“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously began her 1979 collection The White Album. The aphoristic phrase later became the title of her 2006 book of collected non-fiction. While there is a certain melodrama in Didion’s observation about survival, it’s strangely accurate, pinpointing that drama, or perhaps even melodrama, comprises the foundation of what it means to be human.
That is, if we woke up each morning without telling ourselves a certain set of stories—often both unconscious and implicit—we would be at a loss. If someone asks, “What’s your name?” each of our answers is a story. So too are our likes, dislikes, jobs, habits, past times. Our lives are all fueled by self-created (and self-perpetuated) narratives.
Culturally, the very idea of “storytelling” is comforting (although it’s become a bit of an annoying buzzword in the TED-talk-worshipping zeitgeist of 2017). When we were children, most of us asked our caregivers for story-time before bed. Fairy tales and myths transported us to emotional locations beyond the isolated islands of our thoughts. And yet even humanity’s psychological status quo (read: anxiety) is constructed out of narratives. (“I am out of breath. Why am I out of breath? Will I ever breathe again?”) As someone with panic disorder, this parenthetical example is **DERIVED FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE**
Anxiety is an evolutionary mechanism: as a species, we have adapted what contemporary neuroscientists call “negativity bias,” a hard-wired impulse to locate and identify threats (internal or external) all around us. There is always a metaphorical lion on the side of the road to be avoided. Telling ourselves that—repeatedly, and in whatever variation depending on our circumstances—gives us answers, meaning, something to grab onto.
Our habits are also stories. “I’m a morning person.” “I drink too much.” “I hate exercise.” Data shows that humans repeat 40% of all behaviors every day. Are we really “creatures of habit” or are our habits largely the product of the stories we tell ourselves? I’d hazard the guess that the answer is a combination. We stick to our habits (partially as a result of the stories we perpetuate about them) because they function as evidence of our survival mechanism. “I’ve eaten cereal almost every morning since I was 10. Therefore, cereal has enabled my survival up to this point.” The mere idea of giving up eating cereal could give me heart failure. God forbid, but you get my point.
Whether or not we’re aware of the particular stories we tell ourselves may not make a difference in our actual quality of life. I’ve been in therapy since age 9, and have definitely rehearsed psychodynamic analyses with my various therapists over the years. I like to think I’m pretty aware of the stories I have told (and still do tell) myself, but I am also comfortable admitting that my awareness hasn’t changed much when it comes to my happiness in a big picture way. But knowing the impact of the stories I tell myself helps me expand the aperture of my perspective. If, say, I am feeling shitty, anxious, and depressed, I try to invite myself to ask how much of my sinking mood is the byproduct of a myth I’ve written about who I am and why my thoughts operate the way they do.
By the way, doing so doesn’t really me feel better, but having the emotional tools to ask myself the question provides me with a palpable sense of empowerment and freedom. Rather than feeling like a narrator, devoid of subjectivity, reading off the “page” of my stories, I act as a protagonist. I still may be telling myself a story. But the narrative unfolds in the present, rather than the past, tense. Selfhood itself is a narrative.
During Thanksgiving and the “Holiday Season” in general, everyone seems either to complain about their impossible, right-wing relatives who they can’t even stand chatting with at dinner, or the fact that just being around family makes them crazy. I fall into the latter bucket. Being around parents—and the evocative artifacts of what “home” used to mean— tend to bring out the worst, most fossilized stories that we’ve ever told ourselves—including the ones that date back to junior high school. Like, no, brain, I am no longer a depressed anorexic 14 year old….but thanks for reminding me that I used to be that, and think that. There is a certain comfort in remembering the evolutionary mechanism at work. You may still feel like shit, but at least remind yourself that YOU ARE A MAMMAL.
Like most people, I sometimes wake up wishing that I had a clean, structured understanding of what my purpose was on this earth, and how I could best enact it. There’s a reason people join cults, nurture their SoulCycle obsessions, or become vegan. We all have control issues (#deathanxiety), and the pursuit of external identity-markers gives us a break from having to create and uphold our own, individualized stories of meaning and purpose. Remember that Marx called religion “the opium of the people” for a similar reason—in an attempt to point out the pleasure we derive from dogma, those pre-existing ideological structures that lessen the weight of personal responsibility—to define our own ethics, taste, politics, spirituality. But at the end of the day, every religion can be traced back to a cluster of stories.
You may feel an instinct to judge the stories you tell yourself as “bad” or “good.” (Guess what? That’s evolution too.) Certainly, some of the stories we tell ourselves are productive and inspire us to make positive changes, while others are regressive and keep us imprisoned in the chains of old, bad habits that we’ve simply practiced for too long. But there is nothing valuable about making blanket judgments about our conditioning and the ways we enact it, internally and externally. We will never stop telling stories. The most powerful thing we can do to free ourselves from the ones that hold us back is to notice them.
Despite my successful memorization of New Age-y aphorisms about being present and loving oneself, I struggle quite a bit with self-acceptance.
Our culture celebrates clenched fists, tightened jaws, fierce competition, and, to a certain extent, self-judgment. If you’re “pushing yourself,” an undeniably virtuous thing, you’re presumably having to judge your behaviors, and your definition of what it means to be doing “enough,” that artfully amorphous term.
This framework is what encourages many of us (hi!) to lock ourselves in a cycle of self-loathing.
I didn’t do enough today. I ate really gross shit last week. I don’t work out enough. My writing sucks. I procrastinate too much. &c.
The intention behind self-loathing for many of us, I think, is protection. Beating up on ourselves can become a convenient refrain, a way of reminding ourselves of the desire to fulfill [x goal] Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger (Daft Punk!).
e.g. If I beat up on myself for how many french fries I ate last night, I will prove to myself that my goal is to be healthier. Hopefully, I will even choose to eat a salad instead today.
Of course, feeling shitty about yourself is a shitty motivator. Myriad studies have actually proven this (such as this recent one), and have also proven the benefits of self-compassion. When we meet ourselves where we’re at—no matter how “successful” we are in practice—we enable ourselves to achieve more. IT’S SCIENCE.
But truth be told, the line between self-acceptance and laziness isn’t always clear. My ongoing struggle in therapy is to figure out when I’m enacting positive behaviors, and when I’m rationalizing self-destructive behaviors. I can be quite convincing, I’m afraid. #DENIAL.
For instance, this question comes up a lot in my meditation practice. I like to meditate every day, and consider it an important ritual for my spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical well-being. But because I also have a tendency to over-schedule myself and hold myself to too many standards, my “requirement” to meditate every day sometimes feels like a chore. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s not—and it’s something I have to “push myself” to do.
Say I get caught in the rain during my commute after a long-day at work. Upon arriving home, I may not want to meditate. I may want, instead, to drink a beer and binge eat french fries. While that decision may not be capital-H Healthy according to some static definition of Self-Care, it may be a healthy decision for me in that moment.
But, alternatively, say my long day at work involved a lot of ruminating, and stewing in negative thoughts. Meditation might be exactly the thing I need upon coming home—either in addition to the beer and french fries, or instead of it (plus some other dinner option). The hard thing is that it really depends on the situation, and my specific FEELING about what would be self-caring in that particular moment. Unfortunately, living in an EMBODIED WAY and trusting our intuition isn’t something our culture applauds us for, either.
Long story short, sometimes “pushing yourself” is an act of self-care, and sometimes it’s the stark opposite. “Pushing myself” to meditate when I’m tired might be a fantastic idea on one day, and an unnecessary form of “punishment” on another. As I have said before, can sometimes be an insidious coexistence of self-awareness and denial in the mind.
The most important thing is taking a step back from all the mental clutter, owning your shit, and making decisions independent of it.
What do I mean by “your shit”? Well, put simply: our thoughts—our sense of what our experience is like outside of what it feels like in our bodies. Ask yourself, “What are my go-to ways of narrating my life?”
In my case, I tell myself the story every day that I am Type-A, hard on myself, and overly-analytical. This narrative is pretty accurate, factually-speaking, but it has also led me to some pretty destructive behaviors. For example, I spent many years smoking pot around the clock, because “I deserved it.” “It made me chill out—and even made me smarter.” If I could achieve everything I wanted (straight As, regular visits to the gym, social interactions, etc) while still being stoned all the time, I was deserving of self-acceptance.
In hindsight, I was rationalizing a bad habit. Whether or not I dismiss my many years of denial as “lazy” isn’t really the point (experts would probably suggest avoiding negative labels). The more important takeaway is the power of storytelling. We are capable of creating the right dramatic scenario in our minds to support our behaviors and thought-patterns. And it’s up to us, too, to recognize that—and make changes anyway.
What I’m saying may not sound particularly encouraging, but the bottom line is that the knowledge we hold in our bodies often has way more wisdom than what is in our minds. When I actually allow myself to feel EMBODIED, rather than relying on a story of what my experience is like, my sense of what self-care means is flexible and intelligent. Sometimes, self-care is running. Sometimes it’s smoking weed. Sometimes it’s simply saying “It’s OK that I smoked weed even though I am trying not to self-medicate.”
Rarely, if ever, is self-flagellation a productive decision.
So, if you’ve eaten too many french fries and feel like shit in your body, perhaps you’ll eat something green tomorrow. But I would hazard the guess that saying “It’s OK that I binge ate french fries” will make you feel much better in your body.
It takes quite a bit of courage to say “It’s OK.” Try it. Push yourself.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Week after week, day after day, I wonder about the origins of my self-loathing. When did it begin? And why? The answers remain unclear, hence asking all the time.
When I refer to “my self-loathing” in everyday conversations—with random people at parties, friends of friends, colleagues, etcetera—I’m always amazed to find that so many people seem to really hear it, and express some kind of relief—as in: You hate yourself on a regular basis? You mean you feel the thing I thought no one else felt?
It’s like a more positive version of the feeling I have when I read WebMD message boards about hypochondriacal scenarios I’ve conjured for myself and see that everyone is bugging the fuck out. Like, oh yeah, we’re all crazy and typing in our bizarre psychosomatic symptoms into Google on a Saturday night. NBD.
Anxiety is one of those feelings that is addictive because it’s recursive. It’s cyclical. First there’s the rumination— on habits (or habits of mind), rhetorical questions, obsessions, behaviors, other self-referential objects. Then comes a “bad” feeling. Anxiety, of course, then wants to solve the feeling, because we’re wired to survive. And then more unanswerable questions pile on. Then more feelings. Usually “bad” ones.
(FYI: I don’t mean “bad” or “shitty” with self-blame. I get that any feeling is “just a feeling” but I’m trying to bevel the edges of my Buddhist ideologies by writing with more raw and colloquial language.)
In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, there is a word—papancha—that refers to this recursive, addictive, cyclical process. Sharon Salzberg, who is my meditation teacher and friend and colleague (and the amazing author of a new book, Real Love), once defined papancha as “the imperialistic quality of the mind towards negativity.” Anxiety, to me, is imperialistic. It somehow always feels like it conquers you. To add insult to injury, you always seem to want to fight back.
Exhausted by this pattern, I’ve spent the past month or so experimenting with seeing my various judgments and obsessive thoughts differently—and deliberately. For sake of contrast, below is the “before” part of my work-in-progress “before and after”:
Usually, my thought patterns look something like this.
I feel thirsty.
I must not have had enough water today.
I should’ve had more to drink earlier.
Well, just go fill your water bottle, it’s not that hard.
Why do you buy water bottles if you don’t use them?
If you weren’t thinking so much about this, you would just drink water.
It could go on and on.
The irony here is obvious. Anxiety tends to preclude me (you, anyone) from taking a proactive approach to dealing with the very object of the anxiety. It’s often self-sabotaging. For instance, if I’m so anxious about thirst, the best and most pragmatic choice would be to drink. But over the years, I have gotten so used to my habit of rumination as a response to anxiety that I typically lose sense of what I am actually wanting, what my body feels, and what’s best for me in a given moment.
What I have referred to as the “after” stage is a process. But the shorthand is that I am trying to practice welcoming “bad” thoughts, checking in with how they make me feel, and then choosing to say “no thank you!” to them, if that seems self-caring.
Let me give some context.
A couple of years ago, I was in one of those bad, donation-based yoga class where the teacher kept encouraging us to “not think about our fear.” I remember thinking, “That’s not rly that yogic.” Shouldn’t you acknowledge and accept your fear? The same way you should acknowledge anything that happens in the present moment—even if it’s realizing that you are spending 10 minutes berating yourself about why you don’t drink enough water? Because by acknowledging it, then you can at least be like, OK, now I’m going to release that. If you don’t pay attention, the feeling (and its effects on you) have to go somewhere.
Meditation is the first and only tool I’ve encountered that has enabled me to begin developing a more productive relationship to anxiety. I no longer want to eradicate it, but want to kindly let it know that it’s not welcome as much as it has been in the past. I don’t ignore it (“I don’t hear you knocking on my door!) but rather say something to it like a, “Hi. I see you’re here, but I’m busy at the moment. Sorry!”
I think meditation seems to be so uncomfortable because people (myself included) don’t want to watch what their minds do, and where they go, if without significant distraction. It’s unpleasant to be honest about what we’re capable of making ourselves feel. We’re confronted with watching our mind do things as unproductive as my thirst and water bottle dialogue—and constantly. But it’s only when you notice these things that you can pull yourself out of them. The process REQUIRES that you first acknowledge what’s happening—and that is courageous and useful in and of itself. Even if it feels shitty and seems like it’s showing a part of yourself you don’t want to see. Bottom line? You can’t not think about your fear. It will be there no matter what you call it, or don’t.
Fear is just one emotion in the camp of feelings most of us hate, and that often encourage us to act in ways we don’t like—acting out “our shit.” Maybe you’re feeling loss or are going through a life transition, and, like me, spend 954,334,549 hours on your phone for no reason and then hate yourself for it. Or maybe you drink too much alcohol or have gained weight or sleep too much or are a compulsive online shopper. You get my point.
Somehow, I’ve found that calling “my shit” what it is—my shit—has given me both some emotional distance and a sense of relief. In many self-help slash wellness contexts before, I’ve heard that you should “treat yourself like a child” or to “pay attention to your inner child”—that being nurtured like that is self-love. But I’ve never wanted to create that dynamic with myself; it just doesn’t appeal to me, and I think that’s OK (though I’m sure it works for many, and that’s great). In my case, a mix of cynicism and kindness is mesmerizingly comforting: I notice that there are elements of me that can simply be shitty (to others, to myself, etc.), but also that they can probably change. To start that process, I make the observations I need to make, and then experiment with saying no thanks! to some patterns. The notion of this being an “experiment” has also lowered the stakes for me. I feel less pressure to “succeed” in being less self-critical.
No thanks is kind but clear, direct but open-ended. I’m not saying I shouldn’t be having the thought, or denouncing its existence through avoidance. It’s not shutting it down. It’s strangely a technique to objectify the thought as something Other, so that you re-situate yourself in an empowered position. Like, do you want to feel horrible now? the aftertaste of self-criticism may intimate. And your answer can sure as fuck be no thanks!
I wish more self-help books said fuck and shit and didn’t pretend like change was actually something that feels tenable when you’re urgently seeking it. It will never feel that way! At least I don’t think so.
BUT if you treat your thoughts like little offerings you can take or gently say, “No thanks!” to, the project becomes far more relatable—like politely turning down an offering for fresh ground pepper at a restaurant. You’re neither rationalizing nor criticizing your behaviors. It’s a conversation, and during it, it’s possible to feel change happening, just with one decision.
Can I eat what you give me. I have not earned it. Must I think of everything
The speaker of Robert Creeley’s poem “For Love” stutters these sharply enjambed lines just after gaining momentum at the beginning of the staccato, recursive poem. Desperately, the speaker (Creeley himself) asks his lover, the poem’s addressee (whose name is Bobbie, as we learn from the dedication) if he is capable of eating what she gives him. Of course, he is also asking himself, rhetorically, performatively—is he capable of receptivity? Can he really accept love? Pleasure. Acceptance. Being seen.
Immediately, Creeley decides to answer for himself: “I have not earned it.” His insecure, questioning mind then chirps in with an additional, new question—no question mark: “Must / I think of everything // as earned.” In characteristic fashion, Creeley’s question is a statement, likening his interrogations even further to the circular, often contracting ruminations of the mind.
I’ve always read these lines in a somewhat symbolic way: in the often-sheltered universe of one’s romantic relationship, love itself becomes objectified, something to be earned, deserved, returned—a commodity. We “invest” in others, and wonder if it is “worth” it. Love—something we feel with our bodies and ultimately do with our bodies—becomes an idea. A thing. And our vocabulary adjusts accordingly. This poem gets that, and has been my favorite poem for many years. I even have one line from it tattooed on the back of my right thigh!
I love this poem for many reasons, but I am especially fascinated by how strangely the body figures into it. Take the act of eating, which is presented as a symbol of the “give and take” of love, of what the speaker earns (or doesn’t) from his lover. In the world of the poem, Creeley’s body is not hungry; he simply wonders whether it is deserving of love’s nourishment. “What have you become to ask,” Creeley immediately then asks (characteristically without a question mark), “what have I made you into,” he says again, growing desperate with each question. His potential answers include: “companion, good company, / crossed legs with skirt, or / soft body under / the bones of the bed.” Creeley’s lover is an idea— “companion, good company,” a compartmentalized fragment, “crossed legs with skirt,” or a surreal composition, “soft body under / the bones of the bed.” Creeley’s recursion is his defense—from himself, from the body. And from his need for defense, we know of his vulnerability. We see the absence of his being, his loving, in the poem, and in the absence we feel his anxiety, which is basically the poem’s subject.
Throughout “For Love,” the speaker and the lover’s bodies both are no longer bodies, but rather the ideas of bodies. And love, perhaps, too, becomes an idea as the speaker’s experience becomes circumscribed by the circularity of the poem’s language. The poem talks about itself, creating distance from the thing it seeks to describe (love), and defends itself against its own admission: a desire for presence, connection, expression—being, in other words.
This dynamic—defensively thinking about something in abstractions such that it becomes disembodied—was central to my 11 on-and-off years with anorexia, and even my current struggles with anxiety and OCD (not unrelated to the anorexia, but I’ll save that for another time). Food was everything I thought about. It was the object of my focus, of my craving at all times—intellectually, but of course, physiologically, too. I kept food at a distance from myself, situating it as a constant other, an object of craving that I always knew was there—separate from me, something I thought I could control. Being hungry all the time made my body feel like something else, an idea, an object. It kept me from actually feeling, being, alive.
Looking back on that time as the person I am now—someone who not only eats enough but also wants to grow and be happy—I can see that my biggest fear during those years was embodiment. The stuff of life that makes us human—in the bodies we inhabit. Connection, compassion, love, loss.
Our culture makes it hard not to fear embodiment, especially for women, I’d argue. We are told to eat this, not that. Wear this, not that. Move our bodies this way, but not that way. As film critic Laura Mulvey wrote in her iconic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” “[W]omen are simultaneously looked at and displayed… they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” In a traditional framework—the one Mulvey is using—women’s bodies are typically regarded as objects, as ideas, as vessels for what she calls to-be-looked-at-ness. This leaves many of us clinging to our bodies, trying to follow the rules about our bodies that we’re given by the outside, so that our bodies can be legible to the outside. So that we can be beautiful, worthy of being looked at. For many of us, this narrative was rarely critiqued; or, even if it was, how easy is it to internalize a belief that resists everything you were ever taught?
Learning to meditate has been my life’s greatest healing practice thus far—for my anxiety, OCD, insomnia and more—but it has also shown me just how much I fear embodiment. Sitting with myself brings up terror. Each day during my practice, as I try (an infinite number of times) to focus on my breath, my mind panics, and I feel it clinging to thoughts that try to jostle me out of my body. Experiencing that anxiety—the push-pull between my body and mind—is almost always unpleasant, but it reminds me to see my thoughts (particularly my anxious ones!) as separate from my body, as fleeting, flexible. My body, too, of course, is fleeting. And OBVI mortality is my #1 anxiety (I freak out about death on a daily basis probably). But the practice of actually SITTING WITH THAT ANXIETY, and feeling it, is meditation, despite the belief that meditating necessarily = inner peace. Meditation creates a space within which being a body can’t be rendered into an idea.
BODY ≠ IDEA
I should admit: I often hate it when I meditate—the act of doing it. I hate sitting with my body, being with it, of it. I feel uncomfortable—physically, emotionally, intellectually. But that doesn’t mean I buy into the thoughts that challenge me to step outside of myself. I receive whatever it is my mind gives me, and go onto “accept” the thought if the invitation appeals. The scariest thought of all, perhaps, is that we always have the choice to either receive—or gently turn away from—everything we are given. But we all certainly have the power “to eat” what we are given, and not to think of everything as earned.
“Art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented—which is what fear and anxiety do to a person—into something whole.” -Louise Bourgeois
Upon meeting me, most people wouldn’t assume I was anxious—and I’m not talking about anxiety-the-feeling, I’m talking about anxiety-the-disorder. I’ve been told again and again that I am “chill,” “laid back,” “uninhibited,” “authentic.” Maybe these things are true—but strangely, it seems they fill the space where my deepest anxiety lives, a space I keep so well-protected so that it may never be perceptible.
Growing up, I didn’t talk about my anxiety—nor did I really have a vocabulary for it in my own head. I knew I was ashamed of it—whatever it was—and thought for sure that everyone else was just living life, hanging out, not overthinking everything. Feeling pleasure. I remember many sleepless nights on my Little Mermaid sheets, which depicted underwater scenes featuring lots of bubbles, coral, Ariel, Flounder, and Sebastian. I was afraid of swimming at the time and worried that if I fell asleep I would drown. I didn’t tell my parents, or my sister, and I kept quiet, growing increasingly tired with each night I lay awake, waiting for it to get light again. At the time, I was sort of applauded within the family unit for being resilient, easy-going, notably unflappable.
When I was 9-years-old, I found what I thought was a remarkable solution to the pain of my rumination and anxiety about disorder in my world. I began measuring everything in our apartment with a ruler (I preferred the metric system), and organizing all household objects (from medicine cabinet bottles to magazine stacks to kitchen implements) according to size and color order. When I would do these rituals, I would feel calm—at least momentarily; I had access to a sense of pleasure, a sense of meaning, belonging. My mind had an anchor, and that anchor was something whose position I could control.
My parents thought otherwise. My mom brought me to a behavioral therapist, where I was diagnosed with OCD (I didn’t really think anything of it), and got to play each week with a farm animal themed sandbox. The therapist took pictures of my creations each week. It seemed that I liked to keep the animals in cages. The farm could be a place of structural hygiene, one that would rinse me of my worries. Looking back, I wonder if the idea was for me to get comfortable getting messy in the context of play—where I could see the beauty of exploring my imagination and its imperfect edges.
It didn’t work, and I don’t remember when I stopped going. Now, I am not sure I would encage the farm animals (if I were to engage in this exercise again), but I am confident that I would organize the animals in a way that had an irrational message, decipherable only to me. Much like the patterns of 4 and its multiples that I count in my head on days when I feel particularly anxious. The symptoms of OCD are unsurprisingly exacerbated by anxiety-producing circumstances or triggers.
I don’t mean to express judgment around the fact that I would encode my obsessive-compulsive structures with meaning. In fact, I have come to use my anxiety—my paranoia, my tendency to repeat things in my head, my predilection for organizing the number 4 in various mathematical ways—in my poetry, and my writing more generally. It sounds so cheesy and lame, but I have learned to alchemize my control issues in my creative work—and the process emerged organically. A poetry professor I had once told me my poems made her feel like the speaker was trapped, repeating herself until she figured out how to grasp reality with a proper sense of language and experience. In the context of poetry, my ferocious thirst for control (and my allergy to disorder) is something that makes my voice strong. In my life outside writing, I try to tell myself—and believe myself—that my shitty parts can give me strength, and that there can be a kind of dynamic and ongoing dialogue between my more-evolved and less-evolved selves.
It was only recently that I began telling the world, telling myself really, about the things going on in my brain. Sure, I had been in therapy since age 9 (with a bit of on and off between ages 9 and 12), but I was repressed and ashamed of my deeply-rooted patterns of paranoia and obsessive-compulsive rituals. When I got to college, an environment of newness and “hope,” it was as if I had made a deliberate choice to manipulate the world around me—and myself—into thinking I was honest, open, always willing to say what was on my mind. Now, I think I really am these things, but so much of that began from a successful performance. I stepped into the shoes of someone who wouldn’t be so stifled by my own mechanism of denial that I then became that person.
Giving myself that freedom was a profound gesture of control—actual control, not medicine-cabinet-organizing control, but one that has gotten me into trouble over the past ten or so years—ever since I began “owning” who I was a little more. I think because I struggle with anxiety and overthink literally everything, I try so, so hard to identify with others, to anticipate what they might be feeling, what kinds of jokes might resonate with them, what vocabulary will be legible to them. In a place of being shut down with anxiety and its accompanying denial, this part of me doesn’t have adverse effects. I simply stew in my own ruminations.
Now, as someone who has simply decided to SPEAK MY MIND ALL THE TIME (and I like to keep decisions), this pattern makes me guard myself with the prickly armor of irony. I open myself up in ways that will resonate with people, and then hide the parts of myself that I don’t want to reveal. Being myself can become a matter of convenience and validation—people see me the way that I have always wanted to feel, and I can still get away with shrouding my self-loathing.
I am not writing all of this in an attempt to broadcast a navel-gazing journal entry about why I’m such a fucked up person, or why I’m so evolved because I recognize that I’m a fucked up person, but to talk about the necessarily non-linear journey of personal growth. The movement of my march toward mental health and well-being has not been one of steady cadence, nor has it been a victorious ascent. There are wonderful things about the sense of self I have created, a person whose value system is grounded in honesty. But it also means that I put pressure on myself to be that person, and that pressure creates an echo chamber sometimes that actively invites me to keep a lot inside.
Perhaps I don’t need to share those hidden parts—maybe that wouldn’t even be productive. The bottom line is that authenticity is not something we can really achieve. We can engage with it, critique it, use it as a reference point to understand who we are in reference to our self-perception, others, our experiences and so on. Yet the Platonic form of each of our authentic selves is a myth, and letting go of that is where the real freedom emerges.
When I first signed up for a LinkedIn account the summer after my junior year of college, I was deeply fascinated and also horrified that there was actually a site where people posted their academic and professional accolades for the entire Internet to see.
Of course, my fascination and horror prompted me to go ahead and participate in the insane charade of online self-promotion and networking as well: I made a profile, added a photo that was the closest thing I had to a headshot, and decorated my profile with all of my poetry prizes, boring college-y internships, and extracurricular activities from years past. I was ready to prove my worth.
What ensued in the coming weeks was even more bizarre: I found myself getting LinkedIn requests from all of these people I peripherally knew from high school and college: people I’d been in a forgettable seminar with or had once sat next to in the freshman dining hall. After one fleeting convo over dining hall froyo, there we were, networking digitally on LinkedIn.
I remember consciously asking myself, “Does this person really want to network with me?” and quickly answering on my behalf: “Definitely not.” After all, I was still in college and had no professional credentials whatsoever, other than a smattering of not-impressive unpaid internships in fields I didn’t even want to pursue. According to my LinkedIn, I was a staunch environmentalist ready to head into the world of non-profits. (Not true.) There was no reason anyone would want to network with me. So why did people want to join my professional network?
On one level, I have no fucking clue—it’s insane. On another, there’s no real need for an explanation, as that is precisely what LinkedIn is for, why it exists. The only reason I made a profile for myself to begin with was because I knew there was actually a platform out there where people were offering up their professional credentials as stalking material. I had to be a part of it, too.
And of course, I too engage in idle-LinkedIn activity now and again (read: frequently!?) much like my peers past and present. If I see someone I know, whether from school, work, or one-off freelance projects, I (unconsciously) think, “Of course I want to request to add you to my professional network.” It is shameless—and perhaps that’s just the way it is, or even the way it should be. Let me remind us once again: the entire platform is built on an assumption that all users will accept their unapologetic desire to size each other up based on concrete markers of success, achievement, status—the number of members in our professional network, whether or not we have a Premium account, how many LinkedIn articles we’ve posted recently.
Let me be clear: I don’t mean to dismiss LinkedIn entirely. I get that LinkedIn primarily exists as a pragmatic platform for HR recruiters to find talent, for jobseekers to find recruiters and open positions, for me to ask that random person from my freshman year seminar who now works at Google if she would mind “connecting” me to someone on her “team” to get me a six-figure salary job in corporate communications, stuff like that. And for that it is a useful service. But TBH, much of the way I use LinkedIn is highly un-pragmatic, at least when it comes to my career.
I remember asking my dad once, “Why didn’t you friend me back on LinkedIn?” and he straightforwardly responded by saying simply that one does not “friend” someone else on LinkedIn. You ask them to join your professional network. But I would argue that many folks my age (~25-30) use LinkedIn in a pseudo-Facebook-y way. What I mean is this: I unthinkingly ask to add people to “my network” on LinkedIn if I know them even the slightest bit, even if I’ve met them once. Because: that’s exactly what I do on Facebook (that’s the world we live in and it’s weird). But also, #yolo, e.g. why the fuck not? What if they end up doing something really rad and recruiting me to do it with them? That person from seminar might turn out to be the next President of the United States. OF COURSE I WANT THEM IN MY PROFESSIONAL NETWORK.
And yet, in comparing LinkedIn to Facebook, I realize that on LinkedIn, you can see people’s profiles even if you’re not “friends” (JK!). On Facebook, however, one needs to “friend” another in order to stalk their shit.
Truth be told, I often don’t add people to my network who I “stalk” on LinkedIn. Instead, I often gather Facebook-intel as fodder to determine who I want to check out on LinkedIn. In summary, my most frequent activity on LinkedIn is trolling people I don’t know, who are the significant others of ANY INDIVIDUAL EVER IN MY HISTORY who I’ve found attractive. I’m not talking about LinkedIn stalking the current girlfriend of my serious ex-boyfriend. I’m talking about the girlfriend of the guy I thought was cute for a second in my physics class, and who I tried to flirt with (unsuccessfully) via text a couple of times. Because I find out about these relationships on Facebook, I am able to gather material. When I feel struck with an acidic pang of inadequacy, a la, “Wait, why didn’t he want to flirt back via text when we were 16 and in physics class together?” I take to LinkedIn as a way to size up what the current partner has that I don’t.
y = mx + b
[aka: what i remember from physics!]
This behavior is totally deranged, supremely narcissistic, and completely unproductive. But I also feel like it’s important (and productive, actually) to acknowledge to ourselves how we really use social media. No I don’t use LinkedIn to find jobs or contacts for freelance writing. No editor would ever want to talk to me on LinkedIn, and I can’t even imagine responding to a LinkedIn message. If people want to talk to me, they should go to my website. (With all that said, I’d be down to make actual professional connections on LinkedIn).
But yes: I use LinkedIn to see what my high school nemesis is doing with her life, or what her major was in college and when she decided to work in publicity for a non-profit. After all, she made out several times with my crush from 7th grade. I need to be able to make sense of her credentials.
The punch line here, I think, is that the more “mainstream” channels of social media—especially Facebook and Instagram—breed this kind of culture of comparison and one upsmanship, conscious or not. We are constantly constructing avatars of ourselves online—from the relationships we’re in, to the food we eat to the vacations we take—and we are, quite literally, sharing them for the world to see. We want others to compare themselves to us, because that’s what we’re doing.
And so, to me, LinkedIn is perhaps the most fascinating platform because it renders all of those dynamics explicit. My motto on LinkedIn is like, YES I AM LOOKING AT YOU TO SEE YOUR CREDENTIALS (And, by extension, YES I KNOW THAT YOU WILL THUS LOOK AT MY CREDENTIALS AND WE WILL COMPARE OURSELVES TO EACH OTHER.) It’s awful, but also full of awe (awe-full).
Sure, I think it’s probably a good idea for all of us to scale back on social media. But insofar as we, as a culture, are addicted to it, and the fact that capitalism today wouldn’t survive without it, the best thing we can do is be as conscious as we can about why we use social media in the ways we do. Recognizing that I compare myself to people on LinkedIn doesn’t make the habit better, more righteous, or healthy for me as an individual, but it provides interesting material for recursive inquiry, and self-examination. Plus, it’s also kind of hilarious, and a genuinely provocative jumping off point for conversations about ~*the zeitgeist.*~ The only way out is through, and talking about all the weird shit we do online is probably a good way to actually open up to people. And to quote LinkedIn’s corporate slogan, “Relationships matter.”
I haven’t written a blog post in a couple of weeks. I have been feeling—admittedly—a bit stuck. My psychiatrist often encourages me to notice the relationship between this creative paralysis and the status of my anxiety levels, as she is led to believe that I am less willing to produce work (of any kind) when I am feeling most anxious, rigid, obsessive about order. Ironically, my OCD slash anxiety mind is always trying to convince me that order is paramount. And with order will come creativity. Then will come fulfillment. Then will come happiness. Then, then, then.
Then, incidentally, is one of the words most central to anxiety.
Of course, I disagree with my shrink. Anxiety makes me who I am OK?! That’s what I usually say in response, at least in my head. And sometimes, I do what feels like a genuinely successful job of convincing myself that sweeping the floor five times every day is necessary for my well-being. Other times, I notice that my “itch” to clean the floor is so stubborn that it never feels assuaged, even when it’s scratched with a compulsive ritual. The desire for order is simply a nag that will never relent. In those moments, I wish I could simply relish disarray and drink in the chaos as fuel for my ideas.
But perhaps that’s unrealistic. Maybe I can just notice that I love order, that my love for order is often unproductive, and try my best to shepherd my attention back to trying to write, trying to brainstorm story ideas, trying to read poetry. With trying, the metric of order is irrelevant, and therefore moot. So here I am: trying.
This blog is the result of my attempt to create structure around creativity, to give myself an external entity to which I was accountable for creation. If I am merely forcing myself to write in a vacuum, it simply will not get done. Why? It’s not because I’m not-Type-A (because I am), but because it gives me a perennial source of self-loathing. With something else, and ideally someONE else, asking something of me, I tend to deliver. Problem is, my blog is mine.
Enough ruminating: it’s my FUCKING BIRTHDAY! 6:46pm now on my 26th birthday. I have been inside all day on the phone with my health insurance company (I know) and eating salad too quickly and getting a stomach ache and then Instagramming myself in a sardonic anti-Trump hat. I have felt paralyzed by anxiety so I chose to do nothing—except things that felt vaguely self-care-y but also kind of ripe for rumination. So now does the vicious cycle make a bit more sense?
To me, the mere notion of a birthday explains it all. I don’t know about you, but my birthday brings up a lot. Most of all, it makes me want so very badly to be a kid, and to feel so profoundly at a loss for how to believe—experientially—that I am aging before my own eyes and also an infant who wants the world to stop turning and time to freeze. But now that I’m 26, I know that the world will continue turning regardless of my internal tantrums, and that PUSH-PULL of self-awareness is what makes the propulsion of anxiety continue to hum.
So, on this special day, I am taking the opportunity to RECOGNIZE AND HONOR my anxiety, but also alchemize it into creative energy—and a new blog post for you all (thank you to my 74 regular readers around the globe).
Straight-forwardly, I am presenting 25 of the best things that happened to me in this BIRTH YEAR, and 25 of the worst things that happened to me. These are not THE best or THE WORST—just a sampling of some,and so please don’t feel offended if you believe the lists to be non-comprehensive. They are also not in a particular order. I doubt anyone would care enough about any of this to be offended, but you know, you gotta put it in writing.
BEST THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO ME AT AGE 25
I told the entire world about my experience navigating a secret Adderall addiction.
During the week my grandfather was dying (read on for the “worst things…” list), I got to see my dad undergo a familial trauma, and the experience brought me so many feelings of clarity and empathy about him as a person.
I internalized that I had built a financially and spiritually sustainable career as a freelancer.
I became closer with my best friend from college—inarguably even closer than we had been in college. (I hope she never leaves nyc but I think my hope will not come true).
I inched closer toward normalcy in the eating realm, and can now say that I rarely enact anorexic behaviors (and even thoughts). AND that doesn’t make me hate myself (that much).
I snuggled with a cat that didn’t scare me even though I’m terrified of cats.
I moved into a beautiful two bedroom apartment with my sister/best friend and it feels like the sanctuary of my dreams.
I said “I love you” to a man that I loved.
I had my TV debut on the Today Show lol.
I started writing a TV pilot and then stopped writing a TV pilot.
I realized I liked networking because really it just means having drinks with people who are cool.
I laughed harder than I had in a long while kick-ball-changing down the soup aisle of a CVS with my sister.
I went to the American South for the first time and ate barbecue.
I drove MULTIPLE TIMES on the highway WITH A DRIVER’S LICENSE and WITHOUT MY PARENTS.
I upped my dose of Zoloft.
I ate a really good steak. Several.
I started this blog, lol to the fact that I was just trashing on the creative process.
I realized I didn’t want to write poetry anymore, and then realized ANEW that I did. (Yesterday, 3/27/17).
I quit a job that wasn’t serving me even though it was easy and good money.
I gave good life advice to a damaged 10 year old with dubious values.
I started paying my own health insurance in my pursuit of 100% financial independence.
I got to see my bff’s (see #4) mom give a talk on Leonard Bernstein and it was really inspiring and moving.
I started brainstorming article ideas with a greater sense of what I was doing.
I worked for MONTHS on a book proposal and then decided to ditch the project.
I realized the importance of having fun and that burning yourself out into an overworked depression isn’t righteous.
WORST THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO ME AT AGE 25
I lost my health insurance through my parents :( tbt.
My grandfather died.
I started getting panic attacks again.
I worked for MONTHS on a book proposal and then decided to ditch the project.
I thought I wanted to be a TV writer and was all set to UNDERSTAND MY IDENTITY and then I realized I didn’t want to do it.
I started thinking way too much about death on a regular basis because of my anxiety.
I had several moments of doubting myself and the career path I am choosing and it gave me a lot of emotional pain and physical discomfort.
I stayed up for an entire night self-flagellating about a typo I’d left in one email that someone didn’t notice.
I realized the body is fragile and complicated and ever-changing. (Best thing too, not on the list).
I continued indulging my seltzer addiction, even though the CO2 isn’t good for alkalinity.
I didn’t discover what I want to be doing with my life.
I failed to figure out what kind of writing will make me happy.
I treated my ex-boyfriend unfairly in several occasions, and one particular one comes to mind where I regret my behaviors.
I didn’t read a single book cover-to-cover with attention and care.
I didn’t appreciate my family vacation enough this summer.
I didn’t do anything for the Clinton campaign and then sat around like a depressed fool when Donald Trump became President and have continued failing to be an activist because I am too anxious and paralyzed to move in any direction.
Donald Trump became president. (Sorry to everyone else to whom this happened: e.g. everyone.)
I let time go by faster than I wish I’d let it go by.
I fell out of touch with some of my closest friends and feel an absence of a cohesive social group in my life, and feel guilty about my role in not cultivating it.
One of my best friends and I are not as close as we used to be and I feel sad and weird about it.
A close friend of mine died of cancer at age 25 and I never got the chance to tell him how much he meant to me, nor did I pursue the friendship as much as I wanted to. I had been afraid.
I realized how much I’d taken my family’s (now dead) cocker spaniel, Eli, for granted during his life, and that I fear intimacy even if I think I don’t because I am so afraid of loss.
I didn’t write an amazing article for a prestigious magazine that I’d never written for (e.g. The New Yorker, New York magazine, etc.). This is a goal. Let me know if you have ideas.
I felt jealous of people a lot who deserved whatever it is they got that I was jealous of. #mudita
I got a lot of stomach aches that are psychosomatic.
Now, that was a difficult exercise. I didn’t plan these items before I wrote, nor did I really edit these lists. I wanted it to be a kind of #automaticwriting a la Andre Breton. This would drag on if I analyzed why it was difficult, so I will refrain. But I will say that it was interesting how much easier it was to generate “bad things” than “good things” (duh! The human condition!). Furthermore, it was even more fascinating to notice that most of the negative things I wanted to say were THOUGHTS: I realized this, I didn’t do that, I wish I had done this, and so on. It was very difficult to bring myself to actually stop and say that an event or experience was bad in and of itself.
And you’ll see that certain experiences I put in both lists—ah, the clichés abound! But really, reflecting on shit makes you see that pain and pleasure are usually NOT occurring in isolation. If they’re not coexistent, they’re certainly intersecting in some way.
With that: happy birthday to me. I hope you enjoyed this self-referential list, the fruits of my labor trying to alchemize death-anxiety on my birthday into a blog post. May it give you insights!
One of my best friends and I share a special understanding of and appreciation for Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. “Your voice is kind of like hers,” he said to me once—about my poems, but also how I speak generally, my tendency to describe things ad nauseam. In particular, I often become fixated on describing my memories, revisiting past experiences near-compulsively, trying to make them come alive again with excruciating detail. I miss painting for this reason; it gives me a vocabulary to express, not just render, light; to linger over the emotion and tone a simple object can communicate; to express the fact that looking at the East River on a cold, spring evening illuminated by bright sun can send you deep into devastation.
Bishop understands that something deep is communicated when you describe the spars of ships as “burnt match-sticks,” as she does in the identifiably early work, “Large Bad Picture,” from her first collection North & South. Bishop may be retrained in directly expressing her own emotions in her poetry, but she makes her descriptions come alive like a painting does, all of the feeling in each stroke.
After many years of admiring Bishop —calling her my “favorite poet”—my best friend and I finally admitted to one another that we think some of her poetry sucks. It felt like a really intimate disclosure at the time, today less so. But I guess I often feel afraid to admit that people I admire have aspects of themselves that don’t ring true to me in some way—whether it be their work, personal choices, how their habits interact with their politics, etcetera. It’s not dissimilar to the way you might feel when you read in Us Weekly that a child celeb you loved is now actually a coke head. Anyway.
Sometimes, Bishop’s emotional guardedness falters and the poems’ defenses feel kind of off-putting; in “Large Bad Picture,” Bishop describes the (large and evidently bad) painting’s row of “scribbled… black birds” as “hanging in n’s”—n’s as in the letter. The way kids draw the contours of birds flying in the distance, sloped arches resembling m’s more than n’s to me. The irony of the poem—that it’s Bishop’s own aestheticization of, or at least affection for an image she thinks is “bad”—becomes less sharp as a result of descriptions like these. There’s something too clever in the bird contours being likened to n’s. It’s almost too self-aware, too conscious of the effect of its guardedness. Bishop’s smart descriptions keep her at a distance. Sometimes it works better than other times.
Once, in a college paper (this sounds sort of like one but I am trying this new mode of writing about poetry in a more “personal” way—hence blogging!), I referred to Bishop’s primary “mode”— her poetics, if you will—as being characterized by disposession, which I guess is not unlike disavowal. Scrupulous description of something—an experience, an object—in a way seems more like an attempt to possess, to capture, rather than dispossess. But Bishop’s constant resistances in emotional register and perspective indicate something more radical than representation. Poetry is perfect for Bishop because she considers language an autonomous subject in and of itself, one in which she can invent her own experiential and imaginative epistemology. Description can be a way to question, rather than state, what an experience is actually like.
This afternoon, I found myself reading Bishop’s poem “The Bight,” which bears the italicized subtitle “On my birthday.” It’s always been an important poem for me, especially around this time of year—just before my birthday, which inevitably always occurs during “a cold spring” (the title of my favorite Bishop collection). I returned to the poem today because I was writing a birthday party invitation for myself, and wanted to include a quotation; I was also considering the fact that today would’ve been my grandfather’s 84th birthday. He died recently, in August 2016.
In “The Bight,” Bishop doesn’t directly probe what she is feeling on her birthday (always a weird feeling re: mortality, IMHO), but instead renders the “awful but cheerful” scene of a bight, the harbor-like space between two headlands: we sense the dredge’s “dripping jawful of marl,” pelicans “like pickaxes / rarely coming up with everything..” The water is “absorbing, rather than being absorbed.” The bight, Bishop tells us, is “littered with old correspondences” and filled with “untidy activity / Awful but cheerful.”
Bishop takes the time to ask whether the water is absorbing or being absorbed. In this world, it’s not surprising that there is emotional guardedness. All of her emotion comes out in the act of description—in regarding and effortfully describing the contradictory, “awful but cheerful,” signs of chaos, entropy, and aging in this natural element that is both teeming with life and decay.
I wonder, often, to what extent I rely on using a heightened vocabulary to express my observations as a defense mechanism. If I am constantly seeking to describe what’s happening around me, am I ossifying my experiences into narratives rather than living experientially? Am I keeping myself at arm’s length from real intimacy? Or am I indicating my own vulnerability by expressing my resistance to it? A resistance communicated by trying to “possess” experiences in language. A clinging. A fear of letting go.
I’m not sure what the answer is, and I seek to explore these questions all the time, on my own, in therapy, with friends. But today I leave you with this question: is there any better way to express how you feel on your birthday than “awful but cheerful”? I doubt it.
Admittedly, I do this on a weekly basis (at least), and I certainly was among the 200,000+ people who deleted the Uber app after the company tweeted that it would be eliminating surge pricing during the taxi strike that resulted from Trump’s immigration ban on January 28. The #DeleteUber “movement” quickly swept over social media, and it felt like I had to oblige: it was a small way that I could politicize my personal actions and make some sort of a difference. That was my rationale.
I probably sound ignorant and solipsistic, which maybe I am, but I know that I am not alone in feeling confused about how to handle living in Trump’s America—in big and small ways alike. Do you just go along with the ebbs and flows of what your Facebook friends are telling you to do (calling representatives, deleting Uber, meeting up for peaceful protests)? Do you sit paralyzed in terror because that is all you feel capable of, and allow yourself to take the time you need to step the fuck up? Do you devote yourself to one thing, such as consistently acting as best you can as an outspoken ally for trans folks, POCs, Muslim Americans, and immigrants—and recognize that as an important contribution? What actions or lack thereof are problematic—and what is going to make you feel policed by your friends who are way more into activism than you? This is the first time in my life where I am not sure how to navigate my politics in a personal context, and feel that “the personal” is more under scrutiny for how it can be understood in a political framework.
Of course, here, I am decontextualizing slash butchering the idea of “the personal is political,” a second-wave feminist adage that hails from Carol Hanisch’s 1969 essay “The Personal is Political,” and later from revised theories on the subject by intersectional feminists like Audre Lorde, who wanted to bring race, class, and other markers of identity into the conversation. Hanisch wrote the essay in response to critics of “consciousness raising” groups, who asserted that women were insisting that what was effectively therapy was somehow relevant in the political arena. “We have not done much trying to solve immediate personal problems of women in the group,” Hanisch wrote. “In a small group it is possible for us to take turns bringing questions to the meeting…like, What happens to your relationship if your man makes more money than you? Less than you? Then we go around the room answering the questions from our personal experiences.”
Granted, second-wave feminism had and has its very large problems, as it was a movement dominated by affluent, white women who mostly sought their own liberation according to an upper-middle class framework without recognizing their relative privilege, and the ways that class, race, gender expression, sexuality (etcetera) played into the social hierarchies. But the foundational idea was and is important: there are political implications to our personal lives. The two are inextricably linked.
So how do you make sense of those times when your personal actions (or, again, lack thereof) feel at odds with your political ideologies? Do you denounce the authenticity of your politics until you can get your shit together personally to reflect what you believe? Do you accept that paradoxes are inevitable? Do you write blog posts about it to try and develop a vocabulary for this conflict? Thus far, I have tried all three of these methods. I’ll tell you a bit about what I’ve learned. TW: the following content engages with issues of eating disorders and sexual assault.
2015 was the first year I ever felt comfortable enough uttering the sentence, “I used to have an eating disorder.” In my own interior world, and sometimes in the world of my therapist’s office, I knew and was able to articulate that I had been struggling on and off with anorexia since 2005. During those years, I was an adroit practitioner of denial and semi-fictitious storytelling about my own life: I had allegedly dealt with numerous parasites, Lyme disease and its complications on my metabolism, chronic yeast issues which rendered me unable to eat anything.
For better or for worse, talking about my chronic health issues (some real, some less real) wasn’t as embarrassing as admitting to my self-hatred—at least that’s what I thought at the time. Unsurprisingly, when I was finally ready to admit what had really been going on, I felt an acute sense of shame.
When I joined an eating disorder therapy group in 2015, the year of my “going public” with anorexia, I couldn’t stomach the idea of being on the same level of self-abuse with the other participants. The potential for solidarity made me want to contract into myself. Every time I showed up for the group meeting, I wanted confirmation that I was more empowered than the other women in the group. Of course, that was my own vulnerability and shame talking. As it happens, I also simply don’t think the group therapy dynamic was for me, but my reactions to it—especially that of shame, which I was less willing to “own”—were worth probing.
Where did the shame come from? For one, I felt that I was going to disappoint people. I was someone who “put myself out there” as an empowered feminist. I identified as someone who “loved food” (I did, and do—but so do lots of people with eating disorders). I talked the talk of a self-acceptance, and had been going to therapy and meditating for longer than I wanted to admit. What would people think if they knew what a fraud I was? That was the question nagging at me constantly, and that cajoled me into denial for so long.
When I think back on what exactly made me ready to finally confirm to myself, and to others, that I had an eating disorder, I think it had to do with my ability to finally understand, experientially, the notion that “the personal is political.” Namely, I realized that there was actually going to be something empowering in naming the defensive behavior I had developed for years in response to a slew of factors—ranging from idiosyncratic family dynamics around food to patriarchal pressures to be emaciated and a perennial exemplar of the “bikini bod.” I was certainly not alone—I knew that too—and it was not as though I had “decided” to be anorexic so as to bolster fucked up value systems. Probing my mechanism of denial, I realized that I didn’t want to alienate myself from the mythical monolith of feminism I had conjured in my mind—a kind of feminism that would judge my anorexia as a signifier of being too normative, too vulnerable to patriarchal values.
My internal conflict about “the personal and the political”—whether my personal life reflects my politics, especially gender politics—emerges for me constantly. For example, when I first described a traumatic sexual experience I once had as “rape, I think” to an ex-boyfriend, I became instantly ashamed and wanted to stop talking about it. We were on a road trip when I suddenly had access to a fuzzy memory that I had blocked out, and it dawned on me then and there, for the very first time, that I had been taken advantage of. But my realization sent me deep into the pits of victim guilt, as well as a whole range of other complicated emotions both about the traumatic experience and the subsequent talking about it. My ex-boyfriend honored my discomfort, and we changed the subject.
The next day, I started hating on myself for being too cowardly to deal with the experience in a head-on way. Empowered feminists, I told myself, would scream about their rape from the rooftops. They would make performance art about it, write manifestos, raise legal cases with the involvement of their college administrations, wear their anger on their sleeve. And here I was: not wanting to talk about it. Brushing sexual assault under the rug because I was too uncomfortable to go there.
Honoring your own response to trauma is complicated and painful, and it likely won’t ever stop being this way. Today, despite my rumination, I think it’s OK that I don’t really want to engage with other people about the experience I had that may or may not have been “rape.” Of course, my intellect wants to intervene to make sure that everyone is clear that the experience was definitely rape, ambiguous as it may have been (not in the mood to share details). But the emotional part of myself wants to respond, “OK, fine. But I still don’t want to talk about it.”
For me in particular (and I cannot speak to the experience of others), naming my trauma “rape” hasn’t helped me process it. I have, however, adjusted my behaviors: I drink a lot less alcohol than I used to, and I prioritize direct communication in interpersonal relationships, and work in therapy—and in life—on asserting my needs, uncomfortable as it makes me. And yet even through this work, I have still had experiences of neglecting myself, of resisting my own politics because of personal discomfort. Weeks after teaching a workshop on self-love about a year ago, I met and started dating a guy who made me feel like shit and coerced me (repeatedly) into sleeping with him without a condom. Once, while we were dating, I had a urinary tract infection (UTI), and he manipulated me into believing that sex wouldn’t hurt or mess up my antibiotic treatment. I obliged, even though I have written two 2,000 word+ pieces on UTIs, rife with statistics, cutting-edge information about alternative therapies and prevention, personal anecdotes and medical expertise. Sex during a UTI feels HORRIBLE and, indeed, fucks up your antibiotic treatment. I almost got a kidney infection, and promptly ended things with the pseudo-abusive dude in question. Thankfully.
One of the most difficult revelations I have had in the past few years is that, for me, there is no “right” way to respond to traumatic experiences like eating disorders or sexual assault. I feel how I am going to feel, act like I am going to act, and try my best to bring intention and compassion to the table when I take action—which includes my processes of thinking and reflecting. There is a tremendous, expansive sense of freedom and reassurance in simply recognizing that, and the potential paradoxes.
No matter how much you accept, intellectually, the impossibility of always aligning your thoughts and actions, there will be an itch to try and make yourself feel more “authentic,” “cohesive,” “whole.” But unfortunately, any sense of wholeness and authenticity simply comes from how you are relating to your paradoxes, not from some magical erasure of them.
Virginia Woolf wrote, “It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality,” which, to me, aptly describes the hamster wheel-like attitude of self-improvement. There will always be a phantom part of yourself you want to eradicate so as to reach some more “perfect” idea of who you should be, how you should identify, to what groups you should belong, and so forth. But life would be so boring if we all neatly fit into archetypal boxes. Archetypes are there for us to use as reference points, against which we can apply resistance and define ourselves independently. The word “should” tries to strip you of that resistance, a tactic we’ve all tried—probably unsuccessfully. Vague as it is, the verb “to be” works pretty well. There is immense clarity in beginning a sentence with the phrase, “I am…” Whether or not you like it, that’s the reality, and it seems easier to live with that simple truth than trying to push away the phantoms of paradox that actually define who we are.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” -Audre Lorde
In a 2014 installment of her “Breathless” column for Vogue.com, blogger Karley Sciortino wrote “Setting Your Boundaries When Dating a New Ager.” The piece is a comedic and biting—but oh so true—examination of the contemporary iteration of “New Age” culture. Sciortino addresses the people who swear by cleanses, those who can’t get enough of ayahuasca ceremonies, then the others who love their shamans, moon worshipping rituals, gratitude practices, the whole lot. It’s fucking hilarious, but also a little #tooreal. For me, at least. “Everyone should be aware,” Sciortino warns, “that the cute lawyer you met on Tinder might have crystals on his bedside table.” I am not a lawyer, but I often wonder how many people I encounter to whom I successfully “pass” as rational, cynical, post-spiritual.
I suppose all of that begs the question: what does it mean to be spiritual—or what does it mean to me to be spiritual, particularly in my specific context (as a white, mostly straight, able-bodied cis woman living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in the year 2017)?
I am Jewish—and couldn’t conceive of my identity without Judaism—but I don’t regularly celebrate Jewish holidays nor do I practice Jewish rituals. I also do not believe in God. While I meditate daily, and am a student of Buddhist texts, I can’t say I fully identify as Buddhist (or JuBu). Maybe I am, ambivalently, a New Ager myself.
I know that when I used to be on Tinder (for two years, before meeting my current BF on it), I often felt the need to “come out” as New Age (not in those words at the time) to my Tinder dates. In fact, it usually didn’t require deliberate work: as soon as I would roll up to the bar in my Namaste beanie and tell my dates to “honor their truth” as they debated which cocktail to order, the cat was out of the bag: I was a crystal-bathing yoga biddie with a 19 dollar vial of rose-quartz- and rose-petal- infused vodka on my window sill. Today, however, I still don’t fully understand how to characterize my relationship to the various signifiers of pseudo-Paganism infiltrating the capitalist machine these days. Yoga, crystals, sage, “energy,” tarot.
Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable to position myself, like Sciortino, as fully dismissive and ironic of these things. Probably because I am not.
At the same time, I also feel uncomfortable admitting that I “believe in” the power of crystals or that I genuinely feel vibes of renewal on new moons. Partially, I think that my spiritual life is littered with paradoxes and that it would be too easy for me to “believe in” anything. I also think I worry about the class implications of wholly subscribing to a set of things that are expensive and elitist and, quite frankly, unnecessary. I allow all of these attitudes to exist together, and it’s uncomfortable, but such is spiritual life I guess.
In 2014, after a year had passed and my heart had broken, I started realizing just how much spiritual rituals were being commodified in my immediate surroundings. (Read: it felt like all of the privileged, over-educated and urban-dwelling (neurotic) people I knew in NYC became witches. Or something like that.) And admittedly, I quickly joined them for the ride.
Friends and acquaintances of mine regularly flocked to new moon circles featuring vaginal iconography; I regularly hosted vision board making parties, and led female-only workshops on self-love, manifesting and the meaning of sexual truth at a yoga studio and healing center in Brooklyn. On the night of the spring equinox in 2015, my friend and coworker (at a digital wellness publication) invited me to a “Vernal Equinox Ritual Celebration,” led by a woman who self-identifies as “a ritual expert.” I agreed to go to the event in part because it was free, in part because it sounded entertaining, and in part because I was earnestly intrigued by what strikes me as a Paganism Revival among, as I said, everyone I know in New York who is over-educated, neurotic, and, for lack of a better word, “privileged.” Repetitive, I know, but it feels necessary to qualify again and again.
When my friend and I arrived at the ritual ceremony, we met the other participants, all of whom appeared to be friends, and were wearing patterned Lululemon leggings and loose fitting sweaters. There was only one man present, who was a skinny 20-something guy with sculpted Yoga-arms and a man bun. He wore a tank top and man-leggings, and was there with his waif-ish blonde friend who, I overheard, was celebrating some important anniversary of being vegan. There were others—probably 15 of us total, me and my friend among them, a little tipsy from our pre-ritual beers around the corner.
When the ritual ceremony started, our leader instructed us to go around the room, say our names, our mother’s name, our grandmother’s name, our great-grandmother’s name (and so on). Spring, I learned from our event leader’s prelude, is a great time to celebrate the Divine Feminine—the literal and metaphorical “mothers” in our lives, the embodiment of beauty, grace and fertility in us and around us. “You can be your own mother,” I remember the leader telling us. Cheesiness aside, her advice resonated with me, as I’ve always struggled with self-judgment. The idea of being my own mother, especially during tough times, made sense to me—as it helped me compartmentalize my caring self as someone external, someone immune to my self-sabotaging bullshit. It gave me a vocabulary for self-care that felt decidedly not self-indulgent.
During the event itself, we went through various rituals to connect more to ourselves, to each other, to our mothers. One of them was called “an egg divination,” and involved rolling a hard-boiled egg with several of our intentions written on them across the room to see which intention we should focus on. I will note that the vegan of our group had to leave the room because she was so distraught about the presence of animal-derived activity materials.
You may be confused about what my attitude toward all this stuff was at the time, or what it is today. Well, I am still a unclear. But one thing is clear to me, and to others: New Age-y-ness has made a comeback in the 20-teens, and that there must be some sort of sociocultural slash historical explanation as to why. Last year, the editors of n+1 published a piece entitled “Stars—They’re Just Like Us” for Issue 24 of the magazine (the theme of which was “New Age”). In the piece, the editors ask the rhetorical question, “When had astrology become our irrationality of choice?” and quickly provide an answer: “Probably sometime around 2012, when things were not so good for us.”
Indeed, there’s something to this argument, and it’s not unique to the topic of astrology, nor to the editors of n+1. Any ritual can be individually comforting during times of collective discomfort because, in large part, they ask us to be passive, to put our intellects on hold, to “hold space” (love that expression) for that which we cannot control. Many, if not most, popular spiritual rituals have long, long histories, and yet in today’s world they still strike many as silly, most as self-indulgent. We are living in the so-called “Information Age,” so is it that we feel dumb running away from information and toward irrationality? Maybe so, but I say, “fuck it!”—at least in part.
The n+1 eds quote an article critic Christopher Lasch wrote in a 1976 issue of The New York Review of Books in which he argues that Americans sacrificed interest in politics in the 1970s for the sake of “purely personal satisfactions” like Buddhist philosophy and therapy, running and aerobics classes. Lasch saw all of these things as a retreat from political turmoil—helping the self came to replace helping the civic body.
I don’t know if I genuinely believe crystals bring me good energy, or if the tarot deck has all the answers. I recognize these are distinctly #firstworld concerns, and also that there doesn’t really need to be a think piece about commodified spirituality now that we live in Trump’s America. But actually in the wake of recent political turmoil, I have been looking for something comforting to mollify my anxiety as I read the news and try and stay engaged and active in all the bull shit. I don’t know why I feel that I am a spiritual person, but I do feel that I am. I understand that such an attitude is a byproduct of my matrix of privileges, and also recognize the limitations of relinquishing my control in life, especially when it comes to our current political climate.
But I still think it’s worth asking ourselves why we gain comfort from the things that comfort us, and what we can do to be more in touch with them, without self-criticism. For me, the bottom line is that self-care—genuine self-care, not just doing spin class to burn calories and drinking water because it’s good for you—is related to one’s politics. It’s a tool for resilience and no one—not even you—should give a fuck if it seems silly. So long as you’re checking your privilege and not being a dick to other people, I don’t care how many crystals you charged on February 10th’s full moon, and I celebrate all of the wisdom it brought you, or didn’t.