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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”