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.

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