I’ve written several times about the “monster” that I thought lived somewhere deep inside me who made me unloveable. I was looking at a blog post from last year about that pesky monster, and as I read my writing about finally getting some therapy (and some lovely pills) when I was in my mid-30s, I was surprised to find myself feeling shame. Not shame about the depression itself, not shame about initially needing pharmaceutical help to deal with it, but shame about the fact that it took me so long to figure out just how fucked up I was.
No, that’s not quite accurate either. The shame is really about how long it took me to figure out that I needed help. That I wasn’t actually “high-maintenance.” That I didn’t react to the slightest change of plans like it was a betrayal because I was needlessly rigid. It turns out that a lot of what could be perceived as neediness, clinginess, coldness, meanness, flightiness and a whole hodgepodge of sometimes contradictory behaviors was the result of never being parented by my parents. Like most kids of narcissists (and other types of parents who abdicate the emotional part of their parenting duties) I parented myself by telling myself a whopper of a lie—that inner monster of mine—so I had a reason for why they hadn’t parented me.
It’s not surprising that given that that lie was my survival mechanism, one that had become enshrined in me, practically hardwired into my DNA before I even really had language or knew that language could both help you tell and untell stories, or understood that all stories we are told about ourselves aren’t true even if they’re told by the people we’re all supposed to agree are the most trustworthy. Given all of that, it’s somewhat surprising that I did eventually stumble on the truth that I was spending my life reacting to one hell of a whopper.
I mean, honestly, I thought it was completely normal to sit in the corner of my room, rest my head on the radiator, and sob till I felt sick. I thought it was completely normal to let myself ghost out of myself when I felt anything but numbness. And really, if you’re funny and smart and like to throw tea parties and can hold your drink fairly well (even though you do have an alarming tendency to ask men to sleep with you when you’re wasted but that’s another blog post) and you can find at least a few friends who will put up with your tendency to pee in parking lots on your way to the T or the El for the trip home, you can keep that lie safe for decades.
Until the summer you turn 31 and you work in a building in downtown DC with a beautiful flight of wooden stairs, and every time you walk down those stairs you have to fight the urge to throw yourself down those stairs cause you know you’ll feel so much better if you can just get the pain that’s on the inside to manifest itself on the outside. Until you make friends with writers who are in therapy and start talking about things like depression and anxiety disorder, writer friends who point out time and again how much longing is in your poems, how much grief. Until you are riding home on the Metro one day and you think, “Well, I could just kill myself,” which terrifies you because you’ve always prided yourself on not being one of those people who would commit suicide cause really things are never quite that bad. And that terror sends you to campus one day to the student mental health office and you talk with your first psychiatrist who is younger than you are and diagnoses you with “depressive disorder unspecified” and prescribes a baby daily dose of Zoloft. And you don’t know what to talk about so you tell her you procrastinate writing projects all the time because surely that signifies everything that’s wrong with you–your laziness, your lack of preparation, your general wrongness. And this baby psychiatrist asks one question: “Have you ever missed a deadline?” And when you answer, “No,” she wonders—then why are you worried about it?
Even though it will take another year or two for me to figure out that what I call “procrastination” is actually the way my brain works, processing all the information I need for the project, finding the story long before I actually scratch things out on a sheet of paper, that moment, when she asks that simple question, and I am forced to consider all the wrong words I have been using to describe myself for decades, is the first time I start to wonder what else I have told myself about myself and others have told me about myself is wrong, too.
So the moral of the story is that all of these things had to happen for me to finally catch a glimpse of the lie and that’s what matters, right? But shouldn’t I have somehow seen it sooner? I’m a smart woman. I read a lot of books. I write poetry for goodness’ sake. Doesn’t that give me some sort of insight into human existence and shouldn’t that insight of mine have detected the “Help Me!” sign that had been flashing above my head for decades?
But that’s the wrong story, too. That we are all-seeing when it comes to who we are. That there’s such a thing as “too long.” That self-awareness, self-knowledge is some kind of race with check boxes and status reports and ETAs. That when it happens trumps everything else.
Here’s what shame is: it’s believing the wrong story about yourself.
Here’s what I need to remember: The right story about me is that I don’t know why it took the time it did to realize I was wrong about the monster and so many other things about myself. The right story about me is that it doesn’t matter how long it took to get there. The right story about me is that penalizing or feeling bad about myself cause it took a certain amount of time is just a silly attempt to give myself another monster and really, who needs that? The right story about me is that I will sometimes forget that. The right story about me is that there will be so many other times when I’ll feel that shame and instead of letting it send me down into a spiral of self-doubt, I’ll remind myself that it doesn’t matter how long it took for me to get to that place of un-telling. The right story about me is that—despite the safety and comfort of that old story—I did, in fact, get there.
…Why does it feel more disheartening to be thought of as old (or not young) than it is to be thought of as fat or not very intelligent?
I’ve been starting each day with the last few lines of the day before in order to give this project some continuity but most days it doesn’t work because my brain has moved on to the next thing. At least for now. I circle round and round the same obsessions so it stands to reason over 30 days I’ll trace and retrace the same emotional circles. I think every artist has an obsession or two in their work though they never might articulate it as such. What’s hard is exploring those obsessions in one’s art practice without starting from square one with those emotional things in one’s actual life. I think I’ve moved forward from a lot of the things I write about, but there’s still more to mine there. So am I stuck, or am I just thorough?
Yesterday I fell too deep into myself, which happens sometimes. I probably should’ve expected that after a week of being social, being out of my regular routine, that I would introvert hardcore. And that’s good if there’s some sort of movement going on—I’m going to lunch (or in the case of yesterday, I should have gone to church), or I’m walking up and down my apartment thinking and doing bits and pieces of the things I want to get done. It’s meditative and I can usually push myself forward over some hurdle—emotional, spiritual, professional—by at least a centimeter. But every once in a while I choose instead to spend the day on the couch, which starts out okay but ends with me way deep inside my head feeling heavy with stuck-ness, with emotional inertia, which is the perfect stage for all of my insecurities to flounce across, preening and parading, and sticking their dumb selves in my face. Which is not to say I shouldn’t sit on the couch ever and let myself just watch TV and dream, but there are certain times when I’m tiptoeing around an ice rink of depression that it’s just better for me not to linger there. And I think I always know when I’m at that place, but I don’t always listen to myself. Yesterday I pretty much talked myself out of going to church, which was stupid cause clearly the me that actually knows how to take care of myself (she lives quietly somewhere in the center of my gut and passes her days knitting and daydreaming and sending secret mind messages to Josh Groban and Michael Fassbender) was trying to force me into having some human contact so I wouldn’t spiral down.
I did finally fight my way out of it and by the time I went to bed last night I no longer believed I’d never get to a healthy weight at which I was comfortable, that I would die alone without friends, that I hadn’t ever done a damned thing that mattered, or that I was—when you added up my sum total—merely an insignificant, depressive speck. I don’t expect that I will ever stop having depressive episodes. The same brain that works itself into a let’s-go-jump-off-a-cliff-so-the-negative-chatter-will-stop frenzy is also the same brain that fills me with empathy and love and the courage to keep that damned pen moving across that damned blank page. In other words, I think part of my depression comes from letting too much in, but it’s all that stuff that comes in that gets filtered into poetry. So I’m not sure I exactly want to fix my brain.*
What I do want, and what I actually have gained through lots of thinking and lots of practice over time, is perspective. As much as I was weighted down with darkness yesterday, I knew from experience, that just doing one little thing different would put me back in balance. So I forced myself to take a shower and changed into fresh pajamas and washed the dishes. And at first it felt a little like slogging through molasses but little by little I felt my regular rhythm start to come back. I have the perspective now to know that even though I can sometimes feel emotionally squashed, squished, and outright pulverized, I just have to grit my teeth through it cause it’s not forever. I think that’s an important life thing to realize—nothing’s forever. Which we often think of as being a sad fact, cause we tend to think only of good things ending. But I’m going to be blatantly Pollyanna and say it also means bad things end, and good things get even better or just change into a different version of a good thing. Nothing’s ever in stasis, is it? No matter how stuck we feel. Hmmm, so maybe that’s the only thing we can count on as being true forever? Everything changes eventually.
To be continued…
*PS Don’t freak out people, I am going back to therapy soon and have two bonafide recs from my doctor.