditation habits, my occasional flirtations with Couch to 5K, my efforts to get enough sleep and eat nice things and get out and do things, my therapy appointments and writing 750 Words, etc. etc.!

** I know all about locus of control and learned helplessness and how this relates to depression, so please don’t waste your breath on any lectures. Or toothless platitudes, references to religion, etc.


Being the person they think I am

Language exchange can be a funny thing. Sometimes you end up with a person that you have lots in common with and lots to talk about; other times it seems the only overlap is that you’re both learning a language. (I don’t think the latter necessarily means the partnership won’t work, incidentally.)

One thing that seems inevitable, at least in my experience so far, is that you won’t talk about very personal or delicate things. Certainly not at first.

You’ll talk about why you want to learn a language, what you hope to do with it, but you probably won’t talk about your fears so much. A few of my conversation exchange partners are trying to improve their English for financial reasons — they’ve hinted at unemployment or underemployment, but without a lot of detail or emotion. For my part, I’ve hinted at a difficult summer and also unhappiness with my job situation/burnout/midlife crisis-type stuff.

But I don’t say how terrified I am that all this language stuff won’t work out, that I’ll never get to fluency, that my brainweasels (which they definitely don’t know about!) will prevent me from doing it, that it will just be another project in my life that I started with great enthusiasm and crapped out on. And maybe they’re afraid and they don’t tell me: of being unable to get another job, of not being able to support themselves or their family, if they don’t learn English well enough.

I’ve told them that I admire them for diving in and working so diligently — through Skype exchanges, intensive courses, etc. — in order to try to reinvent their lives, to some degree, through language. I find it inspirational, especially for those who are in their 40s and upwards; I’m sliding towards 40 myself and definitely need stories about people my age changing their lives, when things feel impossible and I feel too old and stuck.

To them, I casually mention jobs I’m applying to in Brussels, how once my languages get better I’ll be eligible for even more jobs in the EU, etc.

I know I sound more confident than I feel. They certainly seem to act as if I have a chance of succeeding at this, and they act as if they have a chance too. Otherwise why are we taking the time to speak, if not to move forward together and encourage each other, right?

I’m trying to be the person they think I am: hard-working, consistent, at least somewhat cheerful and optimistic. I’m trying to act the way I want to feel. Sometimes it’s a facade that lasts just long enough to disconnect Skype, and then my mood crashes. But, you know, I’m trying. And maybe they’re trying to be the people that I see as well.

And if we all keep trying to be that person, well, we might just get somewhere.

In which the Embarrassed Language Learner asks for help

Yay, I posted about study habits when I’m severely depressed, after having that half-drafted for weeks and then… being too depressed to finish it!

But here’s something else I want to say. It makes me feel embarrassed and arrogant, but I’m going to take a deep breath and try to push away the shame and say it anyway. I’ve been lucky so far, for the tender age of this blog, to already have a lovely group of readers, some of whom have left really supportive comments. I’d like to ask you all, if you know of anyone who’d be interested in my blog, especially if they could relate to it, to please send them the link!

Yes, I realize this just looks like naked groveling for attention/blog hits, and maybe someone will castigate me for that. But there are two reasons I’m asking. Firstly: one of the most terrible things for me, when depressed, is to feel alone. Physically, yes, but also emotionally, and also in terms of feeling like I am broken or limited or just wrong in ways that nobody else is. So knowing that there are other language-learners out there who maybe struggle with the same things I do would be helpful.

And something else that I find agonizing (to the point that this alone can plunge me into a fit of suicidal ideation) is the idea that I’m, well… useless. That I have nothing to contribute, that there is nothing meaningful in my life or that I can add to the world. When I am in a really bad depressive state (as I have been lately), I feel guilty for all the effort my friends put in to support me and try to help me through. It makes me feel like a net drain, because mostly I can’t do anything except try to hold myself together. So — and believe me, all this is excruciating to say out loud — to know that this blog is useful to someone would be a tiny tiny bulwark against feeling that way.

Thanks, everyone. For reading, and maybe commenting, and maybe pointing other people here. I’m going to post this and run for the hills, red-faced, now.

Study habits when I’m too depressed to get up

I wrote earlier about some of the things I do to make language-learning part of my day, a habit that clicks into place ideally several times a day.

When I’m not feeling well, when I’m in a bad place with regards to my depression or anxiety, I have to scale back my routines. Sometimes a lot. Unfortunately, while depression often robs me of my ability to do things, then not having done anything makes me feel worse.

I’ve developed a few tricks to keep the learning going, even a tiny bit, when I’m so low that I can barely get off the couch over a weekend. Apart from how awful that is in its own right, it is terrible to feel like being ill chips away any progress I’m making (on languages or on life things in general…). So. Here’s how I manage to do something, even if just a little bit, rather than nothing.

(Oh, stigma. I started this blog to speak openly about being someone with mental illness learning a language. And yet I still cringe talking about it. You perhaps can see why I have very little identifying information on this blog…)

My most important tool at these times is my smartphone. I resisted getting one for a long time, but a few years ago I caved and I wouldn’t go back. For a lot of reasons, many of which relate to self-care when depressed (at least I can tweet at my friends from under a blanket while stuck on the couch), but also because it makes language-learning more portable and accessible. Yeah, a tablet would probably be even better for this, and I’d love to have one, but it’s not in the budget right now. So my phone it is!

Duolingo and Memrise on my phone are a blessing. I often find Duolingo a nice way to distract my anxiety anyway, and the fact that I can do this on the couch is even better. I like match-3 games on my phone for anxiety a lot too, but most of them limit how long you can play at a time. If I can redirect this gaming urge to languages, all the better! (Duolingo isn’t a miracle tool, but I have found it useful for vocabulary, and in getting myself to engage with languages when I don’t have enough focus for anything else.)

I can review my Anki cards while prone on the couch too, of course, but something about Duolingo or Memrise seems to work better for me at those times, maybe because silence is often frightening to me then, and the sounds/gamification works to fill it.

Also on the audio tip, I like talk radio (usually the news) in my target languages. I try to choose a station from TuneIn on my desktop computer before I sink down onto the couch, if I can. But if not, well, then I’ve got a TuneIn app on my phone! The news may not sound very relaxing or soothing, and it wouldn’t be in English. But even when it’s about something heavy, the act of having to focus in order to figure out the least bit of what’s going on distracts my mind a little. It’s soothing in its own way. Plus, news presenters tend to have comfortingly monotonous voices.

If that doesn’t work, another thing I like to do is put on the same song, in my target language, over and over. One of my current comfort songs is Boskomat‘s Idée Folle. Putting songs on repeat means both that it soothes me but also occasionally a lyric I hadn’t been able to parse before suddenly becomes clear and comprehensible. Repetition helps with this, of course!

So yes, silence is poisonous for super-depressed-me. I also crave color, pretty things, things that push back against the way the world feels (cliche alert!) gray gray gray. This is where I start refreshing my Instagram feed on my phone. As mentioned, I follow a lot of people posting food photos with commentary in German underneath, and clicking through tags to find more people to follow, and seeing more food, is a great thing to do when I’m too agitated or worn-out or sad to do anything more active. (I’ve also started looking up tags for other subjects, like dogs!)

I do also sometimes watch YouTube videos in my target languages on my phone — sound and color, hooray! — but they can require a sustained level of focus that I can’t always muster.

I really need to figure out even more things I can do along these lines. Any ideas? My phone is getting a bit worn-out and clunky (I’m hoping to make it until my contract runs out in the spring and I can get a new one), but there must be other things I can do.

What do you do when you’re limited by your energy due to mental or physical illness? What are your core study tools and resources? Are there things that are easier or more sustainable through the fog of depression/anxiety/etc.? Things you find impossible? Does it work better simply to let yourself rest and recover before you dive back in?

(I should note that this is all an ideal version of coping with severe brainweasels. All this doesn’t always happen, and sometimes almost none of it does. I had a really bad patch recently — actually, let’s be honest, self, I’m still struggling through it — and sometimes this stuff was just beyond me. There’s a balance — that I can’t always find — between pushing myself, in a good way, and being kind to myself and letting myself rest. And sometimes that doesn’t even feel like a choice.)

Dark days, or more about self-care for language learners

Remember what I said the other day about taking care of yourself and your mental state during language learning? I used the example of me mostly avoiding explicit/detailed things about the treatment of animals, and instead mostly focusing on vegan recipe blogs, reviews of vegan shops, etc.

In that same post I mentioned receiving daily news emails in my target languages. It can feel relentless: how many stories, in two different languages, can I bear to read about Ferguson, Gaza, Ebola?

I have a slight background in activist work, and much of my social circle consists of people who are similarly social justice-minded. We have a tendency to feel that pulling back — because we’re tired, or burned out, or our hearts are breaking from the things we see around us — is a failure. If we were only dedicated to the cause, we’d push on! Wrong, wrong, wrong. Movements can only be stronger when we take time for self-care.

Brave words, but I do struggle with this activist guilt (I should stay informed, I should bear witness), as well as feeling like I should make myself go through these news stories for language practice. I say this here to myself as much as to you: it’s okay not to push through the news. Even if it’s useful practice. Even if you want to keep up with current events (as I do, and if I can accomplish that while learning languages, even better). It’s all right to take a break, to skim, to just glance at the headlines, to choose something else instead. Needing time to rest and recenter and recharge is natural!

I’m still going through the news emails, but consciously telling myself I can skip anything I want or just read lighter fluffier stories when they appear. For example, I enjoyed reading about herb gardening when it popped up in Süddeutsche Zeitung this week. I also get emails from Brigitte, a German women’s magazine. A lot of their stories don’t interest me, but I like their travel series (48 hours in different cities) and occasionally I flick through their recipes.

If you’re stressed out by what you’re reading — whether it’s the news or something else — be gentle with yourself and find other things to dive into. Fashion, celebrity gossip, sports, gardening — whatever your chosen substitute is, don’t feel bad for abandoning something because it’s distressing you! This is doubly true for those of us with mental illness. Our brains do a good job making us feel bad on their own. Let’s not make it easier for them if possible.

On the subject of things that are easy in terms of reading level as well as a pleasure in terms of content, this post is very persuasive! I really like the book bin idea — if I had a front porch or a balcony, I’m sure it would be super for my mental health to read out there; it sounds idyllic! (Saying that, I suppose I could go to my local park with a book bin & a travel mug of tea…)

I wish you all joyful reading, as well as the strength to read the more difficult things, when you want to, and the strength to step back when you need to.

Little and often: automating my study strategy

In a previous post, I talked about how I keep learning languages through the power of habit, often even when severely depressed or anxious. “Little and often,” I said, and today I want to talk about how I get those bits and pieces of language study into my day.

I admire people who can do study routines like the one in this post (I certainly don’t get that long of a lunch break!). However, as noted in there, most people won’t be able to do that and certainly not every day.

I can’t, probably not even on a really good day. On a really bad day, I need the power of habits and automation (and my smartphone) to really get anything done at all.

This doesn’t make me a bad person or a weak person or a person not committed to languages. It makes me someone struggling under various conditions and constraints and responding to them as I’m able. I refuse to feel guilty.

So what does my routine look like? Starting off my day, I use Duolingo while eating breakfast. I don’t often have time to do very much, just a few minutes, but it’s there: part of my morning is learning French and German.

When I walk to the tube, I listen to podcasts: usually Coffee Break German, Slow German, or Coffee Break French (I can recommend all of these, and I’d love if you told me what you’re listening to yourself). It’s only about 15 minutes, but it serves me well. Listening to the same episodes repeatedly helps me absorb vocabulary and grammar too — I may not process it well the first time (if I’m crossing a street or smiling at someone’s dog at a particular moment, my focus may waver!), and reinforcement is a good thing anyway.

During my train ride, I take out my ereader — I’m currently reading Harry Potter in French (I’m on book 3!). Sometimes I just read a few pages, especially if I don’t get a seat. I might then review my Anki flashcards, or if I’m having a bad morning, I might just close my eyes and work on collecting myself instead.

I get several news emails daily, both morning and afternoon, in French and German (currently, from Süddeutsche Zeitung, Deutsche Welle, Le Nouvel Observateur, Libération, Le Monde, and Le Libre).

This means I don’t have to think about whether or not to go to, say, Ouest-France’s website to read an article (something I’d often intended to do, but couldn’t do consistently): the news just shows up in my inbox. If I don’t have a lot of time or energy (usually when I’m at work!), I can at least skim the headlines & read the two or three summary sentences under each one. When I can, I click on the ones that interest me to take a look at the whole article. Some days, some articles, I try to read the whole thing. Sometimes I only look at the first few paragraphs. Some days, I skim fleetingly only. I prefer to read on the bigger screen of a monitor, but I can also read on my phone, which helps (as does wifi on the tube!).

Why don’t I save the emails for later? Because I’m making French and German part of my life: if I don’t read these now, something else will come along later that I might have time or focus to read. I don’t want to pile up a huge archive of outdated news that, chances are, I’ll never read and will only feel increasingly bad about. As someone dealing with mental illness, I’m already prone to guilt and feeling overwhelmed: why sap my language-learning energy further?

When I do have time, I don’t read every article anyway. Why? Because not all of them interest me. And I do more languages when I can have fun with them.

I also keep up with a lot of blogs, including ones in my target languages, via RSS feeds — I use Feedly. Again, I don’t read every word of every blog post. I read what I can: what I have time and energy for, what catches my eye, what feels interesting or useful or relevant.

I’d definitely recommend finding blogs on your topics of interest in the languages you’re studying, if you haven’t already. Though a caveat to those struggling with mental illness: you might want to stick to blogs with subjects that aren’t likely to pull your mood down. For example, I read lots of vegan blogs in German, mainly cooking blogs or ones that review restaurants, cookbooks, etc. The shorter, more condensed text of a recipe is easier to parse — especially if I’m reading clandestinely at work — and beautiful food photography lifts my spirits! I know there are more theoretical vegan blogs out there that talk about animal exploitation, sometimes in graphic terms. But I also know that, in addition to this probably being too challenging for my German at this point, sometimes my state of mind is too fragile for that. I do read those kinds of things occasionally, but I’m less likely to put them automatically in front of me via subscribing to those blogs.

I’ve also finally dipped my toe into Instagram. Several friends have recommended casual photography, and the moments of mindfulness that requires, as a tool in my mental health arsenal. That’s proving true for me so far! But I’ve also followed lots of German vegan food bloggers. Not only do they post delicious-looking photos, they often leave short comments underneath in German: more small moments for me to practice my reading comprehension! (If anyone reading this knows of any German yoga Instagrammers that would be similarly useful, please do let me know!)

There are lots of other things I do — conversation exchange, classes, tutoring sessions, watching a TV series or listening to the radio — but the items above form the bones of my daily language study habits. I recognize that, for some, this may seem a pathetic effort, but it works for me.

When I’m feeling really ill (either physically or mentally), this all has to be scaled down. In a future post, I’ll talk about what my daily language learning routine looks like when I’m in a downswing, and how I can keep studying sometimes even when I can’t do anything but hide on the couch under a blanket for the whole weekend.

In the meantime, tell me about your study routines! How do you build opportunities for languages into your day?

The dual uses of distraction

I’m writing this somewhat hastily while I have the inspiration/spoons — as I said in my last post, I had a big interpersonal bomb go off recently, and I’m trying to focus really hard on keeping my head above water (I’m so grateful to my friends for their wisdom and tenacity and support).

You know what’s helping me a bit? Distraction. Things, like fluffy TV shows, that pull me in and engage my brain long enough to make me forget what’s upsetting me so much. Even better if I can absorb myself in something “productive” — I struggle with feeling productive “enough,” but I think that for me, feeling useless or like a net drain of energy, like I don’t contribute anything, is even worse.

So. Languages. You know how bloggers love to go on about how you have to study things that interest you? That if you find the rote “Hello, Mr. Brown, are you here on holiday? Where do you come from? What is your job?” dialogues in textbooks deadly dull, it’s okay? This is true! This is wisdom. Read about things that interest you in your native language and it will help you keep churning through the challenge of doing so in your target language.

And, as a not-inconsequential benefit, it will hopefully engage your mind and help you through anxiety loops, depressive spirals, or other unfun brainweasel manifestations.

I’m not saying anything new here, but I wanted to write this right now because I’ve just been reading an interview with a vegan cookbook author in German, and for a few moments my brain gave me a little peace.

It felt like a miracle.

So. Try it. Keep doing it. What are your other hobbies or interests? Yoga or motorcycles or local politics or heavy metal or gardening or knitting or martial arts? Find blog posts or magazines or newspapers or books (or videos, podcasts, etc.: this isn’t limited to print!) about these things in your target language.Stick them in your RSS feed reader; add them to Twitter; bookmark them; subscribe for email updates; download them on your phone: whatever it takes so they’re there in front of you to look at.

It just might help both your language-learning and your mental health, even if just for a moment.