One of my best friends and I share a special understanding of and appreciation for Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. “Your voice is kind of like hers,” he said to me once—about my poems, but also how I speak generally, my tendency to describe things ad nauseam. In particular, I often become fixated on describing my memories, revisiting past experiences near-compulsively, trying to make them come alive again with excruciating detail. I miss painting for this reason; it gives me a vocabulary to express, not just render, light; to linger over the emotion and tone a simple object can communicate; to express the fact that looking at the East River on a cold, spring evening illuminated by bright sun can send you deep into devastation.
Bishop understands that something deep is communicated when you describe the spars of ships as “burnt match-sticks,” as she does in the identifiably early work, “Large Bad Picture,” from her first collection North & South. Bishop may be retrained in directly expressing her own emotions in her poetry, but she makes her descriptions come alive like a painting does, all of the feeling in each stroke.
After many years of admiring Bishop —calling her my “favorite poet”—my best friend and I finally admitted to one another that we think some of her poetry sucks. It felt like a really intimate disclosure at the time, today less so. But I guess I often feel afraid to admit that people I admire have aspects of themselves that don’t ring true to me in some way—whether it be their work, personal choices, how their habits interact with their politics, etcetera. It’s not dissimilar to the way you might feel when you read in Us Weekly that a child celeb you loved is now actually a coke head. Anyway.
Sometimes, Bishop’s emotional guardedness falters and the poems’ defenses feel kind of off-putting; in “Large Bad Picture,” Bishop describes the (large and evidently bad) painting’s row of “scribbled… black birds” as “hanging in n’s”—n’s as in the letter. The way kids draw the contours of birds flying in the distance, sloped arches resembling m’s more than n’s to me. The irony of the poem—that it’s Bishop’s own aestheticization of, or at least affection for an image she thinks is “bad”—becomes less sharp as a result of descriptions like these. There’s something too clever in the bird contours being likened to n’s. It’s almost too self-aware, too conscious of the effect of its guardedness. Bishop’s smart descriptions keep her at a distance. Sometimes it works better than other times.
Once, in a college paper (this sounds sort of like one but I am trying this new mode of writing about poetry in a more “personal” way—hence blogging!), I referred to Bishop’s primary “mode”— her poetics, if you will—as being characterized by disposession, which I guess is not unlike disavowal. Scrupulous description of something—an experience, an object—in a way seems more like an attempt to possess, to capture, rather than dispossess. But Bishop’s constant resistances in emotional register and perspective indicate something more radical than representation. Poetry is perfect for Bishop because she considers language an autonomous subject in and of itself, one in which she can invent her own experiential and imaginative epistemology. Description can be a way to question, rather than state, what an experience is actually like.
This afternoon, I found myself reading Bishop’s poem “The Bight,” which bears the italicized subtitle “On my birthday.” It’s always been an important poem for me, especially around this time of year—just before my birthday, which inevitably always occurs during “a cold spring” (the title of my favorite Bishop collection). I returned to the poem today because I was writing a birthday party invitation for myself, and wanted to include a quotation; I was also considering the fact that today would’ve been my grandfather’s 84th birthday. He died recently, in August 2016.
In “The Bight,” Bishop doesn’t directly probe what she is feeling on her birthday (always a weird feeling re: mortality, IMHO), but instead renders the “awful but cheerful” scene of a bight, the harbor-like space between two headlands: we sense the dredge’s “dripping jawful of marl,” pelicans “like pickaxes / rarely coming up with everything..” The water is “absorbing, rather than being absorbed.” The bight, Bishop tells us, is “littered with old correspondences” and filled with “untidy activity / Awful but cheerful.”
Bishop takes the time to ask whether the water is absorbing or being absorbed. In this world, it’s not surprising that there is emotional guardedness. All of her emotion comes out in the act of description—in regarding and effortfully describing the contradictory, “awful but cheerful,” signs of chaos, entropy, and aging in this natural element that is both teeming with life and decay.
I wonder, often, to what extent I rely on using a heightened vocabulary to express my observations as a defense mechanism. If I am constantly seeking to describe what’s happening around me, am I ossifying my experiences into narratives rather than living experientially? Am I keeping myself at arm’s length from real intimacy? Or am I indicating my own vulnerability by expressing my resistance to it? A resistance communicated by trying to “possess” experiences in language. A clinging. A fear of letting go.
I’m not sure what the answer is, and I seek to explore these questions all the time, on my own, in therapy, with friends. But today I leave you with this question: is there any better way to express how you feel on your birthday than “awful but cheerful”? I doubt it.
Admittedly, I do this on a weekly basis (at least), and I certainly was among the 200,000+ people who deleted the Uber app after the company tweeted that it would be eliminating surge pricing during the taxi strike that resulted from Trump’s immigration ban on January 28. The #DeleteUber “movement” quickly swept over social media, and it felt like I had to oblige: it was a small way that I could politicize my personal actions and make some sort of a difference. That was my rationale.
I probably sound ignorant and solipsistic, which maybe I am, but I know that I am not alone in feeling confused about how to handle living in Trump’s America—in big and small ways alike. Do you just go along with the ebbs and flows of what your Facebook friends are telling you to do (calling representatives, deleting Uber, meeting up for peaceful protests)? Do you sit paralyzed in terror because that is all you feel capable of, and allow yourself to take the time you need to step the fuck up? Do you devote yourself to one thing, such as consistently acting as best you can as an outspoken ally for trans folks, POCs, Muslim Americans, and immigrants—and recognize that as an important contribution? What actions or lack thereof are problematic—and what is going to make you feel policed by your friends who are way more into activism than you? This is the first time in my life where I am not sure how to navigate my politics in a personal context, and feel that “the personal” is more under scrutiny for how it can be understood in a political framework.
Of course, here, I am decontextualizing slash butchering the idea of “the personal is political,” a second-wave feminist adage that hails from Carol Hanisch’s 1969 essay “The Personal is Political,” and later from revised theories on the subject by intersectional feminists like Audre Lorde, who wanted to bring race, class, and other markers of identity into the conversation. Hanisch wrote the essay in response to critics of “consciousness raising” groups, who asserted that women were insisting that what was effectively therapy was somehow relevant in the political arena. “We have not done much trying to solve immediate personal problems of women in the group,” Hanisch wrote. “In a small group it is possible for us to take turns bringing questions to the meeting…like, What happens to your relationship if your man makes more money than you? Less than you? Then we go around the room answering the questions from our personal experiences.”
Granted, second-wave feminism had and has its very large problems, as it was a movement dominated by affluent, white women who mostly sought their own liberation according to an upper-middle class framework without recognizing their relative privilege, and the ways that class, race, gender expression, sexuality (etcetera) played into the social hierarchies. But the foundational idea was and is important: there are political implications to our personal lives. The two are inextricably linked.
So how do you make sense of those times when your personal actions (or, again, lack thereof) feel at odds with your political ideologies? Do you denounce the authenticity of your politics until you can get your shit together personally to reflect what you believe? Do you accept that paradoxes are inevitable? Do you write blog posts about it to try and develop a vocabulary for this conflict? Thus far, I have tried all three of these methods. I’ll tell you a bit about what I’ve learned. TW: the following content engages with issues of eating disorders and sexual assault.
2015 was the first year I ever felt comfortable enough uttering the sentence, “I used to have an eating disorder.” In my own interior world, and sometimes in the world of my therapist’s office, I knew and was able to articulate that I had been struggling on and off with anorexia since 2005. During those years, I was an adroit practitioner of denial and semi-fictitious storytelling about my own life: I had allegedly dealt with numerous parasites, Lyme disease and its complications on my metabolism, chronic yeast issues which rendered me unable to eat anything.
For better or for worse, talking about my chronic health issues (some real, some less real) wasn’t as embarrassing as admitting to my self-hatred—at least that’s what I thought at the time. Unsurprisingly, when I was finally ready to admit what had really been going on, I felt an acute sense of shame.
When I joined an eating disorder therapy group in 2015, the year of my “going public” with anorexia, I couldn’t stomach the idea of being on the same level of self-abuse with the other participants. The potential for solidarity made me want to contract into myself. Every time I showed up for the group meeting, I wanted confirmation that I was more empowered than the other women in the group. Of course, that was my own vulnerability and shame talking. As it happens, I also simply don’t think the group therapy dynamic was for me, but my reactions to it—especially that of shame, which I was less willing to “own”—were worth probing.
Where did the shame come from? For one, I felt that I was going to disappoint people. I was someone who “put myself out there” as an empowered feminist. I identified as someone who “loved food” (I did, and do—but so do lots of people with eating disorders). I talked the talk of a self-acceptance, and had been going to therapy and meditating for longer than I wanted to admit. What would people think if they knew what a fraud I was? That was the question nagging at me constantly, and that cajoled me into denial for so long.
When I think back on what exactly made me ready to finally confirm to myself, and to others, that I had an eating disorder, I think it had to do with my ability to finally understand, experientially, the notion that “the personal is political.” Namely, I realized that there was actually going to be something empowering in naming the defensive behavior I had developed for years in response to a slew of factors—ranging from idiosyncratic family dynamics around food to patriarchal pressures to be emaciated and a perennial exemplar of the “bikini bod.” I was certainly not alone—I knew that too—and it was not as though I had “decided” to be anorexic so as to bolster fucked up value systems. Probing my mechanism of denial, I realized that I didn’t want to alienate myself from the mythical monolith of feminism I had conjured in my mind—a kind of feminism that would judge my anorexia as a signifier of being too normative, too vulnerable to patriarchal values.
My internal conflict about “the personal and the political”—whether my personal life reflects my politics, especially gender politics—emerges for me constantly. For example, when I first described a traumatic sexual experience I once had as “rape, I think” to an ex-boyfriend, I became instantly ashamed and wanted to stop talking about it. We were on a road trip when I suddenly had access to a fuzzy memory that I had blocked out, and it dawned on me then and there, for the very first time, that I had been taken advantage of. But my realization sent me deep into the pits of victim guilt, as well as a whole range of other complicated emotions both about the traumatic experience and the subsequent talking about it. My ex-boyfriend honored my discomfort, and we changed the subject.
The next day, I started hating on myself for being too cowardly to deal with the experience in a head-on way. Empowered feminists, I told myself, would scream about their rape from the rooftops. They would make performance art about it, write manifestos, raise legal cases with the involvement of their college administrations, wear their anger on their sleeve. And here I was: not wanting to talk about it. Brushing sexual assault under the rug because I was too uncomfortable to go there.
Honoring your own response to trauma is complicated and painful, and it likely won’t ever stop being this way. Today, despite my rumination, I think it’s OK that I don’t really want to engage with other people about the experience I had that may or may not have been “rape.” Of course, my intellect wants to intervene to make sure that everyone is clear that the experience was definitely rape, ambiguous as it may have been (not in the mood to share details). But the emotional part of myself wants to respond, “OK, fine. But I still don’t want to talk about it.”
For me in particular (and I cannot speak to the experience of others), naming my trauma “rape” hasn’t helped me process it. I have, however, adjusted my behaviors: I drink a lot less alcohol than I used to, and I prioritize direct communication in interpersonal relationships, and work in therapy—and in life—on asserting my needs, uncomfortable as it makes me. And yet even through this work, I have still had experiences of neglecting myself, of resisting my own politics because of personal discomfort. Weeks after teaching a workshop on self-love about a year ago, I met and started dating a guy who made me feel like shit and coerced me (repeatedly) into sleeping with him without a condom. Once, while we were dating, I had a urinary tract infection (UTI), and he manipulated me into believing that sex wouldn’t hurt or mess up my antibiotic treatment. I obliged, even though I have written two 2,000 word+ pieces on UTIs, rife with statistics, cutting-edge information about alternative therapies and prevention, personal anecdotes and medical expertise. Sex during a UTI feels HORRIBLE and, indeed, fucks up your antibiotic treatment. I almost got a kidney infection, and promptly ended things with the pseudo-abusive dude in question. Thankfully.
One of the most difficult revelations I have had in the past few years is that, for me, there is no “right” way to respond to traumatic experiences like eating disorders or sexual assault. I feel how I am going to feel, act like I am going to act, and try my best to bring intention and compassion to the table when I take action—which includes my processes of thinking and reflecting. There is a tremendous, expansive sense of freedom and reassurance in simply recognizing that, and the potential paradoxes.
No matter how much you accept, intellectually, the impossibility of always aligning your thoughts and actions, there will be an itch to try and make yourself feel more “authentic,” “cohesive,” “whole.” But unfortunately, any sense of wholeness and authenticity simply comes from how you are relating to your paradoxes, not from some magical erasure of them.
Virginia Woolf wrote, “It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality,” which, to me, aptly describes the hamster wheel-like attitude of self-improvement. There will always be a phantom part of yourself you want to eradicate so as to reach some more “perfect” idea of who you should be, how you should identify, to what groups you should belong, and so forth. But life would be so boring if we all neatly fit into archetypal boxes. Archetypes are there for us to use as reference points, against which we can apply resistance and define ourselves independently. The word “should” tries to strip you of that resistance, a tactic we’ve all tried—probably unsuccessfully. Vague as it is, the verb “to be” works pretty well. There is immense clarity in beginning a sentence with the phrase, “I am…” Whether or not you like it, that’s the reality, and it seems easier to live with that simple truth than trying to push away the phantoms of paradox that actually define who we are.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” -Audre Lorde
In a 2014 installment of her “Breathless” column for Vogue.com, blogger Karley Sciortino wrote “Setting Your Boundaries When Dating a New Ager.” The piece is a comedic and biting—but oh so true—examination of the contemporary iteration of “New Age” culture. Sciortino addresses the people who swear by cleanses, those who can’t get enough of ayahuasca ceremonies, then the others who love their shamans, moon worshipping rituals, gratitude practices, the whole lot. It’s fucking hilarious, but also a little #tooreal. For me, at least. “Everyone should be aware,” Sciortino warns, “that the cute lawyer you met on Tinder might have crystals on his bedside table.” I am not a lawyer, but I often wonder how many people I encounter to whom I successfully “pass” as rational, cynical, post-spiritual.
I suppose all of that begs the question: what does it mean to be spiritual—or what does it mean to me to be spiritual, particularly in my specific context (as a white, mostly straight, able-bodied cis woman living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in the year 2017)?
I am Jewish—and couldn’t conceive of my identity without Judaism—but I don’t regularly celebrate Jewish holidays nor do I practice Jewish rituals. I also do not believe in God. While I meditate daily, and am a student of Buddhist texts, I can’t say I fully identify as Buddhist (or JuBu). Maybe I am, ambivalently, a New Ager myself.
I know that when I used to be on Tinder (for two years, before meeting my current BF on it), I often felt the need to “come out” as New Age (not in those words at the time) to my Tinder dates. In fact, it usually didn’t require deliberate work: as soon as I would roll up to the bar in my Namaste beanie and tell my dates to “honor their truth” as they debated which cocktail to order, the cat was out of the bag: I was a crystal-bathing yoga biddie with a 19 dollar vial of rose-quartz- and rose-petal- infused vodka on my window sill. Today, however, I still don’t fully understand how to characterize my relationship to the various signifiers of pseudo-Paganism infiltrating the capitalist machine these days. Yoga, crystals, sage, “energy,” tarot.
Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable to position myself, like Sciortino, as fully dismissive and ironic of these things. Probably because I am not.
At the same time, I also feel uncomfortable admitting that I “believe in” the power of crystals or that I genuinely feel vibes of renewal on new moons. Partially, I think that my spiritual life is littered with paradoxes and that it would be too easy for me to “believe in” anything. I also think I worry about the class implications of wholly subscribing to a set of things that are expensive and elitist and, quite frankly, unnecessary. I allow all of these attitudes to exist together, and it’s uncomfortable, but such is spiritual life I guess.
In 2014, after a year had passed and my heart had broken, I started realizing just how much spiritual rituals were being commodified in my immediate surroundings. (Read: it felt like all of the privileged, over-educated and urban-dwelling (neurotic) people I knew in NYC became witches. Or something like that.) And admittedly, I quickly joined them for the ride.
Friends and acquaintances of mine regularly flocked to new moon circles featuring vaginal iconography; I regularly hosted vision board making parties, and led female-only workshops on self-love, manifesting and the meaning of sexual truth at a yoga studio and healing center in Brooklyn. On the night of the spring equinox in 2015, my friend and coworker (at a digital wellness publication) invited me to a “Vernal Equinox Ritual Celebration,” led by a woman who self-identifies as “a ritual expert.” I agreed to go to the event in part because it was free, in part because it sounded entertaining, and in part because I was earnestly intrigued by what strikes me as a Paganism Revival among, as I said, everyone I know in New York who is over-educated, neurotic, and, for lack of a better word, “privileged.” Repetitive, I know, but it feels necessary to qualify again and again.
When my friend and I arrived at the ritual ceremony, we met the other participants, all of whom appeared to be friends, and were wearing patterned Lululemon leggings and loose fitting sweaters. There was only one man present, who was a skinny 20-something guy with sculpted Yoga-arms and a man bun. He wore a tank top and man-leggings, and was there with his waif-ish blonde friend who, I overheard, was celebrating some important anniversary of being vegan. There were others—probably 15 of us total, me and my friend among them, a little tipsy from our pre-ritual beers around the corner.
When the ritual ceremony started, our leader instructed us to go around the room, say our names, our mother’s name, our grandmother’s name, our great-grandmother’s name (and so on). Spring, I learned from our event leader’s prelude, is a great time to celebrate the Divine Feminine—the literal and metaphorical “mothers” in our lives, the embodiment of beauty, grace and fertility in us and around us. “You can be your own mother,” I remember the leader telling us. Cheesiness aside, her advice resonated with me, as I’ve always struggled with self-judgment. The idea of being my own mother, especially during tough times, made sense to me—as it helped me compartmentalize my caring self as someone external, someone immune to my self-sabotaging bullshit. It gave me a vocabulary for self-care that felt decidedly not self-indulgent.
During the event itself, we went through various rituals to connect more to ourselves, to each other, to our mothers. One of them was called “an egg divination,” and involved rolling a hard-boiled egg with several of our intentions written on them across the room to see which intention we should focus on. I will note that the vegan of our group had to leave the room because she was so distraught about the presence of animal-derived activity materials.
You may be confused about what my attitude toward all this stuff was at the time, or what it is today. Well, I am still a unclear. But one thing is clear to me, and to others: New Age-y-ness has made a comeback in the 20-teens, and that there must be some sort of sociocultural slash historical explanation as to why. Last year, the editors of n+1 published a piece entitled “Stars—They’re Just Like Us” for Issue 24 of the magazine (the theme of which was “New Age”). In the piece, the editors ask the rhetorical question, “When had astrology become our irrationality of choice?” and quickly provide an answer: “Probably sometime around 2012, when things were not so good for us.”
Indeed, there’s something to this argument, and it’s not unique to the topic of astrology, nor to the editors of n+1. Any ritual can be individually comforting during times of collective discomfort because, in large part, they ask us to be passive, to put our intellects on hold, to “hold space” (love that expression) for that which we cannot control. Many, if not most, popular spiritual rituals have long, long histories, and yet in today’s world they still strike many as silly, most as self-indulgent. We are living in the so-called “Information Age,” so is it that we feel dumb running away from information and toward irrationality? Maybe so, but I say, “fuck it!”—at least in part.
The n+1 eds quote an article critic Christopher Lasch wrote in a 1976 issue of The New York Review of Books in which he argues that Americans sacrificed interest in politics in the 1970s for the sake of “purely personal satisfactions” like Buddhist philosophy and therapy, running and aerobics classes. Lasch saw all of these things as a retreat from political turmoil—helping the self came to replace helping the civic body.
I don’t know if I genuinely believe crystals bring me good energy, or if the tarot deck has all the answers. I recognize these are distinctly #firstworld concerns, and also that there doesn’t really need to be a think piece about commodified spirituality now that we live in Trump’s America. But actually in the wake of recent political turmoil, I have been looking for something comforting to mollify my anxiety as I read the news and try and stay engaged and active in all the bull shit. I don’t know why I feel that I am a spiritual person, but I do feel that I am. I understand that such an attitude is a byproduct of my matrix of privileges, and also recognize the limitations of relinquishing my control in life, especially when it comes to our current political climate.
But I still think it’s worth asking ourselves why we gain comfort from the things that comfort us, and what we can do to be more in touch with them, without self-criticism. For me, the bottom line is that self-care—genuine self-care, not just doing spin class to burn calories and drinking water because it’s good for you—is related to one’s politics. It’s a tool for resilience and no one—not even you—should give a fuck if it seems silly. So long as you’re checking your privilege and not being a dick to other people, I don’t care how many crystals you charged on February 10th’s full moon, and I celebrate all of the wisdom it brought you, or didn’t.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.)
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.
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 soconsciously, with myself.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Part of my conceit in starting this blog was to recognize the role irony can play in the process of acceptance.
What do I mean?
To me at least, part of the reason capital-A Acceptance seems so daunting is because it feels like it has to be pure, all-consuming. A capital-D Decision. No turning back.
If I accept the fact that I gained 15 pounds last winter, that means I have to be content with my body image, and likely commit to staying this weight for the rest of my life.
I somehow assume that if I’m going to accept something about myself or something that happened, I can’t also account for any lack of acceptance, or any other feelings that challenge the acceptance. I don’t know where I learned this assumption. Here are other examples:
If I accept that I didn’t get enough work done today, I guess I’m accepting that I will always be a lazy loser with nothing good on my CV.
If I accept that I was a bitch to my boyfriend, I am resigning to treating him terribly forever, and to always having bad relationships.
If I accept that I forgot my friend’s birthday, I am recognizing that I am a categorically forgetful person and self-absorbed friend.
We associate acceptance with the negative stuff. It’s rare to feel the urge to accept the fact that something went really well at work, or that you had a great revelation in therapy. The dictionary definition of acceptance is: the consent to receive. When good shit is happening, you really don’t take the time to CONSENT to receiving it. You just receive it.
As of recently—and it’s a process—I’m beginning to envision acceptance as something much more holographic. If I gain 15 pounds, I can accept it, but part of accepting it can be that I can also feel bad about myself and want to lose weight. I can also simultaneously accept that I might then ALSO feel judgment about wanting to lose weight, “because feminists shouldn’t hate their bodies.” Then I may find myself reasoning that each person’s feminism is complicated and unique, and that patriarchal conditioning has affected me in ways I am not in control of. I can also simply accept that I feel more comfortable when I am 15 pounds thinner, and let that be that, even if it’s superficial. All of it can be there. Acceptance isn’t tidy or static. It is messy and dynamic.
Let’s just be clear that none of that is pleasant or even feasible much of the time. And for that reason, I think I use irony as a defense mechanism to make the process of acceptance easier for me, in all sorts of contexts. Examples help: I constantly make reference to my psychiatrist in casual conversations with not-close friends; I say things like, “tbt to my eating disorder” or post Instagram selfies of myself doing physical therapy exercises.
Perhaps, on some level, I feel uneasy about how much I need psychiatry, or ashamed of the fact that I used to be anorexic, or nerdy for allotting twenty minutes of my evening ritual to picking up a washcloth with my feet in order to strengthen my toes.
Or perhaps creating distance from certain parts of my life that involve discomfort is part of accepting them. It seems paradoxical that self-acceptance could involve disavowal of my pain or self-deprecation. And maybe these behaviors really do just come from insecurity. But maybe that’s also OK. Acting out of insecurity doesn’t mean you aren’t working on yourself. The real challenge is accepting how uncomfortable that is.
Let me just say that I know next to nothing about most of this. I’m just narrating along the way. Rather than thinking of acceptance as an endpoint, or happiness as the result of X, Y and/or Z, I am just often checking in on myself—my attitudes, my habits, my relationships—by seeing what comes up in the distance that irony, by definition, creates.
I believe it is possible to be a happy, healthy, person devoted to personal growth without committing earnestly and singularly to a green-juice-lentil-chip-yogi lifestyle, punctuated by daily arm-balance Instagram posts and infinite permutations of a gratitude hashtag.
HOWEVER, I have completely asked a family member to photograph me in Eagle pose for my Instagram so that I could post some pseudo-spiritual and saccharine caption about the process of getting stronger and the role that #presence plays. And you know what? I also fucking love green juice, lentil chips, and yoga. AND much of the time when I buy 8 dollar green juice, 4 dollar lentil chips, or 30 dollar yoga classes, I make fun of myself for being self-indulgent or elitist or narcissistic or dumb. And you know what else? It doesn’t feel like abuse—and I accept that too.
When it comes to the irony I bring to my (legit? authentic? earnest?) love of wellness trends, I think I am trying to disavow the fundamental narcissism of self-improvement as a thing. It’s not that I am not making fun of yoga, a practice that I love quite genuinely, but the cultural capital it carries with it, one that is contingent on being privileged in innumerable ways. The idea of being a white NYC-gurl who doesn’t question loving yoga would make me feel like a cultural appropriator and an un-self-aware exercise biddie. And that, I hope, I am not.
Irony often is a mechanism used to create distance, to cause alienation. As Wayne Booth said in The Rhetoric of Irony, irony is “a very messy subject” as it introduces “conflicts of fact.” When I listen to Kesha and get goose bumps, but then post a Facebook status about how ridiculous it is to get goose bumps when listening to Kesha, I contradict myself, I introduce conflicts of fact: I suggest that I somehow doubt the fact that Kesha is an artist I actually love.
But I think, at least in part, that the partial disavowal, and the humorous friction it creates, is part of figuring out what the fuck it means and is to be who I am. Humor, to me, is empowering, even if it can serve as armor. I don’t think we need to be ashamed of the need, sometimes, to be guarded.
Thus, here’s to the value in”repudiation and reversal,” as Booth would put it. To close, I’ll end on an overused Walt Whitman quotation that feels relevant: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
Rather, I’ll add just one last quote by another dead white man: Wallace Stevens said, “The poem must resist intelligence / Almost successfully.” I love this idea of ALMOST SUCCESSFUL RESISTANCE. Imagine resisting yourself almost successfully—enough to incite a gentle, productive back and forth between different parts of yourself.
Imagine self-deprecation and self-acceptance existing in some kind of bizarre harmony. Imagine a perpetually unsuccessful state of resistance, two things against one another, teetering back and forth. Their mutual instability is what creates something resembling stability.
As someone who struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), I admittedly adore the times when external structures in the world validate my itch to find and secure order.
Let me give you an example.
I find the morning to be, categorically, the best time of day. In the morning, the day is clean. It is new. It is discrete, and in its discreteness, it is full of potential—the potential for order.
The morning says, “Get the fuck up. Start fresh,” even when my brain chemistry wants to drag me back to laze indolently in the dust of yesterday. There is discipline in the voice of morning, but it is looking out for me. That kind of discipline is radical.
Yet despite my arguably dysfunctional love of compartmentalization, I have always thought the notion of setting New Year’s Resolutions is a load of shit.
WAIT: I’ll revise that to me an “I-statement”: I have always felt that setting New Year’s Resolutions is a load of shit forme.
While my OCD-brain tells me to be fucking cray about cleanliness and list-making and other things I don’t even want to admit (e.g. organizing my anxious thoughts into imaginary Punnet-square-like grids), I also am deeply committed to trying to be a happier and less anxious person. Sometimes, my impulse towards happiness pushes me to rebel against my OCD, and it’s awesome.
Today, I am realizing that one such enduring act of rebellion has been to resist New Year’s Resolutions.
According to several reports, approximately 50% of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions; and according to another, only 8% of folks report successfully achieving their resolutions. We live in a culture that loves to slather capitalistic values onto holidays, and those values include extremism and, often, the supremacy of self-improvement trends. If and when there is an opportunity to tell ourselves that we are not enough (or that we don’t work enough, that we don’t make enough, etcetera), it seems the patriarchy / capitalism tells us, “You’re right!”
I should stop here to clarify that self-improvement is a noble practice—one I am after, and think others should be, too. I am also ambitious, and I believe that no one should feel shame in claiming ambition as a personal value. Especially not women. Seeking greatness in whatever form does not make you a Machiavellian biatch. At the same time, wanting to be happier is not LITE or less important than having a million bylines or being on Forbes’ 30 Under 30.
But recently, my sister and I listened to a podcast about goal-setting (#LOL), one that I found particularly inspiring. The lesson was about setting goals from a place of abundance, rather than scarcity. In other words: what if we set goals by FIRST considering that which we have already created for ourselves and brought into our lives, celebrating those achievements, and articulating further goals that support us in building on our positive change?
It’s a crazy way to rewire the emotional underpinnings of goal-setting. Instead of being like, “I am a fat, lazy, idiot and my goal is to be a skinny, motivated pubic intellectual,” you can be like, “I started a blog this year, and my goal is to continue writing content and building my audience.” I don’t have to call this “abundance,” make a dumb hashtag, or write a love letter to myself and my blog for my gratitude jar. But it feels so good to recognize that I started this blog even when, last week, I felt like a depressed and bloated slob. Already! There is so much power in that word.
It all sounds abhorrently cheesy, and I assure you that I detest New Age platitudes about “abundance” and “gratitude” much as the next “guy.” But I think there is power in the age old adage of “faking it till you make it”—OR: stopping to consider AND directly articulatethe stuff you’ve already done, and seeing it as evidence of your in-progress goals.
With that, my M.O. this year is to CONTINUE all of the sustainable shifts I’ve already brought into my life so that I can avoid slipping into the ideology that everything from 2016 is over and shitty, and that I will achieve enlightenment in 2017 simply because January 1st marks a new calendar year. That is fucking stupid.
*~*Life is always ebbing and flowing*~* (a quote by me if you want to gram it or something).
Or, as Heraclitus said, “Change is the only constant.”
Here are a few of the self-caring changes I have already begun making, and that I will continue in the New Year:
I have already learned to drive, and I will continue practicing when I have the chance so that I can feel more empowered and independent!
I have already begun a regular free-writing practice to help me feel more joy around my work, and I will continue to do this so that I can let go of the idea that published work is the only work worth writing.
I have already gotten better about noticing the times when I am abusive to myself in my head, and I will continue to catch myself when I do it, and to try to be kinder.
I have written many poems in the years I’ve been alive, and I will continue to find a place for poetry in my life even if it is different or less prominent than it used to be.
I have already, and I will continue … POWERFUL SHIT, n’est-ce pas?
I will close with the virtuous final stanza of John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” because I am a terrifying dork, because the image of the circle seems apropos for the message of this post—and because I played on the title of this poem here, and I am self-satisfied about it.
Often, I feel I am confronted with personal writing that is cynical and acerbic—and stunningly articulate—but that makes me feel like vulnerability is a sin. There may be moments of self-deprecation, sure, but they can still feel guarded and impenetrable. There may even be allusions to Walter Benjamin. Perhaps you know the kind of personal essays I am talking about.
Other times, particularly when I’m reading extra-personal writing about intimate issues like sex and relationships or mental health (topics I care endlessly about), I find that there is no place for irony. Narratives about self-improvement guide us from the writer’s dissolution to their dharma, and the notion of being self-critical or wry isn’t part of the equation. I find this can be especially true for “women’s issues” writing, much of which is urgent, essential and empowering, especially for female-identified readers. After all, there are so many issues that are, indeed, women’s issues.
But I also think there’s an opportunity to bring the cutting nature of humor and irony to the coziest attitude, and the most vulnerable writing. My goal is to try and check myself. To be funny and candid, but also grave when the moment is right. To find the humor in my moments of self-loathing. To alchemize the micro-traumas of everyday life into opportunities for laughter and self-compassion.
That is why I am starting this blog.
Today, I scoff at the idea of dieting even as I often feel like shit about my body, and feel jealous of other people who appear to have more self-control than I do—the people who uncritically look on menus for salads dressed with fat free balsamic vinaigrette, or a comparable example.
Sometimes, I get mad at myself for being critical about my body, arguing in my head that feminists should resist the paralyzing effects of self-hatred. But over time, I’ve learned the value of letting myself be—allowing myself have the feelings of self-loathing when they arise and noticing them, rather than hating on my own self-hatred. The word for that in Pali (the language of the original Buddhist texts) is papancha. Sharon Salzberg has translated papancha to mean “the imperialistic tendency of the mind toward negativity.” I try, each day, to stick with the singular island of negativity in my mind, rather than allowing negativity to proliferate into an imperial empire.
Sometimes, accepting the times when I hate myself feels paradoxical, wrong, unreasonable. But why add insult to injury? Why not try to find at least a little bit of freedom in shitty moments?
I am reminded this evening of the mantra “DO WHAT THOU WILT” or “DO WHATEVER YOU WANT” from François Rabelais’ Gargantua (translations vary).This idea guides a group of monks living in an abbey called the Abbey of Thélème in a parable at the book’s end. “Their whole life was lived, not in accordance with laws, statutes or rules, but by their own choosing and free will. They got up when they felt like it; they drank, ate, worked and slept when they so desired… In their rule, there was only one clause: DO WHATEVER YOU WANT.”
Since I can’t live this way at all times (can you?), I will try and write this way. At least when writing on fat free balsamic … because guess what? No one’s telling me what to do!