The Myth of the Authentic Self

“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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-21 at 10.06.12 PM
Me as a kid. Don’t I look repressed? :D 

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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-21 at 10.00.26 PM
It’s cool to objectify your anxiety. #dialecticalmaterialism

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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-21 at 10.07.23 PM
Zoloft is the shit. But this Instagram is an example of my readily revealing a lot, which sometimes I feel keeps me guarded in other ways.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-21 at 10.02.47 PM
This photo = what lit critic Wayne Booth would call “irony with teeth in it.” 

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.

On LinkedIn

 

Screen Shot 2017-04-16 at 11.39.38 PM
LinkedIn makes me so uncomfortable!

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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-16 at 11.41.14 PM.png
Literally, I ate froyo 2x/day, every day my freshman year.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-16 at 11.44.47 PM.png
LinkedIn’s Corporate Slogan: “Relationships matter.”

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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-16 at 11.46.11 PM.png
Me and my dad; we are now FRIENDS on LinkedIn (and IRL, duh).

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).

Screen Shot 2017-04-16 at 11.42.34 PM.png
I’ve always loved the etymology of awful. It’s related to awe u no.

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.”

The 25 Best & Worst Things That Happened to Me at 25

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. 

Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 6.54.30 PM.png
Don’t even get me started about how anxious litter makes me.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 6.51.57 PM.png
How I feel inside on a regular basis: bad and boujee.

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

  1. I told the entire world about my experience navigating a secret Adderall addiction.
  2. 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.
  3. I internalized that I had built a financially and spiritually sustainable career as a freelancer.
  4. 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).
  5. 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).
  6. I snuggled with a cat that didn’t scare me even though I’m terrified of cats.
  7. I moved into a beautiful two bedroom apartment with my sister/best friend and it feels like the sanctuary of my dreams.
  8. I said “I love you” to a man that I loved.
  9. I had my TV debut on the Today Show lol.
  10. I started writing a TV pilot and then stopped writing a TV pilot.
  11. I realized I liked networking because really it just means having drinks with people who are cool.
  12. I laughed harder than I had in a long while kick-ball-changing down the soup aisle of a CVS with my sister.
  13. I went to the American South for the first time and ate barbecue.
  14. I drove MULTIPLE TIMES on the highway WITH A DRIVER’S LICENSE and WITHOUT MY PARENTS.
  15. I upped my dose of Zoloft.
  16. I ate a really good steak. Several.
  17. I started this blog, lol to the fact that I was just trashing on the creative process.
  18. I realized I didn’t want to write poetry anymore, and then realized ANEW that I did. (Yesterday, 3/27/17).
  19. I quit a job that wasn’t serving me even though it was easy and good money.
  20. I gave good life advice to a damaged 10 year old with dubious values.
  21. I started paying my own health insurance in my pursuit of 100% financial independence.
  22. I got to see my bff’s (see #4) mom give a talk on Leonard Bernstein and it was really inspiring and moving.
  23. I started brainstorming article ideas with a greater sense of what I was doing.
  24. I worked for MONTHS on a book proposal and then decided to ditch the project.
  25. I realized the importance of having fun and that burning yourself out into an overworked depression isn’t righteous.
Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 6.56.17 PM.png
Lest you forget I blogged about my on here before #tbt.

WORST THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO ME AT AGE 25

  1. I lost my health insurance through my parents :( tbt.
  2. My grandfather died.
  3. I started getting panic attacks again.
  4. I worked for MONTHS on a book proposal and then decided to ditch the project.
  5. 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.
  6. I started thinking way too much about death on a regular basis because of my anxiety.
  7. 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.
  8. I stayed up for an entire night self-flagellating about a typo I’d left in one email that someone didn’t notice.
  9. I realized the body is fragile and complicated and ever-changing. (Best thing too, not on the list).
  10. I continued indulging my seltzer addiction, even though the CO2 isn’t good for alkalinity.
  11. I didn’t discover what I want to be doing with my life.
  12. I failed to figure out what kind of writing will make me happy.
  13. I treated my ex-boyfriend unfairly in several occasions, and one particular one comes to mind where I regret my behaviors.  
  14. I didn’t read a single book cover-to-cover with attention and care.
  15. I didn’t appreciate my family vacation enough this summer.
  16. 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.
  17. Donald Trump became president. (Sorry to everyone else to whom this happened: e.g. everyone.)
  18. I let time go by faster than I wish I’d let it go by.
  19. 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.
  20. One of my best friends and I are not as close as we used to be and I feel sad and weird about it.
  21. 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.
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. I felt jealous of people a lot who deserved whatever it is they got that I was jealous of. #mudita
  25. I got a lot of stomach aches that are psychosomatic.

Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 6.57.51 PM.png

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!

Awful but cheerful: Sunday Reflections on Elizabeth Bishop

 

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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 12.13.35 AM.png
A cold spring: a March evening in 2015, when the light contradicted the temperature. #incipience

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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 12.06.58 AM.pngScreen Shot 2017-03-12 at 12.07.57 AM.png

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.”

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 12.10.07 AM.png

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.

When the Personal Doesn’t Feel Political (Enough)

“[O]ne needs just a certain amount of trouble.” -Robert Rauschenberg

Screen Shot 2017-02-26 at 11.02.23 AM.png
Have you ever signed a petition or deleted an app as a “political” gesture, without fully understanding the reasons or implications of your actions?

Welcome to 2017 and what it means to live in an age where everything you do is mediated by social media.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-02-26 at 10.52.13 AM.png
How I’ve been feeling these days.

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.”

screen-shot-2017-02-26-at-11-03-52-am
Photo by Peter Keegan via Getty Images. 1977

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. 

Screen Shot 2017-02-26 at 10.52.29 AM.png
Homeland strikes me as racist and jingoistic, but I still watch it for entertainment value. :|

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.

Screen Shot 2017-02-26 at 11.08.14 AM.png
When I didn’t really eat, I ate a lot of baby carrots.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-02-26 at 10.51.31 AM.png
This is an actual sign on the NYC subway. Horrifying.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-02-26 at 10.55.52 AM.png
Robert Rauschenberg, “Erased de Kooning Drawing” (1953). This is what I think of when I hear the word “erasure.”

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.

What Does It Mean To Be Spiritual?

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-10-58-12-pm

“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.

Screen Shot 2017-02-12 at 11.10.30 PM.png
Me en route to a Tinder date. JK but you get the pic.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-02-12 at 11.01.23 PM.png
In late September, I got several texts from friends like this, celebrating Mercury’s return from retrograde.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-02-12 at 11.03.26 PM.png
Drinking beer after a run: self-care?????!

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.

Screen Shot 2017-02-12 at 11.07.32 PM.png
Apparently, boiling eggs is not easy for many. I hate eggs but Namaste.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-02-12 at 11.05.53 PM.png
My sister and I invited our parents to cleanse crystals in the ocean with us this summer for the full moon in Capricorn. It was right after my grandfather’s death and we needed something to feel better TBH.

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.

On the Yoga Teacher who Complains for Validation & the Woke Bro Who Wants to Talk Judith Butler

Yesterday I went to a yoga class that was, hands down, the worst yoga class I’ve ever been to in my life. Cue the violins for this TRAGEDY.

But hang on, let me finish.

The teacher walked into class and immediately, in a very shrill voice, started complaining about how cold it was outside. She wasn’t wrong. It was 33ish degrees outside. I was also freezing and the studio was drafty. I had just been standing outside Stonewall for an hour with one of my best friends and their cohort from grad school—at the Pride rally against Trump. But the event was filled with energy, good vibes, tons of different folks from all walks of life—including Hari Nef and Lin-Manuel Miranda. I KNOW.

Screen Shot 2017-02-05 at 5.27.12 PM.png
How amazing is “Alt-fact Kelly?” This was at the Pride Rally.

Yes, we were all freezing. But we were having a great time and I know that I felt more energetic and positive than I have felt in a while. Ironically, I had actually woken up in a bad mood and was thinking of not going to the protest because it was so cold. But finding the motivation to go anyway, and to feel the jolt of solidarity, ultimately made me realize that sometimes I’m deeply wrong about what I need to make me feel better. Standing up in the 33 degree whether with a stomach ache, lower back pain and a shitty mood was exactly what I needed to push me out of a funk. I love it when my experiences push back against my neurotic tendency to equate self-isolation with restoration.

Needless to say, this yoga teacher’s complaining really didn’t #resonate with me. It’s like, 1. you live in New York, and it’s winter, and 2. you’re trying to offer people a practice that enables them to exist more peacefully amidst discomfort, and you’re coming in here and talking about how freezing it is outside before we’ve even begun practicing. Like rly?

Anyway, she proceeded to ask the rhetorical question, “You know what’s so weird?”, to which no one responded. Quickly, she answered herself: the fact that the people who work in nail salons always whisper. Before she spoke, I kind of just knew something problematic was going to come out of her mouth. But I remembered the “homework” my therapist had given me: to note “ahimsa,” the principle of non-violence, every time I was making a judgment. Ahimsa, I said to myself as I noticed how vitriolically I already felt about the culturally insensitive yoga teacher. I tried to send her compassion, and told myself that she was just insecure.

The class sucked, mostly because it involved like 543,964,789,456 “knee to nose” cues, and was basically a HIIT bootcamp class couched in the vocabulary of asana. I’m used to the genre of biddie-workout-yoga here in NYC, but was particularly struck by this teacher’s vibes. She kept emphasizing the importance of maintaining an open heart and cultivating peace throughout class, and clearly had memorized the important buzzwords of self-acceptance and openness that are all the rage “these days.” And yet her class was making me feel the opposite. My resistance to the class reached its climax when, in Navasana (boat pose), the teacher asked us to hold hands with the person next to us. My mat was adjacent to that of this “hot” finance bro, who was practicing next to his girlfriend. She immediately struck me as The Skinny, Tan, Tall girl from summer camp who had a really symmetrical face and a sparkling Limited Too wardrobe. That is, she was not a specific girl I knew from camp, but that archetype—hot summer camp girl—I think you know what I am talking about. (Her hair always smells like Herbal Essences and is unimaginably soft and not frizzy. She is probably not Jewish.) In any case, the hot camp couple clearly pitied me when the teacher asked us to partner with our neighbors for hand-holding Navasana, and they invited me to join them in a “threeway.” It was at this moment that I really wanted to be a screenwriter so I could document the Navasana-threeway with camp girl and her hot finance bro boyfriend for a TV show about the dystopian zeitgeist.

Of course, I am kind of a hypocrite as I am using the language of “vibes,” “energy,” and “resonance” to try and make a compelling argument that this person’s pedagogy was inauthentic and deserving of public disdain. Clearly I am not deploying the rigor that I am yearning to see. But what I can say is that this isn’t the first time I have noticed people use the rhetoric of an established community only to defy that rhetoric in their own lives.

As someone who is deeply familiar with “the wellness world” (I cannot even believe I am saying this), I have noticed this time and time again. Food bloggers who don’t eat enough or who eat only rabbit food (read: leaves) and clearly demonstrate an unhealthy obsession with “clean eating” talk about their lifestyle all in terms of health, balance, and moderation. And you’re like, uhhhhhh that “indulgent” chickpea brownie is actually chocolate-flavored falafel. People at your mindfulness meditation retreat who take your sister’s shoes outside the meditation room because they were too unmindful to notice. (Then, when you ask if the couple in the car can drive you to your dorm because you are shoeless in the -5 below cold and snow, they say that they have a massage booked and it would be out of their way.) Life coaches who work with clients on communication emotionally abuse you over email when you copy-edit their blog posts to be grammatically correct. Meditation retreat founders who are too obsessed with the Soho House and “who wore it best” at the last meditation talk to even know how or why meditation is a worthwhile practice.

Screen Shot 2017-02-05 at 5.24.41 PM.png
These brownies contain chickpeas. They actually look p. good tho.

It’s not surprising to me that wellness people can often be narcissistic. After all, what is wellness? It’s self-improvement to some; self-indulgence, self-control, self-inquiry to others. But in almost all cases of description, the self is involved. But wellness can be understood in a more nuanced, mutlifaceted way, or it can merely be seen as a part of one’s life, in addition to political engagement, creative work, relationships, etcetera. That is why I am always skeptical of people who seem, so uncritically, to self-identify as healthy, mindful, balanced, etcetera. Like, if you are so mindful, then you are probably aware of the fact of the times you are, inevitably, not mindful. Or if you have such an open-heart, you a) probably don’t need to say it and b) are resilient enough to recognize that you often judge yourself and others, and that part of having an open heart is about being able to bounce back from mistakes, judgments, assumptions, and  so forth. Staunch commitment to any singular rhetoric—REGARDLESS of context—is a red flag to me. (Caveat: This isn’t true across the board, and I also recognize the insecurity often makes people act in off-putting ways. I don’t think the yoga teacher whose class I took was a bad person at all—maybe just a bit grating; but mostly, I just wanted to use that anecdote as a jumping off point for this discussion of “speaking” a particular “language.)

This theme reminds me of a guy I dated once who was obsessed with talking about gender theory as a part of our courtship. He knew I was into radical feminism, and that my friends were too, and so he used his admittedly adroit vocabulary on continental philosophy and critical theory to flirt with me via Judith Butler references. At first, I fetishized the shit out of said references, and was like, “OMG, this dood wants to talk about gender perfomativity rn” but I slowly started to see that there was a kind of power play at work in his commitment to bringing up stuff about feminism to me in such a confident and uncritical way. He was devoted to being seen as a feminist, and to seeing himself as a feminist, and didn’t really want or need to interrogate his politics. Or at least not at the time. At least in our dynamic, rhetoric about feminism became a way for him to wield a certain power over me intellectually, and to make me feel, at times, like I couldn’t challenge him on issues related to gender. He was as woke as could be—and he knew it. There wasn’t really anything I could do to rouse him further.

Screen Shot 2017-02-05 at 5.21.58 PM.png
Judith Butler looking fierce AF.

There was another guy I dated later who, off the bat, was interested in talking about his pseudo-queerness constantly, and would rant often about the “construct” of monogamy, his corresponding interest in polyamory, and how much he wished it was culturally acceptable to talk about kink on first dates. He was totally A Woke Bro, though he was more interested in foregrounding his queer sexual politics and denigration of patriarchy more than intellectually one-uping me re: gender theory, a la Judith Butler BF. But still, there was a commonality here: using the rhetoric of feminism, of equality, of being ALTERNATIVE in X, Y or Z ways to hegemonic straight white cis masculinity. In a way, these guys were using their rhetorics as mechanisms of seduction (I love me a straight white cis dude with self-professed queer sexual politics, what can I say?). But more than that, they were, as my friend says, “denying their white cis male privilege rather than expressing their true identity”—and the questions that their identity brings up in relation to questions around privilege.

The relationship between the archetypal disingenuous yoga teacher and the problematic woke bro may seem tenuous, but I am interested in exploring something larger here: the fact that a steadfast commitment to a specific “vocabulary” of any kind can be a red flag that there are insecurities around the ideology of said vocabulary.

Screen Shot 2017-02-05 at 5.28.41 PM.png
Aristotle is famous for his definition of rhetoric. How’s that for hegemonic masculinity? :D

I think it’s for that reason that I rely on self-deprecation as a paradoxical foundation for expertise when doling out life advice on here. It is my insurance policy in trying to communicate that really, I know nothing. But I think that self-deprecation—and the fact that it introduces the destabilizing forces of self-awareness, humor, irony, and acceptance—shows a degree of questioning. In a state of questioning, there is dynamism. And there is, to me, a POSITIVE value judgment in constant, dynamic questioning of one’s ideology. AHIMSA, I know. But a positive judgment seems better than a negative one.

Do I check my privilege always? Absolutely not. Do I try? Yes. Does it mean I’m always woke? NOT AT ALL. Does it mean I will keep asking rhetorical questions like this until I am blue in the face? “Abso-fuckin-lutely,” to quote Mr. Big, a totem of hegemonic cis white straight masculinity from the early aughts. TBT to SATC. Over and out.

The Insidious Coexistence of Denial and Self-Awareness

“The essence of morality is a questioning about morality.” -Georges Bataille

The other night, my sister and I chatted over dinner about morality. TBH.

She asked me if I thought people who do bad things know they are doing bad things. I said it probably depended on the person (what brilliance!) but made sure to emphasize that, generally speaking, I think bad people know they are bad more often than we might assume.

You’ll often hear people refer to criminals, particularly white-collar criminals I’d argue, as sociopaths or narcissists. We can’t understand what they are thinking is the subtext that attempts to assuage our confusion; and indeed, that’s most likely true most of the time. Or take Donald Trump, for instance, who is a dangerous narcissist with a value system completely contingent on immature and irrational emotional needs. Because he happens to be enacting these impetuously self-referential values in a position of immense power, these “bad” things reverberate harm to millions of people. Trump doesn’t know he is bad—but that doesn’t excuse him. He thinks he is good and can only see evidence that corroborates that. His morality is his narcissism. (FYI: I am not going to write a think piece about Donald Trump because, quite frankly, I need to think about something else for this hour.)

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 12.52.55 AM.png

I have never done anything really bad to another person, so I can’t speak to the psychology of being abusive or criminal or Trumpish—although I’ve certainly enacted my fair share of run-of-the-mill emotional harm to ex-boyfriends. My family also knows how icy I can be when I get angry, and my current partner has seen me behave so monstrously that I feel horrifying just thinking about it.

But when it comes to the act of enacting harm, I have been self-destructive far more often than I’ve been abusive, and so I can speak more eloquently to the ironies and paradoxes of having harmful intentions, and how it can cooperate magnificently and terrifyingly with both the mechanisms of denial and self-awareness.

Let me ask you this: have you ever done something to yourself that you know is bad, but you do it anyway?

My guess is that your answer is yes.

The other night, I spent a good chunk of time looking at the new girlfriend of an ex-boyfriend I am no longer interested in at all. I then spent my therapy session the next day talking about why. I didn’t know why. My therapist asked how it made me feel. I said it made me feel bad and sad and undesirable, even though that was an irrational reaction. She then asked me why I wanted to feel like this. I said I didn’t. But clearly I do, which is why I check her Instagram ever so often. I am acutely aware of my own insecurity, and also in denial about it. She seems lame and I am thinner and smarter, I tell myself, loathing my own tendency to reinforce patriarchal and oppressive norms in my own defensiveness. I don’t care at all. I’m not sure if I do. But this is an instance in which I can see my own self-destructive behavior clearly—a bizarre and insidious dance between self-awareness and denial. The two can certainly coexist.

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 12.56.39 AM.png
Sometimes, I think things that reinforce the patriarchy even though I made this sign for the women’s march.

 

A similar dynamic occurs for me with cigarettes. I don’t smoke anymore but often when I am very stressed I will find myself wanting a cigarette. No you don’t, I tell myself. And I don’t, really. My “higher self,” if you will, knows that I don’t want a cigarette in those moments, and yet that is not enough to stop me. Please note that this inner dialogue has happened enough times that I have, indeed, played out the fantasy of obtaining a cigarette and smoking it against what I think is best for me. And so I have a great deal of wisdom, such that my next contribution to the dialogue is to say: But knowing you, you’ll probably have one anyway. And then you’ll hate it! The occasional cigarette tends to be ephemerally satisfying simply in that it scratches an itch, a categorically nice feeling. But I consistently feel dirty and disgusting and I berate myself for hours until something new comes along that I can fixate on. But I’ll do it anyway. There is clearly denial here, but one that can only exist because I am self-aware of this dynamic. It’s as if I excuse myself on some level because I know I’m doing the heavy lifting of self-inquiry. But I tell you my own cautionary bullshit as a reminder that we can do bad shit to ourselves even when we are committed to growth. It’s not linear, and the process of watching yourself self-sabotage can be excruciating.

I’ve experienced this bizarre state of self-aware denial about cultivating various permutations of eating disorders, pursuing emotionally abusive relationships, indulging my workaholism with Adderall addiction, allowing friendships to deteriorate.  

This was certainly something I experienced during the years I smoked pot. Smoking pot enabled me to prove something to myself—specifically, that I could rebel against the part of myself that wanted to keep me contained and “in control.” I could still work too hard in school, starve myself and self-isolate, but also bear the signifier of someone who was relaxed enough to “check out” of life a little bit by smoking pot. It was a habit that became a performance of the paradoxes I wanted to present to the world. And I was immensely successful at that performance for many years. That was part of the deal I had made, not so consciously, with myself.

screen-shot-2017-01-26-at-4-28-54-pm
4:20 is a signifier for pot-enthusiasts. #tbt

A couple of years ago, my close friend was chasing after an unavailable person who made her feel unstable and emotionally volatile. This person was unknowingly manipulative, beckoning my friend to pursue him at the same time as he affirmed and reaffirmed his own dysfunctions. My friend saw what was happening, and she continued basking in the deep, confusing well of self-destructive emotions. She would ask me why she was letting herself do it, and I told her it didn’t matter. I told her  our feelings often seem to be excluded from the equation when it comes to how we rationalize things. When we’re compartmentalized, denial and self-awareness can coexist; and in that place, we can act as though we are in control.

My friend needed to engage in this cycle of self-abuse for a few more rounds until she reached a kind of requisite, “never again” moment. I’m not saying those are necessary for everyone stuck in the between the poles of self-awareness and denial—a delicate place of stasis—but sometimes the more feeling that is pumped into the equation off-sets the profound intellectual exercise that is the process of self-manipulation. We are all masterful storytellers (to ourselves) after all.

screen-shot-2017-01-26-at-4-39-00-pm
Feeling compartmentalized makes me feel like a bento box.

Many people don’t believe me when I tell them this nowadays, but I used to be cripplingly guarded. As I’ve written about before on here, I fulfilled a certain “role” in my nuclear family that had me believe that being “easy-going,” deferential, quiet were all top-tier virtues. I’m not sure when, why or how that story began, but it did, and it crippled me for a long time. Many of my #ish today are byproducts of the years of repression I created for myself, and endured.

I believe it was in college that I made the very artificial and deliberate decision to be, almost always, gregarious, open, warm—someone who shares too much. According to my new story, I tell it like it is. And I’m sure I even seem that way to you, writing about my inner-most emotions on the fucking Internet. But on some level, I am very much not that way, and still struggle with feeling like the disappearing, people-pleasing “good listener” who is about to have a panic attack in the bathroom while everyone else is having fun at the party. In at least one way or another, I have just developed this openness as a defense. Being emotionally open, dramatically open, puts what I feel comfortable with out on the table, and it is an external gesture I can point to when I want to show myself I have grown, that I have become self-assured and more authentic. Herein there is a kind of productive example of denial and self-awareness coexisting, but on some days, I want to be able to just be.

I don’t write this to make you all think that I am a huge asshole manipulator with a hyperactive psychological engine that has me plotting all the time how I am going to be intelligently self-destructive and guarded. But I do it because I think it is helpful to see, through the eyes of another perhaps (in this case: me) just how powerful our stories are.

For what it’s worth, I’m not cuing the violins on myself and trying to argue that I’m actually an inauthentic, pathetic person with no emotional intelligence. I am very devoted to trying to be more authentic and genuinely empowered and more skillful with how I treat others and myself. But just because that’s true doesn’t mean I have to stop checking myself. And checking oneself doesn’t have to be punitive. It is a form of radical self-care, through a kind of discipline that honors the real rigor of authenticity, of presence, of wholeness.

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 1.00.38 AM.png
My sister and I started a gratitude jar even though it’s cheesy to try and work on our stories. #gratitude

In these dark times, I think it’s essential for all of us to stay honest with ourselves—brutally honest, even. We have to show up for each other, for civil society, for those whose voices and experiences need to be buoyed. And to do that, we may have to sacrifice the time- and energy-consuming project of self-inquiry. But if we can’t show up for ourselves as ourselves, then what’s the point? The next time you feel your inner bento box walls beginning to go up, take a second to think about the story you’re telling yourself to allow you to compartmentalize. You might ask, “How true is that, really?” No one else has to know.

5 Things To Do When You’re Having A Panic Attack In a Public Place

“Feelings are facts.” -Yvonne Rainer

screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-11-00-23-pm

At the Women’s March in NYC this past Saturday, I spent the morning stuck on 46th street with my sister, her childhood best friend, my mother and her friend. We were waiting with a sea of folks trying to get into Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, where the morning rally was taking place. As was the case in like, every city everywhere, there were too many people and midtown was a fucking mess. I was hungry, my back hurt, and I had to pee (I have irritable bladder syndrome—the other IBS), and there was no way we were going to move any time soon. I felt totally out of control—and strangely, totally OK with it.

Screen Shot 2017-01-22 at 10.35.25 PM.png
I saw this poster in Williamsburg today, the day after the march. I hope to see more like it.

Over the years of dealing with anxiety and control issues (the biggest euphemism of the year), I find that my physical and mental reactions to chaos in the world around me surprise me when I least expect it. While I am not claustrophobic, I hate being in tunnels, and I regularly get panic attacks in enclosed spaces; yet being totally stuck and unable to move at the Women’s March was chill AF, and I was even cool with the fact that my bladder was really bothering me. I was able to #bepresent. Or: I am the biggest neat freak on the planet to the point where I clean the stainless steel part of my dishwasher more than 10 times a day, and yet every painting instructor I’ve ever had has scolded me for how messy my palates are when I oil paint. I think there’s something these contexts have in common—stepping outside of myself, and specifically, releasing the comfort I associate with scratching the itch of my neuroses. When I’m painting, when I’m protesting, when I’m writing—when I’m somehow externalizing my energy, and spending it deliberately on something that is *not* a defense against anxiety (cleaning, counting in multiples of four, refreshing gmail compulsively)—I can surrender a little bit. Of course, getting myself to the place where I’m willing to do that is often the hard part. I tend, irrationally, to associate comfort with being by myself, even though that’s when I feel most crazy.

Before I get to the content that the title promises, I just want to preface the rest of this post by acknowledging that a lot of the content on fatfreebalsamic is “navel-gazing”—personal essays about issues related to personal growth, notable daily experiences, cultural consumption. (And hopefully, they relate to you in some capacity.) As such, I didn’t feel inclined to post a political tirade about Trump or a critique of the Women’s March, even though such topics are both urgent and “trending.” To be quite honest, I felt inspired at the march and enjoyed the comfort of solidarity, and didn’t have much else to say vis a vis personal experience. Of course, I was also very aware that the march was predominantly white; I recognize and am critical of the diversity issues around the march and other forms of non-intersectional activism today, and I try to be the best ally I can. And I am not looking for a gold star. But my point is that it can still be urgent to raise awareness around individual issues like mental health even in times of systemic upheaval and injustice. 

I am saying all this because I 100% recognize the “first-world-problem-ness” of talking about my “problems” cleaning a stainless steel dishwasher a million times a week as a defense against anxiety. But I also think there is power in “holding space” for myself and others to talk about our shame-inducing idiosyncrasies, even if they are “first world” and personal. I believe the problem with the “sharing” culture of the Internet is that it has led to all acts of disclosure as potential sites for policing. Just because I am writing this blog post doesn’t mean I am not thinking about shit tons of other inarguably more important and wide-reaching issues. I’m just doing both. 

screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-10-36-41-pm
This is my favorite stainless steel cleaner. I’ve tried several.

With that, the theme of this week: what do you do when you get a panic attack in a public place?

There’s really no good answer, because panic attacks are the worst, and, if you’re unfamiliar with the experience, can actually make you feel like you’re dying. 

Last week, I found myself getting a panic attack in the middle of a MEDITATION EVENT, okay? How’s that for a public place?  

For what it’s worth, meditation is not relaxing—at least not for me. It is an intimate experience of showing up for myself and to myself as myself, and it brings up a lot of anxiety. It is not, unlike painting or going to a protest, an experience in which I step outside of myself and can release “my shit.”

During the talk, as the teacher began guiding us through a lovingkindness meditation (more on that below), my chest started constricting, and I felt like my heart was stopping and I couldn’t breathe. In lovingkindness meditation, you first send lovingkindness to yourself, and then out to a friend or benefactor, and then to all beings. You silently repeat phrases like, “May I be happy, peaceful, strong, protected; May I live with ease” (those are some of my faves). As I listened to the meditation, my panic got more acute, and I felt, as I often do when I have panic attacks, like I had two compartmentalized selves: one that was experiencing the physiological symptoms , and the other that was seeing it happen.

Here is how I dealt with the panic attack—without formally disrupting my meditation . Hopefully it might give you some tools if you, too, suffer from bouts of anxiety in public places:

1. Name it.

When the first symptoms of chest-muscle-constriction began during the sitting, I immediately fixated on the physical discomfort. I found myself lost in racing thoughts: what’s going on? Am I dying? Why would I be dying? Wouldn’t it be ironic to die at a meditation event?

The thinking, unsurprisingly, made me more anxious—and my body responded accordingly. Even though I was “supposed to be” meditating, I actively allowed myself to engage in thinking until I was a little bit calmer. I told myself, If you were dying, you wouldn’t be thinking all of this right now. That helped. You’re having a panic attack, I said silently.

As soon as I called it what it was, I felt a little tension release. I didn’t quite yet feel ready to shepherd my attention back to the lovingkindness mantras,  but the act of 1) recognizing what was going on, 2) accepting it, 3) giving it a name, and beginning to examine it a little bit gave me some sense of control. The good kind, not the stainless steel cleaning kind. And from that control, I felt a little bit more prepared to 4) feel separate from my anxiety, like it wasn’t taking over. 

This series of actions summarizes the mindfulness technique known as “RAIN” in which you follow the following four steps in response to complex emotions:

  1. Recognize (the feeling) 2. Accept (the feeling) 3. Investigate (the feeling) 4. Non-identify (with the feeling—meaning you are not the feeling). My BFF Zoe and I like to think of the emoji below as the visual representation of the “INVESTIGATE” step—get curious about your feelings! It empowers you to feel separate from them. For more on RAIN, read this.
screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-10-49-02-pm
Hm, this feeling is uncomfortable. Let me INVESTIGATE it.

2. Laugh about it.

Has a shitty thing ever happened to you that is also really funny? I don’t ask this as a guarded question meant to make myself seem not vulnerable—I felt, and feel, very vulnerable. But I find that the physiological experience of laughter brings me a lot of relief when I feel like I’m dying.

To me, there is now something definitionally funny about when I get panic attacks. They are so debilitating, and always have been, that I have learned to adjust my attitude about them and can now see them as this ridiculous nuisance that creeps up on me on the regs. I have to remind myself that my fundamental reaction is: Ugggghhhhhh really? This again? 

So, during the meditation freakout last week, I found the distance from my panic attack enough to laugh for a few seconds. I tried to be quiet, because I knew the other meditators in the room would be weirded out by someone laughing in the middle of lovingkindness meditation. But I exhaled a few audible breaths as I thought about how neurotic it sounded to think about myself having a panic attack at Tibet House during a meditation event. Like, really dude?

3. Send yourself sum luv.

I hate the idea of self-love as like “an idea” because really, what does it even mean? I hate the idea of repeating affirmations to myself like, “I am a beautiful and lovable being” because I don’t really feel like that most of the time, and if I were to engineer that attitude it would feel inauthentic and annoying.

But I think there is a more irreverent way of thinking about sending yourself love, especially in times of duress like panicking in a public place. It involves being tremendously REASONABLE, and checking yourself when your judgment is getting out of hand. Imagine your self-loving self is a bro talking to another more aggro bro (your self-judging self), and the first bro says to the other bro something like, “Dude, you’re good. I get that you’re bugging out, but just try to chill.” To me, self-love looks like that when it’s most effective.  

 

4. Try not to hate yourself, which is different than sending yourself luv.

The operative word here is “try,” as I admittedly felt a lot of self-loathing every time a distracting thought came up during my practice that night. Despite all of the work I do on myself (therapy; meditation; tarot, whatever), I still felt SO inadequate and terrible for “letting” myself “indulge” in a panic attack. Couldn’t I just get the fuck over it?  The same probably goes for the times you get panic attacks on the job, at a movie, while out to dinner, wherever. I personally know that I get panic attacks at the worst and most unlikely times, and I always feel annoyed at myself that I’m not “over it” yet. 

screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-10-45-43-pm
I pulled the “temperance” card for 2017 wisdom. Just to be a #firstworldproblems #newage biddie self-parody for a sec.

Unfortunately, I’m not over it! And making myself feel like poo because of that is unproductive; that’s the real wisdom of BEING REASONABLE.  I am starting to see what happened last week as a really effective invitation to keep on with all the stuff I am working on—accessing self-compassion, releasing old habits of self-loathing and hyper-discipline. To think that I was sending myself hatred and judgment because I was experiencing anxiety during a meditation event is actually really sad and painful to think about. I imagine myself as a five year-old, or as a close friend of mine, and all I want to do is be like, “Omg you’re fine. Don’t even worry about it.” But I am not five, nor am I a friend. I am myself, and I deserve to accept the fact that I had an off sitting that day. Namaste.

5. Use the experience as an ingredient for another experience.

As I write this, I am feeling—”TBH”—maybe slightly inadequate because I thought last week’s post was better and was expecting to write this week about the Women’s March instead of panic attacks. But I am also grateful that I am exploring what this process was like in a slow and more self-reflective way—and it occurs to me, too, that this may even resonate with other people. Maybe make your panic attack (or whatever your foible is) fodder for a conversation with a friend or joke with family, a topic for a blog post (#LOL), a subject for your diary entry or free verse poetry. Or maybe you just think about it on the subway home from work and feel better.

 

screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-10-43-50-pm
Saw this en route to therapy and was like, “YAS.” I hate the whole “yas” trend, btw.

So are panic attacks irrelevant during Trump’s presidency? No. Does it make sense to fixate all your energy on your personal problems and not pay attention to the world around you? Also no. But one doesn’t discount the other. That is ridiculous and UNREASONABLE. This is a complicated topic and there’s more to say—so hopefully you won’t automatically tell me I’m an ignorant bitch for choosing the personal over the political today. I have thought about this a lot, and I will probably write a blog post on it even though the idea of getting really political on here makes me anxious.

WHAT ELSE IS NEW?!

Coming out as someone with mental health issues

“Things being whatever it is they happen to be, all we can know about them is derived directly from how they appear.” –Mel Bochner

Recently, I met with an academic mentor of mine for breakfast. Shortly after we sat down with our coffees, she “came out” to me as depressed. When I asked her what was new (she had just gotten a Ph.D and I was waiting for complaints about academia), she told me that she had started Zoloft. I congratulated her and gave her the real world equivalent of the Emoji-heart-eye face, because perhaps you know (or don’t know) that I could really go on and on about Zoloft.

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-11-50-25-pm
Me thinking about Zoloft

One thing my mentor/friend said to me was that she felt worried her drive to work was lessening as her depression, too, became less intense. I felt an acute pang of recognition, and remembered the year I first went on SSRIs at age 17. After a month of taking my meds (Lexapro at the time), I felt a sense of distance between my demons and me, and I saw that I had more of a choice than I had previously thought in terms of how much power I gave them.

Slowly, over time, I found myself gaining back the weight I had lost during my previous year of anorexia. To be clear, the meds didn’t make me gain weight; I was just suddenly able to see that I was choosing to starve myself, to take on more suffering than I needed to. My will towards discipline and self-abnegation became less fierce.

Of course, I missed my depression and anxiety when I got more freedom from it—and that’s what I said to my mentor to console her, at least somewhat. It’s not that depression helps your will to do great work or to starve yourself. It’s just that greater freedom from depression (it doesn’t go away, believe it or not!) shows you that you have more options than you think. NOT being free from our demons, as it turns out, can be far more comfortable. We’re used to it. Evolution tells us: keep being depressed, because you’ve been this way, and you’ve survived.

But I don’t need to tell you that living should involve far more than comfort at the fact that we’re surviving.

***

I wasn’t always this comfortable talking about depression or anxiety, and I felt a strange but whimsical sense of reversal when I found myself giving mental health “advice” to a woman I had so admired as a teacher. But it occurred to me that this conversation marked a turning point, a “coming out,” in our relationship. Before that point, mental health had been off the table. Faulkner and New Criticism and Djuna Barnes were centrally located, but the role our respective anxieties played in making us so feverishly academic was never discussed. It’s always comforting, at least to me, to learn that people you thought weren’t anxious are actually dealing with the same shit.

Screen Shot 2017-01-12 at 11.52.59 PM.png
I tried to read Nightwood on the beach in Miami, and ended up reading Us Weekly instead. Namaste.

In Scott Stossel’s book My Age of Anxiety (and in a related piece in The New York Times), he talks about “coming out” as anxious. In The New York Times article, Stossel shares a conversation he had with his shrink—one about whether or not keeping his anxiety a secret for many years caused his symptoms to get worse. Stossel explains his therapist’s strong position that “coming out” as anxious is necessarily cathartic, and would help alleviate his suffering. Early in the article, before launching into the nuances of his situation, Stossel confirms that his coming out has helped “a little bit, yes.”

Well, perhaps very fortunately, I find tremendous solace in coming out as anxious—each and every time it happens. When I tell the eye doctor about my Klonopin prescription for my anxiety and insomnia. When I explain to the mothers of tutees I work with that panic disorder debilitated me for years in school. When I laugh about my adoration of my psychiatrist at cocktail parties to new acquaintances. When I tell editors at publications for which I write that Zoloft is my jam. When I tweet about how I want to write a Shakespearean sonnet about SSRIs.

Perhaps this solace is because the act is cathartic, like getting something off my chest that otherwise would feel oppressive. Or perhaps it is because it feels like an act of virtuous rebellion against an anachronistic vision of myself that I still hold myself to, irrationally and self-destructively.

I’ll explain.

As a kid, I saw myself as someone who never said anything taboo. Do you like your dinner? my parents would ask. YES, I assured them, spitting my food out into my napkin. Do you like flying? my grandma asked me once. ABSOLUTELY, I replied with enthusiasm, praying (TO GOD!) the next time I flew that I would not die. Every flight, I spent its duration counting to four in multiples of four to pass the time, holding my breath during turbulence and repeatedly calling on God for help (I think it was the Hebrew God at the time that I had learned about in Hebrew school).

It didn’t help that our family narrative had it that my sister was dramatic, demanding and impetuous—and that I, by contrast, was quiet, easy-going and not easily destabilized. I don’t think I was necessarily celebrated for these attributes such that they made me act this way to confirm validation. As I recall, this dichotomy was just an idea that was circulated in the context of my family, and one that I sought to confirm with my behavior, and the dynamic shared between me and my sister. It probably began because I wanted to differentiate from the way my sister’s personality was first narrativized—and who knows why that happened? In whatever way, the cycle began and continued somehow, and it set me up to experience the act of “coming out” with X, Y and Z mental health issues as a perennial source of pleasure and empowerment. So sue me!

The irony, of course, is that I was anxious beyond belief as a kid, far more so than I am today. The first triggers I noticed were the feeling of nightfall and the act of waiting; both regularly sent me into a silent tunnel of existential dread.

When my dad used to go walk our Cocker Spaniel, Eli, each night, I felt the presence of death’s “shadow”(as Nietzche calls it). The real threat of death was, of course, delusional (or at least dramatic; it was unlikely from a statistical standpoint that they would get run over by a bus). But the feelings were real: my dad and Eli would go out, and I immediately felt certain that they would be discovered dead that night or the next morning. I would lay awake in paralyzing terror until I heard the metallic clink of my dad unhinging Eli’s leash from his collar, or the rambunctious scratch of Eli’s nails against the wood floor. No one knew this was happening, and I never admitted to myself that this was how I spent each night. Until now, really.

eli
Eli, 2001

It wasn’t until my second summer at sleep-away camp that I had the experience of seeing and hearing someone in the outside world confirming the existence of my anxious demons. That summer, homesickness (or some traumatic trigger) catalyzed the beginnings of my continued “journey” with panic disorder. Each morning when I would wake up, my throat muscles would feel like they were closing up. The tightness was unbearable, and made speaking or swallowing of any kind impossible. Chewing gum or sucking on a candy sometimes made the sensation easier, but my involuntary reaction each morning was to vomit. Plain and simple: I couldn’t help it—it was literally involuntary from a physiological standpoint. Vomiting forced me to relax my throat, and it perversely became something I associated with comfort. When I vomited, I could talk again.

Quickly, my camp counselors picked up on an unsettling behavior: my morning vomiting ritual! I was quickly shipped to the infirmary, where I was asked (not in so many words) if I was bulimic. I wasn’t. I didn’t know what was going on, quite frankly, but I told them I was nauseous because it seemed like that had to be true: “nausea causes vomiting” is what my 10-year-old brain told me.

When I came home that summer, the vomiting continued. My wise mom was maybe freaked out too, but she stayed up with me each night as I cried and felt helpless, still completely unsure of why this traumatic stuff was happening to me. I remember my dad asking me if I was abused at camp, and I thought he was crazy. I then remember doubting myself, wondering whether I was abused and somehow didn’t remember. I wasn’t. I was just bugging the fuck out.

After many many sleepless nights of crying, vomiting and talking, my mom and I reached a conclusion: my body was reacting to the fact that I had been, for an entire decade, swallowing everything I had ever felt. The mere emergence of this revelation was the beginning of my mental health journey, one that I am still on and will probably always be on.

#swallowing as a #metaphor

Still, I had not “come out,” and my “journey” didn’t immediately get easier from there. But there was profound comfort in merely recognizing that I could have a vocabulary to talk about my vomiting pattern. I was having PANIC ATTACKS. It was a DISORDER and it HAD A NAME. I was delighted at the ability to pathologize myself. I remember the elation I felt each night when, in response to rising levels of anxiety, I called my psychiatrist to listen to her voicemail. She told me I could do this, and boy, did I follow up on her offer.

***

I don’t think there’s anything wrong in gleaning comfort from self-pathologizing. I like knowing that I take Zoloft for my mental health issues because it helps remind me that I am not my issues. I deal with them.

I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with my over-sharing about my mental health struggles. It might be a defense mechanism. It might be narcissism. But it raises awareness, and makes me, and others struggling like me, feel more comfortable with the hand we’ve been given, neurochemically.

I have spent the subsequent 15 years struggling with anxiety, OCD, panic attacks and other issues, and as I said, I feel lighter and more buoyant each and every time I am able to be honest and transparent with others about all the bullshit I deal with, regardless of how close we are. I am able to find empowerment in the act of using storytelling to free myself further from my demons, and knowing that gives me pleasure and a sense of empowerment in and of itself; I can find humor in the fact that I was a 10-year-old with panic disorder at summer camp, and that I was mistaken as a girl with bulimia. It’s sad, and it’s funny, and talking about it today makes me feel like I will only continue to develop a greater sense of freedom with how I approach the world as time goes on. As I said, that freedom is scary because it suggests that I—that we—are moving away from what is comfortable.

I can’t remember when I quite “came out” with my mental health stuff. It was probably in college, when I began my life as an extroverted person. (Previously, I was shy and repressed. BELIEVE ME. I know it’s hard to.)

But as Stossel notes, “coming out” as anxious doesn’t make the suffering of it go away. It can simply change our relationship to it. It is no longer an object to hide from, but a part of ourselves we can relate to. And there’s a dynamism in that. We’re no longer swallowing a bitter pill, but showing the world that we, like the amazingly cute Zoloft balls, can proceed along in our lives—moving up and down, up and down. Screen Shot 2017-01-12 at 11.59.46 PM.png