Are You Bored by Your Own Bullshit?

“Life, friends, is boring.” -John Berryman, “Dream Songs 14

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I urge you to watch Berryman recite his poem, linked above and here [Screengrab via YouTube]
My psychiatrist and I have a “joke” that goes something like this:

I tell her how, for me, our 45-minute sessions fly by. How I relish our conversations, and  feel engaged for the first time all week. Then I laugh and tell her not to worry — I get how bored she is. I know she’s just sitting there, forced to listen, probably looking at the clock, thinking, Really? This bullshit again? 

My therapist insists my assessment is inaccurate. She loves her work. She finds it deeply rewarding to help patients get to the bottom of things keeping them stuck, no matter how repetitive. I shouldn’t worry about being interesting. That’s not why I go to therapy. 

She’s right. I go to therapy to feel happier and less consumed by my most stubborn demons. Still, I can’t help but find this joke (which is really my joke, not ours) darkly funny. If I were my therapist, I’d certainly be bored by me. Bored by the fact that I continue to engage in the same destructive thought patterns, habits, and behaviors, despite knowing how bad they make me feel, that I could be making better choices. Bored by my relentless appetite for self-blame, even though I’ve learned — both experientially and through extensive research — just how unproductive it is. Each week, my session is somewhat of a carbon copy of the last. After 19 years of therapy (and counting), I still have to remind myself that self-awareness alone doesn’t change behavior. Here we are.

As I’ve thought about and worked on this blog post, it’s dawned on me that what I seem to find funny about this “joke” is the irony — namely, that I find the repetitive, incessant nature of my suffering (and the active role I play in perpetuating it) boring. The joke is the fact of my projection. I am the one who is bored by my own bullshit. 

This realization is bizarrely comforting, in part because it makes my bullshit (for lack of a better word) feel a little less … heavy, solid, real. By creating a bit of space around the habits I find painful, my boredom functions as a shock absorber. It lets me take a step back, so I can see myself and say, Ah, cleaning on your hands-and-knees again. It’s 1am and you’re exhausted. Perhaps this is not the best idea.

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Compulsive cleaning is probably my most repetitive therapy topic

The comfort of boredom

There’s certainly a degree to which I could perceive such a distressed image of myself with self-blame and condescension: “You freak, what’s with the OCD again?But I don’t — and it’s as if I am unable to in the midst of boredom. I can’t judge the pain as much if I am bored of it. Bored of my habitual decisions that keep me in pain. Bored of my self-awareness. The only reason I am able to see these painful behaviors with such clarity and focus is because I am so damn bored of them.

Boredom encourages me to witness my emotional pain with more distance than I’m used to. In a state of boredom, I cannot help but yearn for something more interesting on which to focus my energy. I furrow my brow. I get curious. And with that curiosity, I can be more compassionate. Instead of playing victim — what’s wrong with me? — I step into the role of explorer. Now what? 

Ultimately, that sensation of curiosity feels good, or at least better than the boredom preceding it. There’s an element of humor in it, too: it feels a funny to separate yourself from your behaviors in order to see the patterns as merely uninteresting, rather than pathetic, stupid, or frustrating. That’s because draining value judgment from how we perceive our actions certainly isn’t automatic. After all, we have all evolved to possess what psychologists call negativity bias, the instinct that makes negative experiences seem more important than they actually are. Although negativity bias is originally a survival instinct meant to help us readily identify danger and predators, most of us know it best as the inner critic — that voice that always gives more weight to our mistakes and flaws than successes. We often regard ourselves, our own minds, as the predator from which we are trying to flee. 

We’re all mammals

Now knowing the evolutionary roots of self-criticism, it’s easier to understand how and why so-called “bad habits” (which I’ve also been calling “bullshit”) self-perpetuate. When we act against our best interests, we tend to meet ourselves with criticism, guilt, and blame.  Our brains make us feel bad about the “mistaken” action so that we recognize it as a threat we should stay away from. But since the “threat” in this case is within us, we end up simply making an enemy out of ourselves. We feel unsafe in our own midst. We rebel against our interests again, because who cares, we are the enemy anyway. We do the bad thing again, we feel bad again. The behavior continues. Soon enough, it’s a habit. A bad habit on its way to becoming bullshit.

Recognizing that you are actually bored of feeling this way is what can interrupt the cycle. Staying with my survival-metaphors, boredom signals “safety” to the brain. Think about it: if you are able to feel bored by something, that situation is not requiring you to be on “high alert” (e.g. you cannot bored in the presence of a tiger).  No, you won’t suddenly manufacture the feeling of “safety.” But your brain, which does not know it is 2019 and that your inner critic is probably among your greatest threats, will feel calmer. And with that calm is opportunity — for something different. 

Boredom is not a gut reaction to pain (it certainly is not mine). But it’s a framework to consider. A perspective shift to explore when you find yourself deep in the ditch of victimhood and self-blame. This is all an experiment. A pendulum swinging between habit and exploration, again and again. 

Best of all, none of this involves any forced optimism. The glass may not be half full, and that’s okay. But rather than humoring your survival instinct to fixate on and overthink recurrent missteps, you can choose to see doing so as uninteresting. You can look at the image of yourself with investigative eyes, because curiosity is the natural antidote to boredom. Remarkably, this shift from boredom to curiosity doesn’t require that much effort. It just unfurls, like petals of a flower beginning to open in spring.

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The “glass” may even be a half-drunken bottle of Heineken, abandoned on the street. SO GET CURIOUS ABOUT IT!

Experimentation, not solution

This perspective shift is a lot easier to try than a lot of the self-help “hacks” out there. (I am not a fan of “hacks” nor of “self-help,” really, despite my tendency to write in a kind of self-help-y way). If you’re sitting there thinking, “I am so hard on myself, there is no way I could feel better,” take a step back from how miserable you are (I’m right there with you) and ask: Are you bored of feeling this way? My guess is you can probably find part of you that genuinely can answer “yes.” It’s actually quite easy to convince yourself that you’re bored of feeling like shit. And it is remarkably empowering.

A bored brain won’t blame you for your dysfunctional habit of cleaning on hands and knees at 1am. And by mitigating that blame, the well-rehearsed choreography of the inner critic, there is space for something new, something far more interesting. 

What Does “Progress” Look Like When It Comes to Self-Acceptance?

Blame it on my brain chemistry, cultural conditioning, or perhaps my familial mythology, but the trait I have held onto most consistently in my 27 years on this earth has been self-criticism.

Thankfully, I *sometimes* have the capacity to take a step back and cultivate a sense of humor about how pervasive and relentless my Inner Critic is. Like, I’ll be sick and lying in bed with a cold, playing a loop of rhetorical questions in my head: why did you let yourself get sick? Why didn’t you take oregano oil last week when everyone in your office was sick? Why haven’t you been sleeping more? Why have you been sleeping so much?  [Insert mean rhetorical question here]

In other words: I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t. I set myself up for failure almost constantly, and it always proves to be a giant waste of energy and time. It also makes me feel bad, and keeps me from feeling energized about the actions I want to make in my life, which span from doing laundry on a Sunday to writing a book to learning to treat myself with more kindness. Yes, I want to learn how to let go of this critical voice, as profound a loss as it will be.

The irony is that the ostensible “goal” of being so hard on myself seems to be a drive toward progress, ambition, some amorphous goal of “virtue”—more oregano oil, more sleep, less sleep, more water, less smoking pot, fewer calories, more omega 3-fatty-acids, whatever the obsession of the hour is. This continues to be the case even though I’m self-awarely “woke” enough about neuroplasticity to know what the research says: self-criticism is not just unproductive, it’s actively destructive. To motivation, to mental health, and even to the immune system.

The stubborn, rebellious part of me wants to say, “fuck that.” But the bottom line is, If hating yourself worked, I wouldn’t be talking about all this. I’d probably just be an evangelist for self-loathing. Instead, I’m speaking out against it.

***

As I write this today, I am in the midst of a real push to feel happier in my life. Call it a New Year’s Resolution, or the byproduct of far too many years berating myself, but that’s where I am at and I have gathered quite a bit of focus behind it, exhausting and self-referential as it may be to hear about (sorry).

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It’s true.

In addition to #therapy, I’m now also working with a mindfulness life coach to help me be more accountable to concrete goals that support my mental health and happiness. Meditate every day. Write poems again. Smoke less pot. Start a journaling practice. You get the picture. (I’ve even begun writing LETTERS between different “parts” of myself, which reminds me of the Pixar film Inside Out. Quite literally, I write myself letters “from” my Self-Loathing and then imagine my Self-Acceptance as the recipient, who then can respond in the form of another letter.) The practice of Working On Myself is DIFFICULT and time-consuming, but I’ll admit, I feel a tremendous sense of progress.

But when it comes to self-acceptance, what does “progress” mean, anyway?

In today’s techno-solutionist world of measuring our steps with FitBits, recording and analyzing our workouts on Miscellaneous Exercise App, and even tracking our REM cycles during sleep, the vague and idiosyncratic notion of progress—especially for something as mythic as self-acceptance—may seem impossible.

And indeed,  it often feels impossible, or at least it does to me. On some days, I’m easily able to observe my thoughts, habits of mind, and patterns of behavior with a sense of openness, expansion, and curiosity. All of that, to me, are central qualities in self-acceptance. But on other days, I feel myself contract and fall back into old, oppressive patterns. I’ll judge myself, and ask questions that break me down instead of build me up. Sometimes, I feel able to intervene in the cycle of self-judgment and re-route my attitude. Other times, I can’t. Frustratingly, all of these paradoxical steps are part of how I understand progress.

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Redefine your terms. B+ ≠ Failure!

My ability to connect with and actually recognize these things as progress ebbs and flows. Like, last week, when I forgot to take my Zoloft and was completely unable to focus at work, I sank and sank and sank until my inner dialogue was so recursively negative that it felt inescapable. I was cognizant that talking to myself with such judgment was costing me, and I kept doing it. The voice of Self-Acceptance seemed nowhere to be found. It wasn’t, the day ended (with a couple of glasses of wine), and the next day came around. I took my Zoloft, got a good amount done, and recognized that some days are worse than others. Perhaps being able to bounce back so quickly was progress in and of itself.

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Embrace the paradoxes of progress.

What’s deeply interesting to me is that horrible, regressive days like this can exist alongside days in which I feel so self-accepting that I’m almost unrecognizable to myself. Another day last week, to provide a counter-example, I found myself just about to spiral on the heels of receiving an angry letter from an ex. The depths of depression felt so close within my reach, and I knew that forcing myself to work would just lead to procrastination, self-judgment about said procrastination, and a negative cycle from there. I decided with discernment—and with kindness—to read my book instead of finish an article with an upcoming deadline. The progress in this instance wasn’t something anyone else could understand as a personal victory. It wasn’t an extra set of steps to record on my FitBit or dollars to watch flow into my bank account. But it was evidence of my growing ability to accept myself, the very goal I set out to achieve once I began this recent, concerted effort to be a happier person.

How can this be useful to you?

It may or not be, depending on how type-A you are, and how willing you are to regard experimentation as a rigorous practice.

I am, admittedly, type-A, so I am actually quite resistant to the notion that anything, self-acceptance or otherwise, isn’t something you can capital-a Achieve in a singular event. It also, counter-intuitively, won’t always feel good or victorious. Sometimes, accepting yourself means feeling fat and lazy and horrible, and noticing that—with a recognition of the pain it is causing you, and what might mitigate it.

Sometimes, it may mean feeling fat and lazy and horrible and “intervening” with a breath, and a reminder that the mind is playing tricks on you. Perhaps the breath helps, and perhaps it doesn’t. “Success” in these instances is irrelevant. It is all self-acceptance, and it is all progress.

The key bit is noticing, which is certainly not something you can accurately measure and understand with a device or app. If you can breathe, you can notice. And if you’re doing both of those things, you are making progress.

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?

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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.

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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?

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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. 

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Acknowledge Your Shit (+ Say No Thanks)

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Week after week, day after day, I wonder about the origins of my self-loathing. When did it begin? And why? The answers remain unclear, hence asking all the time.

When I refer to “my self-loathing” in everyday conversations—with random people at parties, friends of friends, colleagues, etcetera—I’m always amazed to find that so many people seem to really hear it, and express some kind of relief—as in: You hate yourself on a regular basis? You mean you feel the thing I thought no one else felt?

It’s like a more positive version of the feeling I have when I read WebMD message boards about hypochondriacal scenarios I’ve conjured for myself and see that everyone is bugging the fuck out. Like, oh yeah, we’re all crazy and typing in our bizarre psychosomatic symptoms into Google on a Saturday night. NBD.

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Story of my life.

Anxiety is one of those feelings that is addictive because it’s recursive. It’s cyclical. First there’s the rumination— on habits (or habits of mind), rhetorical questions, obsessions, behaviors, other self-referential objects. Then comes a “bad” feeling. Anxiety, of course, then wants to solve the feeling, because we’re wired to survive. And then more unanswerable questions pile on. Then more feelings. Usually “bad” ones.

(FYI: I don’t mean “bad” or “shitty” with self-blame. I get that any feeling is “just a feeling” but I’m trying to bevel the edges of my Buddhist ideologies by writing with more raw and colloquial language.)

In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, there is a word—papancha—that refers to this recursive, addictive, cyclical process. Sharon Salzberg, who is my meditation teacher and friend and colleague (and the amazing author of a new book, Real Love), once defined papancha as “the imperialistic quality of the mind towards negativity.” Anxiety, to me, is imperialistic. It somehow always feels like it conquers you. To add insult to injury, you always seem to want to fight back.

Exhausted by this pattern,  I’ve spent the past month or so experimenting with seeing my various judgments and obsessive thoughts differently—and deliberately. For sake of contrast, below is the “before” part of my work-in-progress “before and after”:

Usually, my thought patterns look something like this.

  1. I feel thirsty.
  2. I must not have had enough water today.
  3. I should’ve had more to drink earlier.
  4. Well, just go fill your water bottle, it’s not that hard.
  5. Why do you buy water bottles if you don’t use them?
  6. If you weren’t thinking so much about this, you would just drink water.

It could go on and on.

The irony here is obvious. Anxiety tends to preclude me (you, anyone) from taking a proactive approach to dealing with the very object of the anxiety. It’s often self-sabotaging. For instance, if I’m so anxious about thirst, the best and most pragmatic choice would be to drink. But over the years, I have gotten so used to my habit of rumination as a response to anxiety that I typically lose sense of what I am actually wanting, what my body feels, and what’s best for me in a given moment.

What I have referred to as the “after” stage is a process. But the shorthand is that I am trying to practice welcoming “bad” thoughts, checking in with how they make me feel, and then choosing to say “no thank you!” to them, if that seems self-caring.

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This was a to do list of mine for a recent Saturday. I obsessively make lists, as they keep me feeling bad about my productivity. #dysfunctional

Let me give some context.

A couple of years ago, I was in one of those bad, donation-based yoga class where the teacher kept encouraging us to “not think about our fear.” I remember thinking, “That’s not rly that yogic.” Shouldn’t you acknowledge and accept your fear? The same way you should acknowledge anything that happens in the present moment—even if it’s realizing that you are spending 10 minutes berating yourself about why you don’t drink enough water? Because by acknowledging it, then you can at least be like, OK, now I’m going to release that. If you don’t pay attention, the feeling (and its effects on you) have to go somewhere.

Meditation is the first and only tool I’ve encountered that has enabled me to begin developing a more productive relationship to anxiety. I no longer want to eradicate it, but want to kindly let it know that it’s not welcome as much as it has been in the past. I don’t ignore it (“I don’t hear you knocking on my door!) but rather say something to it like a, “Hi. I see you’re here, but I’m busy at the moment. Sorry!”

I think meditation seems to be so uncomfortable because people (myself included) don’t want to watch what their minds do, and where they go, if without significant distraction. It’s unpleasant to be honest about what we’re capable of making ourselves feel. We’re confronted with watching our mind do things as unproductive as my thirst and water bottle dialogue—and constantly. But it’s only when you notice these things that you can pull yourself out of them. The process REQUIRES that you first acknowledge what’s happening—and that is courageous and useful in and of itself. Even if it feels shitty and seems like it’s showing a part of yourself you don’t want to see. Bottom line? You can’t not think about your fear. It will be there no matter what you call it, or don’t.

Fear is just one emotion in the camp of feelings most of us hate, and that often encourage us to act in ways we don’t like—acting out “our shit.” Maybe you’re feeling loss or are going through a life transition, and, like me, spend 954,334,549 hours on your phone for no reason and then hate yourself for it. Or maybe you drink too much alcohol or have gained weight or sleep too much or are a compulsive online shopper. You get my point.

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Sometimes, I like to drink Campari but I don’t think it’s destructive.

Somehow, I’ve found that calling “my shit” what it is—my shit—has given me both some emotional distance and a sense of relief. In many self-help slash wellness contexts before, I’ve heard that you should “treat yourself like a child” or to “pay attention to your inner child”—that being nurtured like that is self-love. But I’ve never wanted to create that dynamic with myself; it just doesn’t appeal to me, and I think that’s OK (though I’m sure it works for many, and that’s great). In my case, a mix of cynicism and kindness is mesmerizingly comforting: I notice that there are elements of me that can simply be shitty (to others, to myself, etc.), but also that they can probably change. To start that process, I make the observations I need to make, and then experiment with saying no thanks! to some patterns. The notion of this being an “experiment” has also lowered the stakes for me. I feel less pressure to “succeed” in being less self-critical.

#innerchild

No thanks is kind but clear, direct but open-ended. I’m not saying I shouldn’t be having the thought, or denouncing its existence through avoidance. It’s not shutting it down. It’s strangely a technique to objectify the thought as something Other, so that you re-situate yourself in an empowered position. Like, do you want to feel horrible now? the aftertaste of self-criticism may intimate. And your answer can sure as fuck be no thanks! 

I wish more self-help books said fuck and shit and didn’t pretend like change was actually something that feels tenable when you’re urgently seeking it. It will never feel that way! At least I don’t think so.

BUT if you treat your thoughts like little offerings you can take or gently say, “No thanks!” to, the project becomes far more relatable—like politely turning down an offering for fresh ground pepper at a restaurant. You’re neither rationalizing nor criticizing your behaviors. It’s a conversation, and during it, it’s possible to feel change happening, just with one decision.

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Offerings in my bedroom. OBJECTIFY YR THOUGHTS.

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!

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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?

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“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.

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.

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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.

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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

A Valediction Forbidding New Year’s Resolutions

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.

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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 for me. 

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.

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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 articulate the 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.”

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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.

“Such wilt thou be to me, who must,

  Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

  And makes me end where I begun.”