Can You Live With An Empty Soul?

Yesterday my therapist and I started to dissect my issues with intimacy. There’s a long road of traumatic events that have lead to my fear of getting close, both physically and emotionally with men. But as we reviewed components that have lead to my current, frustrating state, the rejection and dismissal by girls kept coming up. Because while I was dealing with my feelings about men, my wants and needs, the feeling of self-worth and value kept coming up – and a lot of that had to do with the rejection by girl friends.

I was friends with and then eventually cut off by a different group of people every year from second grade through seventh. Sometimes with a note, or just three people refusing to acknowledge my presence one day. Each time I joined a clique, after some time, I was told quite clearly that I was no longer wanted. After a horrific experience in seventh grade, I decided never to have “best friends” and just be friends with everybody.

I suppose the thing that crushed me the most was that I never knew why or was given any explanation for friends’ abandonment or sudden disgust with me. The first few times, I just felt confused, but after a while, I started to evaluate what I was doing wrong. What was it about me that made people, after a time, not want to be friends with me? What was so rotten inside me, that as soon as people started to know me, they wanted to flee?

I didn’t know what I was doing. So instead of trying to get people to like me and want me, I tried to get people to need me. Being a friend meant getting things for people, doing favors, embarrassing myself to ensure they laughed, helping them with boys, picking things up – whatever I could do that made me a convenient and helpful addition to their lives. This backfired at times, as some girls felt I was overbearing, trying too hard. I adjusted when that happened and eventually I found a way to balance helping people but giving them space long enough that they couldn’t get sick of me.

Looking back, I had convinced myself that I, as a human being, had no value to people. Just being me was not good enough. I had to earn friendship by providing something they needed. True friendship does involve giving – but it’s supposed to be two-ways. I always felt safer from rejection if it was one-way. In fact, I hated when people tried to do something for me or compliment me. Still, even doing this, people ditched me.

So now not only was it that I was of no value, that I was worthless; but there was something so disgusting and annoying about me, my giving just wasn’t enough. I was ugly, irritating, awful. Deep within the core of myself, there was something so bad, they couldn’t speak to me or sit with me anymore.

After the most painful rejection in seventh grade, I realized that limiting yourself to a few friends to have intimacy and closeness, was simply too dangerous. And for someone like me, to get too close and allow someone to see me, meant eventually they would flee. So I became friendly with everyone. I didn’t sit with anyone specifically. I spent the majority of my time making people laugh at my expense – but it worked. People thought I was “funny” and I was generally friendly with everyone. This continued in high school. I would have a few closer friends, but I often would distance myself if I felt we were spending too much time together, avoiding any chance of rejection. If I didn’t invest too much in them, and I still ensured my value by giving – whether that was providing a place to drink, or making snarky comments at the chemistry teacher, or railing on myself for my braces and fat, it was worth it to get them to laugh. If I could make them laugh or get them something, they would let me stay, and in that way, I could make myself of value.

But underneath that was the constant fear that they would find out I was worthless. That they would see this sickness in me, and run. By then, I stopped trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, and just accepted it was me as a whole, I was simply damaged goods. My goal was simply to hide my true self.

To this day, I feel fear in all of my relationships – with doctors, family members, the barista, and most importantly my friends. I only have a few friends, and they have stuck by me throughout my depression. But I am still scared to lose them. I find myself in the middle of a story horrified that I’m talking too much and trying to switch the subject back to them – people like being listened to and heard. I try to remember if I contacted them last, and will wait for them to contact me, lest I be hanging on them too much. And it’s why I hid and often continue to hide my mental illness. I talk about it, quickly, flippantly, and with humor, but in general, I skip by it quickly, don’t answer the phone, or just leave out the emotion or truly devastating fears. My best friend told me last year that she never knew so much and that she couldn’t help me if I wasn’t open to her. In the past year, I have tried to be more honest. The other day, I called her and cried on the phone, hysterically vomiting my thoughts and concerns. I apologized the next day and told her it was fine. I felt bad I had put her in a position where I needed something that no one could provide. I worry if you become a task too heavy, people will leave you, as my roommate and friend right after college did, by moving out of our apartment because she told me I was a “burden” and she couldn’t handle her own life because mine was so oppressive.

Obviously, if you think you have no value and that people are disgusted and want to leave as soon as they know who you really are, this is going to impact your sexual relationships as well. I have never really dated anyone. I have never had an intimate encounter sober. I haven’t had many to begin with, and some of them were assaults, so I’m not sure they count. There have been a few guys who liked me, but they were intense and they seemed to compliment me a lot. They kept saying how great I was, smart, pretty, and they had only been seeing me for a week. I broke up with those men. Partially because of my self-esteem and sexual intimacy issues, but mostly because I knew if they really “saw” who I was, beyond the humor and bullshit, they would see how hollow and truly pointless I was.

I think we are going to try and focus on my history some more and reinterpreting my thoughts. My issues with men are much more complicated, which is annoying given my love for them. But as I got into the car to drive home, it really actually hit me – what I had said about 10 minutes before the session ended. I have learned, from a very early age, that I add no value, and am either empty or bad inside. I am, by definition, worthless. And so much in my upbringing supported that conclusion.

My therapist asked me if I ever knew why people decided they didn’t like me. There is only one person I still know from that time period that was part of a group that cut me out. I feel bad, but about once a year I bring it up. I ask her to remember what it was that started the decision for the three of them to stop talking to me; to cough pig when I walked by. Who decided I was out and why? Was it something specific or my general personality? And why did she do it? Was it peer pressure or did she hate me as well? I just wanted to know what I did wrong for so many years, to try and have some understanding of why so many people left me. And every year, she pleads with me to let it go because she can’t remember. She isn’t sure who started it, and she isn’t sure why. There wasn’t a specific moment or a group meeting that she remembers. She just knows that it happened and she was a part of it. And that she’s sorry. And that by high school she thought I was really cool and wanted to be friends with me. I still can’t seem to satiate that need to understand and evidently it didn’t impact the people who did it to me enough to remember.

And now, through college and DC, and my depressive years, people tell me they wish I knew how great I was. That they don’t understand why I am so hard on myself, why I can’t see why I am so “amazing.” They tell me I am attractive, kind, funny, witty, smart, emotionally intelligent. They tell me there’s no reason I shouldn’t be in a relationship or try to make friends. And with every compliment, I feel sad because I have duped them as well. What they are seeing is what I choose to show them. But it’s all a charade, bullshit, a song and dance.

The truth is, I can’t decipher what is “really” me and what is something I do to make people accept me. Am I actually a person with some of those traits? Is that, at my core, who I truly am? Or is this all a sham, and behind it all is something truly ugly, something so terrifying, that the only person who really sees me is the depressive voice inside me that is the only real voice of truth. A part of me knows that that voice is my sickness, that it’s not real, but every time I listen to it, it has a point, and evidence to go along with it.

Maybe, I never developed a voice or inner being, what some see as a “soul.” Maybe I have no self-esteem or self-worth because I don’t have anything true and tangible to hold onto. I have spent so long developing what felt like facades for so long, I can’t tell if they are actually me, or still simply illusions. Could I just be, behind the green curtain, not a great wizard, but a silly, sad, insecure person, with nothing to show? Could my soul simply be an empty shell with nothing inside?

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my kitchen table

i need to write this because if i tell anyone they will tell me i’m being irrational, i’m tired, i’m scared, i’m stressed, i’m just depressed. i need to write it because it feels so true i ache.

tonight, i looked over at the desk in my kitchen. it was piled with notes, documents from class, open books – the whole desk was covered and stacked with documents. i remembered how in college i dreamed of getting my PhD and what my life would be: you would walk into my office or room or house and know that i was a coffee-drinking, spastic, over-achieving academic, who was forgetful but charming, articulate but real. i would always have tables that looked like the one in my kitchen.

i accepted years ago that that would never be my life. the same way i knew i’d never be an actress, or a producer, a lawyer, or television anchor. that i’d never be in a relationship no matter how many i concocted in my mind. i’d never be thin enough or pretty enough. i would never look in the mirror and be okay with what i saw. i had images of myself, but none ever felt real – they were all fantasies of what my life would be like if i wasn’t me.

i hoped that it was the depression and after this past year, with the chemical depression lifted, i thought it was my time to finally start figuring out how to live life and what it would look like.

in the last year, i have been accepted into an elite university in a country i have always dreamed of living in, i have lost 60 pounds, i have kept an apartment, done my dishes, cleaned my bathroom, cooked even when tired. i took two classes at a community college and i’ve only gotten A’s. my teachers commend me. verbally and in notes. my 70-year old spin friends tell me they believe in and they see me for an hour once a week. i’ve seen my GP once this year, the first time i met her, and she saw my mom months later and told her that i had to go to the university – that i was too smart not to.

i should be proud of my accomplishments. i should smile and feel warm from the compliments of strangers – people who see something in me even from such a small glance. but they make things worse. because every time i do get an A or accolade, i get this tinge of excitement. sometimes it lasts for about a minute. and then i feel like someone has slapped me upside the face. i am the abused and the abuser in my relationship. every time i try to stand up for myself, i throw myself down. i rip into myself and tear apart any shred of hope or joy i may have felt. achievements don’t sit right – they feel dirty, embarrassing, uncomfortable and irritating – like alcohol on an open wound.

and so i’ll never find the right job. i’ll never be able to accept love from a man or believe he thinks i am beautiful. i will never feel good about an A -because it all feels like a farce. it feels like a lucky consequence but not truly earned. because i could always do better, be better, be thinner, be prettier, be kinder, do more. i can’t figure out what i want to do because i know that no matter what i choose, i will feel like i am failing.

and in a way, i am. it’s like i’m in a race, and i have these people around me cheering me on, and i try to run but after a while i realize i’m just running in place, and i’m so exhausted from trying, from pushing myself, that i sit down. but people continue to cheer and i don’t want to let them down. i don’t want them to see how they’ve wasted their time. i get up again and i try to start running again. but i’m just running in the same place.

it doesn’t really matter why, but i guess it started as a child as a way to protect myself from bullies. you make fun of yourself before the kids can make fun of you so they can’t hurt you as much. but it doesn’t feel like protection anymore. i don’t have the bullies around me. i have become my own bully. and when i tell myself i am not good enough, that i will not last, it feels completely and totally right throughout my entire body. it is a truth at the core of my being.

maybe i can find a way to live like this. i mean, i don’t feel suicidal right now. i feel kind of defeated, tired, a little sad. but i will keep running in place until i’m too exhausted and then i will do my best to get up and run some more.

looking at that table, i realized it will never be enough. because no matter what i do, no matter what those around me say, i do not believe it in my heart. i can’t. it’s too deep inside me. it is who i am and it is what has defined me. i cannot love myself. not because i don’t want to, but because there is no part of me that truly believes i am of worth. no matter what i do, no matter how others see me, i will never believe in me. i will never be good enough for me.

i know i am damaged. i am broken. and i just don’t see how i can be fixed.

Saying No: The Dilemma of Disappointing Others and Self-Care

I have had A LOT of people tell me A LOT of things I don’t want to hear. You didn’t get the part you wanted; the boy doesn’t like you that way; we can’t accept you to this program; you didn’t get the job; this medication won’t work; I can’t help you – the list goes on and on.

Lately, those things I don’t want to hear are less about not getting things, but about how to be or act or what I have to do. You have to attend, you need to help me, you have to do this for me.

I like helping people. I don’t think most people go into non-profits unless they want to help people (it’s certainly not for the money or the benefits or work hours.) But lately, those requests feel guilt-ridden, imposing, and detrimental to my progress. To clarify, these tasks aren’t imposing because someone is asking me to do something – it’s because A) they aren’t asking, they’re telling, making it not a “choice,” B) they don’t leave room for me to say no, C) they do not accept, believe, or understand how the task can impact my mental health.

Maybe I’ve created this relationship with others. In my depression and fear of disapproval, I have created relationships with unhealthy boundaries where it is assumed I will do what needs to get done, no matter its’ impact on me. But for these past 1o months, I have spent all of this time trying to evaluate what is good for me: what should my life look like; who should be in it; what I should do with it, in order to make me strong, healthy, and happy. Lately, I’ve felt myself being pulled into situations I have managed to avoid while I have been trying to regain strength. It’s not like I didn’t know they were there. However, I was hoping to hold them off long enough until I felt strong enough to deal with them.

Instead, I have people pushing me around, not respecting my feelings, invading my personal boundaries, “asking” me to do things that make me feel uncomfortable, ashamed or sad. All of them fall under the guises of “family,” “friendship,” or “mature responsibility.” But they feel like guilt and disappointment. I was frustrated the other day because when I thought about telling someone I didn’t want to do something because I didn’t want to do it, I knew the only way they would understand is if I was in a psychiatric hospital, on my way there, or dead. Otherwise, my “excuse” wouldn’t be valid enough.

My therapist wants me to take ownership of my choices. She wants me to learn to say no and accept that others’ disappointment is something I have to learn to live with, but still shouldn’t change me from doing what I know is right for me. She wants me to speak up for myself, to feel confident in making my own decisions, and accepting that others might not understand and might not forgive but that is their choice, not mine.

I don’t think she is saying you don’t have to have responsibility in your life. You can’t always not go to work because you just don’t feel like doing an assignment. But you are allowed to tell people in your life, especially people who don’t understand the impact a social event or task might take on your well-being, that you cannot and will not do something.

But life is more complicated than that. There are things you have to do sometimes, even if you don’t want to. Deep in your heart, you can say no, but at the end of the day, you have to get up and be there and deal with the mental implications later.

For me, when someone tells me they are unable to do something for or with me, I may feel disappointed, but I understand why and I empathize with their reasoning. But I don’t think all people do that. I believe some people are programmed to “suck it up” and “take one for the team.” It reminds me of how people often tell those with depression to “think positive” and “work harder.” It’s not that I WANT to disappoint anyone, but I also don’t want to fall backwards and spend months trying to get back to the state I was in. I find myself agreeing or being dismissed and crying later at my weakness, frustration, and fear.

In the past two weeks my anxiety has increased, I have been unable to sleep, and I feel exhausted all the time, unable to go to the gym, cook, or basically do the tasks I find help make me feel better and provide me with strength. I am going to try and do the tasks I have been told to do. I am going to try and create spaces where I can have time alone, try and get to the gym, eat healthy, and take deep breaths. I’m not hopeful I will. I see myself falling back into old habits.

When all is said and done, I hope it won’t take too long to recuperate mentally and get back on track but I’m scared at how long that may take. As for the future, when these moments arise, I know I have to practice feeling the fear of anger and disappointment and siding with myself and maintaining my boundaries. I have to retrain my brain to not think of self-care as selfish but as sustainable maintenance. It’s a laughable goal – but I can’t imagine ever truly becoming stable without it.

Life (and yes, Pat Benatar, love) is a battlefield. Here I go, into battle, with very shitty armor.

Holding a Grudge: Letting Go of Unfinished and Unfair Business

At what age does it become unacceptable to have a tantrum? How emotionally relieving does it look? How many times have you done this inside and wish you could have just screamed out loud?

At what age does it become unacceptable to have a tantrum? How emotionally relieving does this look? How many times have you done this inside and wish you could have just screamed out loud?

I’ve never been one to let things go emotionally. Whether it’s a snide remark or the sadness of watching a video of people dying in another country. I suppose it’s partially hurt pride/jealousy/insecurity (the remark) and the other may be empathy (watching the news). Either way, I find myself harboring my feelings into a stew of irrational emotional precipices. Some last for years, some boil up when triggered.

I was bullied quite a bit (though in my day bullying was quite different than it is today, thank goodness,) when I was a child. I took it because I assumed I must have been doing something to warrant it. And the more I was bullied, the more I thought I deserved it. I was at a dinner the other week and an old teacher from third grade was there. (Random, indeed.) I told him how I had to leave one of the schools I attended because the bullying was so bad and I mentioned the ring leader that started and led the abuse. He told me he had just run into her and she was just the sweetest woman ever. I know that I’m 34. I know this was 2nd grade. But inside I still didn’t want to believe she could be good. In fact, deep down I believe I was angry that others saw her as a great person. I still held a grudge for her behavior and how it tormented me and began my process of self-hate – 25 years later.

It’s not rational. And I do believe that bullying is about peer pressure and insecurity and often balloons way out of proportion. I know I am not the same person I was when I was 9 either, but I also know I have never excluded or banned a person from a group – when I was 8, 15, 22, or 34.

Redemption plays a large role in letting go of grudges and begs the question: can people change? Should they be forgiven for their transgressions? When? Why? How do they prove when it’s enough and how do you create a construct of reasonable forgiveness based on the severity of the action?

Now she didn’t deserve to go to jail, but it rankled me that she got to have a good life. As he spoke about her, I still felt something deep inside – an anger for all the nights I spent crying in my room, wondering why I had to be me – someone people did not want.

When I left college, I moved into an apartment with a woman who was one of my closest friends. At the time, I was in the throws of multiple depressive episodes. I tried not to impact her – staying in my room as much as possible, smiling politely and telling her I was fine but just needed to be alone. And then one day, she brought me out to the living room couch and told me that my depression had become too much of a burden on her life. She needed to live and do things that made her happy and coming home to a house with someone who was so depressed was untenable. She didn’t apologize, she didn’t recommend I needed more help, and she couldn’t provide it – in fact, she turned the responsibility of her inconvenience on me – the bearer of her burden.

We both moved out and I stopped speaking with her. It’s been a decade since that occurred. I have seen her a handful of times since that incident and we have been cordial. For the first few years, if I heard that things were going well in her life, I would get so angry. Why should someone who did something bad, get something good? Her word “burden” had scarred me and I spent years hiding my self-harm and ignoring phone calls, canceling meetings, fearing I was a burden to all my friends and loved ones.

I know now that she was scared. I can understand also the feeling of responsibility she may have felt while also trying to deal with her own life. I don’t think she handled it well, and at times I still wish she had apologized, but my behavior after I moved out has nothing to do with her. She hurt me, but I do not believe it was malicious. I still wish sometimes I could sit her down and explain why calling someone who is having a depressive episode a burden is incredibly mean, unhelpful, and has severe ramifications. I am not angry anymore and I do wish her a good life, but I will never forgive or trust her as a person again.

I suppose it’s the same with the girls who bullied me. I just want to understand why. And I also want them to understand their role and what they have done. And perhaps that is why I have such a hard time letting go. I know that the constant bullying led to a permanent character and attitude change in my behavior towards people. I withdrew, held people afar, and always insulted myself before anyone else could. I still have a tendency to do this – or at least try. As I mentioned above, being called a burden crushed me and intensified my intent to hole up and cut off all help and love.

And yet, recently, in speaking to one of the people that participated in some of the bullying, she told me she can’t remember why I was chosen. And so one of the pivotal moments that led me to years of emotional distance is something that she can’t remember. It’s hard to let it go when you don’t have the answers and it was so insignificant, that the ones that did it don’t even remember why.

But the thing I hold the grudge against the most is my disease. It’s the only one I can’t forgive or forget. I can’t let bygones be bygones. It’s past pride, fairness, or reason. My life’s potential was ruined. It ripped my memories apart, tore through my body and soul, pushed me to self-violence and made me plead for death. It held me back from love, growth, opportunity and happiness. And it is evil and its’ action are with malcontent with hopes of damaging me as much as possible.

Until the scientists actually figure out what the fuck is actually happening in my brain and how to fix it for the long-term, I feel hatred, anger, and wrath towards my depression. Every time I have a good day I just want to yell out “Fuck you, depression! Who’s the one in the corner crying today? Looks like you’re the loser this time! I’m smiling and you can’t do shit. Fucker.” But then I get scared, ready for it to lash out against me – waiting for a vulnerable moment to bully me again. To tell me I am a burden, a waste, a fat pig that no one will ever want.

I can’t trust people, and I certainly can’t trust my emotional stability. My grudge becomes a protective barrier against pain, though it’s a shitty one and my hurt constantly seeps through. Grudges are the frustrations and pain I hold because I still don’t know why. Why was I the one to be bullied? Why did bipolar II have to infect my life?

I am slowly trying to break down my grudge barriers. I realize how much energy I spend on things that I cannot change. It’s in the past and “it is what it is.” Or at least that’s what I try to tell myself. I try to understand the impact of past actions, and accept the inability for answers or time machine creation.

I suppose it’s never too late to find peace with others and more importantly, with yourself. I’ve come to peace with some – never forgetting but finding a way to accept it as part of who I am. But I haven’t quite figured out how to let go of the grudge I hold against myself, my depression, and my loss of potential. I’m still angry, hurt, and frustrated by my life – both past, present and future. And while I know kicking and screaming won’t help, and that I really am so lucky in so many ways, I just can’t seem to let go and trust in myself and my strength of self. I can’t let down the barrier of self-inflicted pain that protects me from further pain. I fear if I do I will get side-swiped again, played a fool, shattered of innocence which really may be ignorance.

I know I will eventually have to let go because barriers go both ways; they may protect things from getting in, but they also hold things from getting out. And so to grow, to love, to trust, and to live, I have to find a peace within myself and let go of the pain of the past, and fear of pain in the future, even while knowing it is inevitable. What a terrifying endeavor to face and yet one I know I must make.

Scarred and scared, I’m going to try and give it a go.

I’m Not Who You Think I Am

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I wanted to start this blog to help humanize mental illness. So many people I speak to tell me one of the main problems with mental illness is that they know so little about it. And it’s true. Unless you are dealing with one personally; are a friend or family member who loves someone with the illness; are a psychiatrist or therapist; or study it, chances are you know about mental illness from movies, television, and occasional commercials with cartoon characters looking sad.

And stigma is a horrible plague in our society. Lack of education and therefore a preponderance of ignorance regarding mental illness exacerbates our perpetuating lack of treatment; rise in homelessness; increased self-medication through non-prescription drugs and alcohol; bullying and increased suicides; and discriminatory practices in employment and health insurance practices. (I know our government is working on the last one, but honestly as someone who just recently got jacked by the employment system, it needs a lot more help.)

So here I stand on my soap box, attempting to “put a face to a name,” trying to break barriers, and I pronounce my name to be: Ava G. But it’s not. It’s a great name, but it’s not MY name. When I decided to do this blog, I was okay with using my name. I was pretty sure I would never work, date, or really exist in society, so why worry? But then I thought, “what if?” What if I finally get my meds together long enough to handle a job and they find this blog? What if there’s someone who I’m really getting along with and we’ve made it past first base and he reads this?

Now I don’t think this blog is “going places” and the irony is I’m pretty much sharing it with people I know and who know about this part of my life. I also know the hypocrisy of my statements above: how do you break down stigma and discrimination if you will not stand up and be counted? And besides, who wants to work at an organization that won’t hire a fantastic, devoted, talented worker because they write a blog on how hard it is to maintain being that great. Who wants to go to second with a dude who knows so little, and seeing a picture of Jack Nicholson makes him want to run for the door…sober.

I have done a lot of community outreach and civil rights coalition-building in my life, and I am constantly advocating that people make their voice known. Sign a petition, call a representative, or put your name on a letter. I tell people to go out to their communities and hand out flyers, volunteer at organizations, etc. And not once do I say, “and don’t forget to use a pseudonym.” A part of me wants to say, it’s not in the name but in the action. After all, can’t we all be voices for change, without being THE voice? I’ve decided that for now, writing about these personal experiences is the best I can do.

And besides, I think Ava G. is a lovely name.