Is Self-Hatred Really That Heroic?

A couple of months ago, I went to see a Functional Medicine doctor, whose practice brings together Western medicine and more holistic modalities like nutrition and herbal medicine. I was ostensibly there for a “check in,” but the appointment quickly devolved into me crying (heaving) for 30 minutes about how anxious I feel on a daily basis. How much I struggle to quiet my mind. How life tends to feel like a never-ending stream of things to do, including that which I consider a positive influence (e.g. seeing friends, meditating, doing exercise). Along the way, I also mentioned my skin problems, and the fact that my menstrual cycle provides me with trauma on a monthly basis.

“I think you have abnormal fermentation in your gut,” my doctor said.

I don’t relay his prognosis to mock him, #wellness, or Functional Medicine. He is a rigorous scientist, and effectively invented the term “the microbiome.” But I will say that I definitely didn’t want to hear about my gut and what was wrong with it. I didn’t want to add “healing” to another list of things to do.

Ultimately, this doctor also prescribed me a 3-day elimination diet, wherein I was supposed to feed myself exclusively plant-based soups and smoothies—a fast, really. As a formerly anorexic control-freak, I was of two minds: on the one hand, the idea of mild starvation seemed appealing. Since I no longer feel like torturing myself through starvation, I was uplifted by the idea of having an external force to motivate me.

But ultimately, it didn’t. The idea of opening the door to food issues—a door I thought I’d shut, for better or for worse—made my crying spin further out of control. As a compromise, I told my doctor I’d try the elimination diet in January. That is, until I saw my shrink. “You are psychologically unfit for this diet,” she told me. I was relieved. Not fasting for three days didn’t mean that I was a lazy slob. It meant I was following the doctor’s orders! And I guess taking care of myself?

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 6.10.39 PM.png
My morning routine helps me stay calm and present. #ZOLOFT

January is such a bleak time. However annoying “the holiday season” is, this cultural pressure to switch gears from FUN all the time to VIRTUE-24-7 is terribly disconcerting, and, quite frankly, unproductive. As I said to a coworker this week, you would never want to wake up from a long nap and immediately be asked to run a marathon.

And yet…!

This pendulum-like model for change is what we’re culturally conditioned to practice. Somehow, we continue to believe it works—however consciously—despite the fact that 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions and only 8% stick to them. Why wouldn’t we? We’ve all been fed the same cultural mythology—that making extreme commitments to self-improvement, usually via deprivation of some kind, is heroic. And typically, such commitments are born from a place of self-hatred.

I should stop here to qualify that I am not very good at the art of being kind to myself, despite my fluency with the vocabulary. Part of the reason why I cried in response to my doctor’s recommendation is because I know no other model for change beyond self-abuse. To embark on any program related to self-care, to me, immediately signified torture. Implicitly, I also knew that if I found myself unable to torture myself adequately, the self-abuse would only persist.

When I think about making any kind of change in my life, no matter how positive, I instinctively worry about this cycle unfolding: 1. A desire to change leads to self-abusive behavior. 2. A realization that said self-abusive behavior is not enough to “cure” me. 3. More self-abuse for not being good enough at abusing myself. It’s a cycle after all, and it’s one that almost seems driven by irony. There’s a certain humor in self-sabotage if you are looking at it in the right mood.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 6.13.35 PM
WORD.

Sometimes, you’re not in the right mood. Take yesterday: I started off the day right. A cup and a half of organic black tea. Oatmeal. A session with my new life coach. Gratitude journaling AND 10 minutes of intentional breath and meditation. Like, I am a fucking parody. I should be the most self-accepting person on earth. Ironically (but not surprisingly) however, these practices often make me feel like I have more homework that I’ve been doing poorly, giving me more reasons to see myself as a let-down. The mind is really tiresome, no?

Fast forward mere moments when I got to work, all ready to #heal and live according to my #truth, and I totally lost sight of everything else beyond my self-loathing. Like every piece of wisdom I’ve been rehearsing for YEARS in therapy, meditation retreats, yoga, craniosacral healing, tarot, life coaching, uh… EVERYWHERE vanished, and there I was, crying under the fluorescent lights (not PMS), craving nicotine, eating snacks too fast when I wasn’t hungry, biting my cuticles—like, all the unglamorous stuff of life that no one ever admits to. Today, when I woke up feeling better, my obvious response was to ask, “Why did this happen? WHAT DID YOU DO WRONG TO AVOID PRACTICING SELF-ACCEPTANCE?”

This is what I mean by the dark humor—the tried and true irony—of what it means to be human. I should say that as I write this, I am on my first day of a MODIFIED elimination diet—thanks, doc!—meaning mostly that I’m just avoiding sugar, coffee, alcohol, and dairy (rather than the full fasting thing…in case you cared). The idea of modifying such a regimen for self-improvement (er, healing, I guess?) initially struck me as horrifying—like, why would I only torture myself a little bit if I could go full force? But I suppose I am practicing what I am preaching here, even if it feels annoying and uncomfortable and all I want to do is binge eat pizza and cream-filled coffee donuts with Bailey’s in them. That is: self-acceptance kind of, well, just is.

A final-ish note that I actually have no idea what that means, because I am not sure I have ever felt self-acceptance. But I have felt the exhaustion of self-abuse, arbitrary and couched in some vague mythology about heroism. I’ve also realized, experientially, that self-loathing tends to behave a lot like a splinter: the more you try to pry it out of you, the more it gets stuck. More often than not, splinters extract themselves when you let them be, rather than when you stab yourself with a tweezer to make your body swollen and inflamed. You know?

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 6.14.43 PM
It seems many of us struggle with this question.

So whatever happens this year, let it be known that I am done making myself feel like total garbage about myself on a regular basis, no matter how tied up it is with my feelings of worth and competence. On some days (like yesterday), I will probably do a bad job and bite my nails and smoke a cigarette and ask myself unproductive, self-critical questions about my past actions. But at the end of the day, I can probably try my best to take a big breath, and see that alone as a gesture of a self-acceptance. Just one breath! We can all do…at least try to do…that.

So. WHO ELSE IS WITH ME?!?!?!?!?

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously began her 1979 collection The White Album. The aphoristic phrase later became the title of her 2006 book of collected non-fiction. While there is a certain melodrama in Didion’s observation about survival, it’s strangely accurate, pinpointing that drama, or perhaps even melodrama, comprises the foundation of what it means to be human. 

That is, if we woke up each morning without telling ourselves a certain set of stories—often both unconscious and implicit—we would be at a loss. If someone asks, “What’s your name?” each of our answers is a story. So too are our likes, dislikes, jobs, habits, past times. Our lives are all fueled by self-created (and self-perpetuated) narratives. 

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 5.37.57 PM.png
“I will never be as good as Joan Didion” = a story I tell myself as a writer

Culturally, the very idea of “storytelling” is comforting (although it’s become a bit of an annoying buzzword in the TED-talk-worshipping zeitgeist of 2017). When we were children, most of us asked our caregivers for story-time before bed. Fairy tales and myths transported us to emotional locations beyond the isolated islands of our thoughts. And yet even humanity’s psychological status quo (read: anxiety) is constructed out of narratives. (“I am out of breath. Why am I out of breath? Will I ever breathe again?”) As someone with panic disorder, this parenthetical example is **DERIVED FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE**

Anxiety is an evolutionary mechanism: as a species, we have adapted what contemporary neuroscientists call “negativity bias,” a hard-wired impulse to locate and identify threats (internal or external) all around us. There is always a metaphorical lion on the side of the road to be avoided. Telling ourselves that—repeatedly, and in whatever variation depending on our circumstances—gives us answers, meaning, something to grab onto.

Our habits are also stories. “I’m a morning person.” “I drink too much.” “I hate exercise.” Data shows that humans repeat 40% of all behaviors every day. Are we really “creatures of habit” or are our habits largely the product of the stories we tell ourselves? I’d hazard the guess that the answer is a combination. We stick to our habits (partially as a result of the stories we perpetuate about them) because they function as evidence of our survival mechanism. “I’ve eaten cereal almost every morning since I was 10. Therefore, cereal has enabled my survival up to this point.” The mere idea of giving up eating cereal could give me heart failure. God forbid, but you get my point.

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 5.39.59 PM.png
Dana Schutz’s Swimming, Smoking, Crying. A story I relate to.

Whether or not we’re aware of the particular stories we tell ourselves may not make a difference in our actual quality of life. I’ve been in therapy since age 9, and have definitely rehearsed psychodynamic analyses with my various therapists over the years. I like to think I’m pretty aware of the stories I have told (and still do tell) myself, but I am also comfortable admitting that my awareness hasn’t changed much when it comes to my happiness in a big picture way. But knowing the impact of the stories I tell myself helps me expand the aperture of my perspective. If, say, I am feeling shitty, anxious, and depressed, I try to invite myself to ask how much of my sinking mood is the byproduct of a myth I’ve written about who I am and why my thoughts operate the way they do.

By the way, doing so doesn’t really me feel better, but having the emotional tools to ask myself the question provides me with a palpable sense of empowerment and freedom. Rather than feeling like a narrator, devoid of subjectivity, reading off the “page” of my stories, I act as a protagonist. I still may be telling myself a story. But the narrative unfolds in the present, rather than the past, tense. Selfhood itself is a narrative.

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 5.47.53 PM.png
Oprah knows her stories. FOR SURE.

During Thanksgiving and the “Holiday Season” in general, everyone seems either to complain about their impossible, right-wing relatives who they can’t even stand chatting with at dinner, or the fact that just being around family makes them crazy. I fall into the latter bucket. Being around parents—and the evocative artifacts of what “home” used to mean— tend to bring out the worst, most fossilized stories that we’ve ever told ourselves—including the ones that date back to junior high school. Like, no, brain, I am no longer a depressed anorexic 14 year old….but thanks for reminding me that I used to be that, and think that. There is a certain comfort in remembering the evolutionary mechanism at work. You may still feel like shit, but at least remind yourself that YOU ARE A MAMMAL.

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 5.41.59 PM.png
No, you’re not a fish. You are a mammal.

Like most people, I sometimes wake up wishing that I had a clean, structured understanding of what my purpose was on this earth, and how I could best enact it. There’s a reason people join cults, nurture their SoulCycle obsessions, or become vegan. We all have control issues (#deathanxiety), and the pursuit of external identity-markers gives us a break from having to create and uphold our own, individualized stories of meaning and purpose. Remember that Marx called religion “the opium of the people” for a similar reason—in an attempt to point out the pleasure we derive from dogma, those pre-existing ideological structures that lessen the weight of personal responsibility—to define our own ethics, taste, politics, spirituality. But at the end of the day, every religion can be traced back to a cluster of stories.

You may feel an instinct to judge the stories you tell yourself as “bad” or “good.” (Guess what? That’s evolution too.) Certainly, some of the stories we tell ourselves are productive and inspire us to make positive changes, while others are regressive and keep us imprisoned in the chains of old, bad habits that we’ve simply practiced for too long. But there is nothing valuable about making blanket judgments about our conditioning and the ways we enact it, internally and externally. We will never stop telling stories. The most powerful thing we can do to free ourselves from the ones that hold us back is to notice them.

Dealing with Anxiety + Embodiment

Can I eat
what you give me. I
have not earned it. Must
I think of everything 

as earned.

            –Robert Creeley

The speaker of Robert Creeley’s poem “For Love” stutters these sharply enjambed lines just after gaining momentum at the beginning of the staccato, recursive poem.  Desperately, the speaker (Creeley himself) asks his lover, the poem’s addressee (whose name is Bobbie, as we learn from the dedication)  if he is capable of eating what she gives him. Of course, he is also asking himself, rhetorically, performatively—is he capable of receptivity? Can he really accept love? Pleasure. Acceptance. Being seen.

Immediately, Creeley decides to answer for himself: “I have not earned it.” His insecure, questioning mind then chirps in with an additional, new question—no question mark: “Must / I think of everything // as earned.” In characteristic fashion, Creeley’s question is a statement, likening his interrogations even further to the circular, often contracting ruminations of the mind.

I’ve always read these lines in a somewhat symbolic way: in the often-sheltered universe of one’s romantic relationship, love itself becomes objectified, something to be earned, deserved, returned—a commodity. We “invest” in others, and wonder if it is “worth” it. Love—something we feel with our bodies and ultimately do with our bodies—becomes an idea. A thing. And our vocabulary adjusts accordingly. This poem gets that, and has been my favorite poem for many years. I even have one line from it tattooed on the back of my right thigh!

Screen Shot 2017-06-24 at 6.23.22 PM.png
DAT INK.

I love this poem for many reasons, but I am especially fascinated by how strangely the body figures into it. Take the act of eating, which is presented as a symbol of the “give and take” of love, of what the speaker earns (or doesn’t) from his lover. In the world of the poem, Creeley’s body is not hungry; he simply wonders whether it is deserving of love’s nourishment. “What have you become to ask,” Creeley immediately then asks (characteristically without a question mark), “what have I made you into,” he says again, growing desperate with each question. His potential answers include: “companion, good company, / crossed legs with skirt, or / soft body under / the bones of the bed.” Creeley’s lover is an idea— “companion, good company,” a compartmentalized fragment, “crossed legs with skirt,” or a surreal composition, “soft body under / the bones of the bed.” Creeley’s recursion is his defense—from himself, from the body. And from his need for defense, we know of his vulnerability. We see the absence of his being, his loving, in the poem, and in the absence we feel his anxiety, which is basically the poem’s subject.

Throughout “For Love,” the speaker and the lover’s bodies both are no longer bodies, but rather the ideas of bodies. And love, perhaps, too, becomes an idea as the speaker’s experience becomes circumscribed by the circularity of the poem’s language. The poem talks about itself, creating distance from the thing it seeks to describe (love), and defends itself against its own admission: a desire for presence, connection, expression—being, in other words.

This dynamic—defensively thinking about something in abstractions such that it becomes disembodied—was central to my 11 on-and-off years with anorexia, and even my current struggles with anxiety and OCD (not unrelated to the anorexia, but I’ll save that for another time). Food was everything I thought about. It was the object of my focus, of my craving at all times—intellectually, but of course, physiologically, too. I kept food at a distance from myself, situating it as a constant other, an object of craving that I always knew was there—separate from me, something I thought I could control. Being hungry all the time made my body feel like something else, an idea, an object. It kept me from actually feeling, being, alive.

Looking back on that time as the person I am now—someone who not only eats enough but also wants to grow and be happy—I can see that my biggest fear during those years was embodiment. The stuff of life that makes us human—in the bodies we inhabit. Connection, compassion, love, loss.

Our culture makes it hard not to fear embodiment, especially for women, I’d argue. We are told to eat this, not that. Wear this, not that. Move our bodies this way, but not that way. As film critic Laura Mulvey wrote in her iconic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” “[W]omen are simultaneously looked at and displayed… they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” In a traditional framework—the one Mulvey is using—women’s bodies are typically regarded as objects, as ideas, as vessels for what she calls to-be-looked-at-ness. This leaves many of us clinging to our bodies, trying to follow the rules about our bodies that we’re given by the outside, so that our bodies can be legible to the outside. So that we can be beautiful, worthy of being looked at. For many of us, this narrative was rarely critiqued; or, even if it was, how easy is it to internalize a belief that resists everything you were ever taught?

Screen Shot 2017-06-24 at 6.25.09 PM.png
“The Male Gaze” causes women to possess “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Hi Ryan Gosling!

Learning to meditate has been my life’s greatest healing practice thus far—for my anxiety, OCD, insomnia and more—but it has also shown me just how much I fear embodiment. Sitting with myself brings up terror. Each day during my practice, as I try (an infinite number of times) to focus on my breath, my mind panics, and I feel it clinging to thoughts that try to jostle me out of my body. Experiencing that anxiety—the push-pull between my body and mind—is almost always unpleasant, but it reminds me to see my thoughts (particularly my anxious ones!) as separate from my body, as fleeting, flexible. My body, too, of course, is fleeting. And OBVI mortality is my #1 anxiety (I freak out about death on a daily basis probably). But the practice of actually SITTING WITH THAT ANXIETY, and feeling it, is meditation, despite the belief that meditating necessarily = inner peace. Meditation creates a space within which being a body can’t be rendered into an idea. 

BODY ≠ IDEA

I should admit: I often hate it when I meditate—the act of doing it. I hate sitting with my body, being with it, of it. I feel uncomfortable—physically, emotionally, intellectually. But that doesn’t mean I buy into the thoughts that challenge me to step outside of myself. I receive whatever it is my mind gives me, and go onto “accept” the thought if the invitation appeals. The scariest thought of all, perhaps, is that we always have the choice to either receive—or gently turn away from—everything we are given. But we all certainly have the power “to eat” what we are given, and not to think of everything as earned.

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.

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