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.

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

Can irony and acceptance coexist?

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art 4 art’s sake (hat tip 2 the mobil mini mart :D)

Part of my conceit in starting this blog was to recognize the role irony can play in the process of acceptance.

What do I mean?

To me at least, part of the reason capital-A Acceptance seems so daunting is because it feels like it has to be pure, all-consuming. A capital-D Decision. No turning back.

If I accept the fact that I gained 15 pounds last winter, that means I have to be content with my body image, and likely commit to staying this weight for the rest of my life.

I somehow assume that if I’m going to accept something about myself or something that happened, I can’t also account for any lack of acceptance, or any other feelings that challenge the acceptance. I don’t know where I learned this assumption. Here are other examples:

  • If I accept that I didn’t get enough work done today, I guess I’m accepting that I will always be a lazy loser with nothing good on my CV.
  • If I accept that I was a bitch to my boyfriend, I am resigning to treating him terribly forever, and to always having bad relationships.
  • If I accept that I forgot my friend’s birthday, I am recognizing that I am a categorically forgetful person and self-absorbed friend.

We associate acceptance with the negative stuff. It’s rare to feel the urge to accept the fact that something went really well at work, or that you had a great revelation in therapy. The dictionary definition of acceptance is: the consent to receive. When good shit is happening, you really don’t take the time to CONSENT to receiving it. You just receive it.

As of recently—and it’s a process—I’m beginning to envision acceptance as something much more holographic. If I gain 15 pounds, I can accept it, but part of accepting it can be that I can also feel bad about myself and want to lose weight. I can also simultaneously accept that I might then ALSO feel judgment about wanting to lose weight, “because feminists shouldn’t hate their bodies.” Then I may find myself reasoning that each person’s feminism is complicated and unique, and that patriarchal conditioning has affected me in ways I am not in control of. I can also simply accept that I feel more comfortable when I am 15 pounds thinner, and let that be that, even if it’s superficial. All of it can be there. Acceptance isn’t tidy or static. It is messy and dynamic.

Let’s just be clear that none of that is pleasant or even feasible much of the time. And for that reason, I think I use irony as a defense mechanism to make the process of acceptance easier for me, in all sorts of contexts. Examples help: I constantly make reference to my psychiatrist in casual conversations with not-close friends; I say things like, “tbt to my eating disorder” or post Instagram selfies of myself doing physical therapy exercises.

Perhaps, on some level, I feel uneasy about how much I need psychiatry, or ashamed of the fact that I used to be anorexic, or nerdy for allotting twenty minutes of my evening ritual to picking up a washcloth with my feet in order to strengthen my toes.

Or perhaps creating distance from certain parts of my life that involve discomfort is part of accepting them. It seems paradoxical that self-acceptance could involve disavowal of my pain or self-deprecation. And maybe these behaviors really do just come from insecurity. But maybe that’s also OK. Acting out of insecurity doesn’t mean you aren’t working on yourself. The real challenge is accepting how uncomfortable that is.

Let me just say that I know next to nothing about most of this. I’m just narrating along the way. Rather than thinking of acceptance as an endpoint, or happiness as the result of X, Y and/or Z, I am just often checking in on myself—my attitudes, my habits, my relationships—by seeing what comes up in the distance that irony, by definition, creates.

I believe it is possible to be a happy, healthy, person devoted to personal growth without committing earnestly and singularly to a green-juice-lentil-chip-yogi lifestyle, punctuated by daily arm-balance Instagram posts and infinite permutations of a gratitude hashtag.

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HOWEVER, I have completely asked a family member to photograph me in Eagle pose for my Instagram so that I could post some pseudo-spiritual and saccharine caption about the process of getting stronger and the role that #presence plays. And you know what? I also fucking love green juice, lentil chips, and yoga. AND much of the time when I buy 8 dollar green juice, 4 dollar lentil chips, or 30 dollar yoga classes, I make fun of myself for being self-indulgent or elitist or narcissistic or dumb. And you know what else? It doesn’t feel like abuse—and I accept that too.

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While I like green juice, I don’t think I feel grateful for it.

When it comes to the irony I bring to my (legit? authentic? earnest?) love of wellness trends, I think I am trying to disavow the fundamental narcissism of self-improvement as a thing. It’s not that I am not making fun of yoga, a practice that I love quite genuinely, but the cultural capital it carries with it, one that is contingent on being privileged in innumerable ways. The idea of being a white NYC-gurl who doesn’t question loving yoga would make me feel like a cultural appropriator and an un-self-aware exercise biddie. And that, I hope, I am not.

Irony often is a mechanism used to create distance, to cause alienation. As Wayne Booth said in The Rhetoric of Irony, irony is “a very messy subject” as it introduces “conflicts of fact.” When I listen to Kesha and get goose bumps, but then post a Facebook status about how ridiculous it is to get goose bumps when listening to Kesha, I contradict myself, I introduce conflicts of fact: I suggest that I somehow doubt the fact that Kesha is an artist I actually love.

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That’s Wayne Booth.

But I think, at least in part, that the partial disavowal, and the humorous friction it creates, is part of figuring out what the fuck it means and is to be who I am. Humor, to me, is empowering, even if it can serve as armor. I don’t think we need to be ashamed of the need, sometimes, to be guarded.

Thus, here’s to the value in”repudiation and reversal,” as Booth would put it. To close, I’ll end on an overused Walt Whitman quotation that feels relevant: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Rather, I’ll add just one last quote by another dead white man: Wallace Stevens said, “The poem must resist intelligence / Almost successfully.” I love this idea of ALMOST SUCCESSFUL RESISTANCE. Imagine resisting yourself almost successfully—enough to incite a gentle, productive back and forth between different parts of yourself.

Imagine self-deprecation and self-acceptance existing in some kind of bizarre harmony. Imagine a perpetually unsuccessful state of resistance, two things against one another, teetering back and forth. Their mutual instability is what creates something resembling stability.