Are We There Yet? – Waiting For the Self-Doubt to Subside

How much longer will it take before I can trust the medications? The decisions I am making? How much longer before I can look myself in the mirror and trust that this will be okay?

By “‘this,” it’s not just life. It’s not just the next year or month or week. It’s tonight. It’s moments from now. Fuck, it’s right now.

Each week I continue to build upon this idea that I am better. That I am managing my “behavioral health condition” (new terminology evidently) and can have friends, cook meals, read books, go to the gym, have a job, do an interview. Say yes.

I looked at myself in the mirror tonight, feeling almost as if I was floating away. The depression, it held me down. It pushed my face so deep into the ground, I couldn’t breathe. Even when I stood, I found I was anchored to the ground with hooks throughout my body. With every move I made I felt the hooks rip through my head, my lips, my neck, my chest, my stomach, my hands, my legs, my toes. I ached in pain with every word, every moment of engagement that I made. And now, when I move, I merely feel the scars ache, the wounds were so deep, even with the scar, the flesh is ripped and torn beneath. I will never be fully healed or whole.

And at the same time, now I feel like I need to hold onto the porcelain sink before I get carried away. I can’t feel grounded no matter how much I put my bare feet to the ground, or lie down and meditate, trying to pull the weight of my body down towards the earth, my fear, that kept me hunched over in agony for so long, now threatens me from above.

Perhaps because that is where my dreams and wishes lie? My hopes hang above me, and they seem so innocent, pleasant, alluring. But each day I say yes, it feels like there are two parts of me at war: the one that says “we finally have the chance to dream! come on! let’s jump up high and feel free and weightless!” and the other tells me to “mind myself, keep my head to the ground, and survive.” And the first voice, the innocent child who someone is still alive after all of this time, she is pulling me up; and the foreboding guards flick at my wounds, threatening me with my greatest fears to keep me from following that voice. I am being ripped apart, my different minds no longer asking me, but pulling me.

Our bodies are provided mechanisms for survival. An instinct to protect. Fight. Flight. Freeze. My wires are so crossed now. I’ve been running in survival mode for so many years, I don’t even know what it feels like not to be that way. In fact, sometimes when I actually am relaxed, I find myself panicked. Being relaxed, being happy, being satisfied all make me vulnerable to attack. And my body doesn’t know how to distinguish safety and danger, as so many times those that portrayed themselves as safe, turned out to become my worst nightmares.

I’m in the pool, trying to become a better swimmer, and the woman tells me to relax. “I am,” I tell her. “No. Relax. Like, relax your body.” “This is me relaxed. This is as relaxed as I get!” Because this is only as far as my body will physically let me trust myself. I have gone to the pool three times now. I did 5 laps the first time. 15 the second. And 18 the third, though I really only wanted to do 10. I keep waiting to feel satisfaction. To feel free in the water, to allow it to envelop me and to not fight it but glide with it, as so many are wont to tell me – that is what is missing from me enjoying the experience. I try to feel myself in the water. I try to appreciate that perhaps it is softer on my body. But I don’t feel relief or lightness, so instead, I focus on form, breathing, pushing myself, counting the laps.

DBT brings you to the present. I appreciated that. While it aims for “wise mind,” I always appreciated the rational mind. Because that indeed does ground you. It grounds you in the present. It makes your mind focus on what is before you, not what you will eventually have to do. I stopped DBT and maybe that is why I have felt so ungrounded. But I had started to feel like while it was keeping me grounded, it was keeping me in line. I was checking boxes. I was doing things to show I could do them. And I thought maybe that was keeping me from enjoyment. Because you have to be open to feeling. You have to have some vulnerability to grow.

My new therapist tells me that there is no surprise I feel no pleasure in my body. I don’t enjoy baths, lotions, touch, the sun, beautiful views, laughter. The second I start to feel something in my body, a swelling in my heart, a tingle in my chest, I pull back out of the experience. Evidently, after years of continued trauma, my body and mind got together and taught itself to protect and survive. It would mean I couldn’t feel pleasure but it would protect me from feeling too much pain. The thing is, I did feel pain. I was severely depressed and hurt. But I did it to myself. And that’s a different pain that one that is inflicted unwillingly upon you.

I must be tired. Too many repetitive thoughts; too many spelling errors; too many metaphors that don’t even work. But I looked in the mirror tonight and I was terrified because I just didn’t know how I was going to make it through. And yet I knew I had to. And I just wondered: will I ever not have to feel so scared of something that is unknown? What do others feel at night? Are they scared of the next day? Do they wonder if they will just explode on Tuesday and fall to pieces? How can they plan months ahead? How can they know they can say yes to something so far in advance? I have been doing that – saying yes to the future. And each time I do I feel like I’m going to be sick. I keep thinking this is going to get easier with practice. So I keep practicing.

I’m tired of practicing.

Finding Your “Path” With the Baggage of Mental Illness

“Purpose, it’s that little flame, that lights a fire under your ass.

Purpose, it keeps you going strong, like a car with a full tank of gas.

Everyone has a purpose, so what’s mine?”  -Avenue Q

I’m not sure when they start or who exactly embeds them within us, but at some point, we start to think about the possibilities of our future. As young as grade school, we dream of what our lives might look like one day. I always wanted to be one of the classics: a doctor, a lawyer, an actress or a journalist. And as a child, I was lucky enough to think that all of these paths were possible. But slowly, as your mental illness kicks in, you begin to grasp who you are and what your expectations for life can be.

For me, by high school, I realized that my self-image issues were always going to get in the way. I stopped believing people who told me I was good at things, because I started questioning whether I’d ever be good enough anyway.  I told myself that if I couldn’t be good at something, I would at least do something I loved, but I never really believed that. I always knew that I would never be good enough even if I didn’t know what that “enough” was. I had opportunity all around me, but I was petrified of picking a path, should it be the wrong one, and avoided it at all costs. I knew that expectations were simply set-ups for failure: I would set them too high, and if I could reach them, then clearly they weren’t high enough.

After I left my life in DC and started receiving ECT treatments, I wondered how I would ever be able to get back to the life I had built in the seven years after college. It always seemed so mediocre in my depressive spirals, but after having to give everything up, I realized I was working in a field I was passionate about, I was excelling according to my superiors, and doing it all with amazing friends to boot. Could I ever get that back?

A few months into treatment, someone suggested that maybe I needed to change my expectations for my future. And while they didn’t say it, I believe they meant, in the best way possible, to lower them. That maybe I would never have a job at an organization like before, maybe I’d never be able to work 60 hours, or walk the path I had started to develop for myself. That even though I had never fully reached the expectations I had currently set, they were too high for someone like me. This illness would never let me reach certain expectations ever again.

About 6 months ago, when I had to leave another job, I was told a metaphor that I believe in, though I still fight to accept. After having a debilitating breakdown, it’s like you are in kindergarten again. Your goal is to paint pictures and play at recess. And doing that, is considered a good day. But if you’re in kindergarten and you start wondering why you aren’t doing the math problems the fourth graders are doing, you are of course going to feel stupid. And, if you try to do that work, you will feel like a failure simply because you aren’t ready yet. I was comparing myself to my peers who lived on their own, had jobs, boyfriends or husbands, who seemed to have their life and their expectations met. I couldn’t compare myself to them because they were metaphorically in college, and starting anew, I was still in kindergarten. While I intellectually understand that, I worry about my future: how do you know when you should be ready to move up a grade? How do you know if it’s too soon or if you’re not challenging yourself and dwelling in a grade too long? What if I will never be able to get to college again? Do I have to accept this? Is this my destiny whether I want it or not? (Okay, enough of this metaphor.)

If I have to change the expectations for myself, what should they be? Will I never work again? Does it mean I have to work part-time? Stay close to home? Do something that isn’t too stimulating because even though that’s what drives me, it also is what can burn me out and lead to another breakdown? Do I have to accept less in order to maintain my mental health? Will I never be able to find my path because I can’t actually be on that path with a mental illness?

Expectations are dangerous, but they are also important. They are what give us purpose and drive. They are what dreams are made of. And that hope is the difference between living and dying. I worry that one day I’ll stop dreaming a possible content life. Maybe not a fairy tale ending but a life I can truly accept. And will I ever be able to accept what this looks like – or will I forever feel I have had to give up my real dreams and settle.

I’m not there yet but I will say that each time I fall, I feel like it’s harder to get up. Each time my meds fall out of whack, my faith in reliance of medication cracks a little bit more. Each time I can’t get out of bed or have a bad day, my hope for myself and my expectations deteriorate more and more.

What I can say is that coming out from a breakdown isn’t like a fresh start. All of the wounds from before are still with you, just like the scars I have from each burn and cut I have given myself over the years. I want to say that I will find the right medication, the right job, the right guy, and the right path. That one day I will be able to accept not only my “expectations,” but also my life for what it is. But I also fear never truly feeling safe enough to trust myself to develop and maintain these things that all lead to a fulfilling life. I’ve seen what losing a job you really like can do. I’ve watched myself be unable to care for myself in the most basic way because I have been unable to get out of bed. I’ve seen myself hurt those I love most by my actions, and worry I’m starting yet another cycle of eventual failure.

I know that human resilience is based on hope and I can only wonder if my young heart full of beauty and innocence is still there underneath the scars. I can only hope I find my path before it’s too late and that I can still follow it, mental illness and all. I want to find my purpose, my path, my life content – but as the song “For Now” in Avenue Q also says:

“Don’t Stress,

Relax,

Let life roll off your back,

Except for death and paying taxes,

Everything in life is only for now.”