The Scary Slope of Self-Growth: Running on Empty in an Attempt to Find Myself

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Looks like I’m in the middle of an existential crisis. I imagine for most people if they actually get to this place of “Who am I? Who do I want to be? What makes me feel fulfilled? Why am I here?” they are terrified. It’s a really scary place to be. For me, this process has me terrified, feeling like it’s slowly sliding me into an uncomfortable depressive state.

I started asking myself “what is the point of me?” around second-grade, and it hasn’t stopped since.  Even when I was a high-functioning, I just didn’t feel I was needed, and that my burden was greater than any gift I could provide.

But that was the depression, right? Depression tells you, you are worthless. That you will never be able to contribute enough to make yourself worthy of existence and that honestly, you look pretty fucking pathetic trying. You ask “Who am I?” and it tells you “A piece of shit.” “But who do I want to be?” “Doesn’t matter. You’ll never be good enough at it.” “What makes me fulfilled?” “You can’t feel fulfillment! To do that you have to stop being such a fucking nuisance.” (Evidently, my depression has a foul mouth.) “Why am I here?” “Good question. And like I’ve been trying to tell you, you probably shouldn’t be.

Let me back up a step. This all started because when I got to grad school, I felt like the one thing that was really missing from my life was intimacy. I never really had a boyfriend, between the depression, bullying, rejection, body dysmorphia, self-harm, and sexual assaults, the idea of being that vulnerable, it was just too overwhelming to take on. Then, to add to this delightful menage of fucked-up factors, my medications killed any sex drive I might possibly have. Needless to say, my childhood rom-com dreams slowly shriveled over time.

But there I was, in graduate school, in shape, making friends, having my “shit together,” and I just felt so fucking alone. (Ok, I do feel so fucking alone.) And I look all around me, and there are so many people, just as fucked up as I am, and they are in relationships. And I just thought, I can figure this out. So I stopped DBT and I decided to go to a sex therapist. Turns out, you can’t just be like “Hey so I have a super fucked-up relationship with intimacy and I would love to go ahead and just resolve that. Thanks.” In fact, she didn’t even want to get into my trauma the first session.

Instead, we have been diving into my identity and the questions I posited above. Now I think anyone in my place would be overwhelmed – these are life-long questions that are never truly answered. But what freaks me out is that these questions feel oddly similar to the questions I asked myself when I was suicidal. I know (and am grateful) that I’m not in that space anymore. I know that when I ask myself “Why am I choosing to live” it is in a different context than when I asked myself in the depths of depression. But I still don’t have an answer.

In the past, I stayed alive because I knew that killing myself would destroy my family. And I felt like I already was such a burden that while I felt in the long-run it would benefit them, I just knew it would hurt them too much. And so I stayed alive – for them. I kept fighting – for them.

So why do I get up now? Why do I choose to live? Because doing it for them isn’t enough anymore – nor should it be. I asked a friend today why she chooses to go through all the bullshit of life. What makes this arduous journey worthwhile? She noted joy, pleasure, achievement, helping others, possibility, and growth. She also noted that while she has bad days, she never has had a day where she wonders why she exists. Duly noted. And that makes sense to me. Joy and pleasure (which you can derive from helping others, growth, and possibility) are fucking awesome. But I don’t feel joy or pleasure. Ok, to be fair, when I help people, I get a little high. When I make people laugh, I feel good. When I have a really good workout (if I can remember that far back,) I have a good hour of “Fuck yeah, life!” But in general, I have a dull feeling in life. I get what feels like a pleasure wave, but it never crests, it just breaks. And that’s a problem. Because I can work with living to help others and make the world a better place, but I don’t know if that will sustain me for a long period of time. I need more than that; I think we all do.

I’m not really afraid of an existential crisis, per say. I think being introspective, intellectual, emotionally intelligent, and hyperaware, it just comes with the territory. I’m okay not knowing who I am yet. It’s scary and frustrating, but I get it. Depression was my identity for so long, I never developed a sense of self. What scares me is whether I have the energy and wherewithal to find myself. We can use our body, but if we don’t replenish it with food, liquid, etc. we will die. Emotional energy is the same. If I keep expending energy, getting things done, doing things that challenge me, helping others, but I don’t grow stronger? If I can’t get fulfillment and strength from the joy and pleasure of exploration? Then I’m not sure how to keep going. I feel like I’m running on empty and I don’t know what I can do to fuel up. And that is scary as fuck.

 

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Just another (hypo)manic Monday…Or just a good day?

With bipolar II, you don’t get manic episodes but rather hypomanic episodes. When I was rediagnosed with bipolar II, it made a lot of sense. I would say I was depressed about 85% of the time; empty of emotion for about 5%; and the most efficient, head strong, detail-oriented, go-getter for 10%. That 10%, those were my hypomanic episodes.

In retrospect, I didn’t just act different, I felt different. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t stop thinking, calling people, setting up plans, brainstorming, bursting into my supervisors office with a plan to start a new task force. And it was an amazing feeling. Like an adrenaline boost that lasted for days. And then one day I would wake up, and have such an emotional hangover. Everything I had done disgusted me and made me feel completely vulnerable, selfish, and frustrated. I cancelled all the plans I made, got really quiet, and began to sleep tremendous amounts. In other words, I began my descent into a massive depressive episode.

Now I get these days where even though I feel tired, I feel this rush of possibility. It usually happens either after making a decision I feel good about or after accomplishing something that scared me. All of a sudden, I feel the need for speed. Well…I feel like I should start creating the landscape of my future (I just really wanted to get in a Top Gun reference).

This happened recently. I just signed up for three classes, one of which terrifies me and the other is at night which is a challenge. I set up an appointment with a personal trainer, helped someone with their resume, kind of got asked out…I think…,decided to apply for another MA program, and reached out to volunteer. Oh, and DBT starts in a few weeks and I just met my new DBT therapist and that is going to be at night as well.

I should note that I am completely terrified. When I’m not busy reading my statement of intent, going to the gym, or calling my friends, I’m waiting for my bubble to pop. I begin to feel tired or cancel something and I think – that’s it, here comes trouble.

But I don’t think it’s hypomania anymore. The truth is, I am an organized, gregarious, go-getter. I like the idea of plans rather than actually committing to them, so applying or offering to help, or signing up for a class that hasn’t started, is fun and safe.

I also do get exhausted from being like this. When I am around people, I like to make sure everyone is connecting and generally do this by making them laugh. There is no better high than making someone else feel good. If I really had a hobby, it would be helping people. It’s fun, a bit selfish, and I could do it as much as possible. But I also need time to process the energy, the excitement, the noise. Sometimes the quiet is unnerving after all that mishigas, and other times, I just need a day alone, doing something efficient like cleaning or reorganizing folders, before I can get up the energy to make three calls the next day.

I’m a bit concerned about maintenance of this behavior; managing the highs and lows so that neither are too extreme and push me just too far. I think these DBT classes are there to help me – to give me tools to bring me back to the present, to take a breathe and just be. In the meantime, I guess I’m just riding it while I can. I will crash pretty soon, but in the meantime, it’s kinda fun.

My Force Field Sucks: Why I Let People Take Advantage of Me

When I started therapy in college, we talked a lot about boundaries. I was away from home, but the issues that my family was dealing with, or rather the issues I was dealing with about my family, were still with me. We spent a lot of time talking about those boundaries – what they are, how they protect you, and how to create them. I don’t think of boundaries so much as walls, but more like force fields. Because the truth is, you still see what is happening, you are still involved, but your level of involvement and your emotional protection is something you build to protect you. I tried to create boundaries with my family, but honestly, I think I cheated since I was 3,000 miles away. It’s easy to protect yourself when you are physically too far away too see anything.

I’m still really shitty at creating boundaries to protect myself. And not just with my family. While my mother jokes that we have signs on our foreheads that say :”Tell me everything and more,” I think I allow people to take advantage of my sensitivity and empathy, and stomp way past my comfort zone, and straight through my force field of safety. This leads me to feeling enraged and frustrated, resentful, and very uncomfortable.

I have noticed, when I look at the people in my life whom I don’t feel respect my space, they are usually narcissist or strong-willed. (Not surprising.) And I think often fear upsetting them and the guilt of not providing help to them keeps me from setting relationship rules that I’m comfortable with.

But I’m going to be 34 soon and I’m tired of people taking advantage of me and me allowing it. It’s almost like they decide we are friends without me agreeing to it? Friendship should be a consensual relationship where both parties give and receive. These force field-breaking relationships are often pushed upon me and they are a one-way street where I give my time, my energy, my empathy. I leave exhausted, a bit raw, and resentful.

But when I sit down to think of how to tell someone no, to keep my field up and strong, I’m not sure how to frame it. Here’s an example. I decided to take swim classes. I signed up for four half-hour classes. I arrived petrified and was relieved to find a young girl – I would say mid-twenties. I explained my goals but I often look to the teacher as they have more experience and as they watch me, I imagine they see my weaknesses and can make suggestions. The first class was great – I still was a mess in the water, but I was proud of myself for having done it. The second class, she was late. She didn’t apologize or say why. I really wanted to ask if I could have an extra 5 minutes at the end or ask where she had been (a passive way of really saying that I paid for a half hour and expect a half hour,) but I didn’t. I’m not sure if it’s because I look like I’m in my twenties, but during the second class, she had me practice the moves from the first time, and she was talking to me about her personal life. An older woman complained that we were not following the form of the lane. Honestly, she was correct. We were in the slow lane and it was lap swimming. I assumed we would move to the recreation area or have her pass us, but I stood there in the water watching my teacher proceed to ream this woman out. I was embarrassed and kind of scared. She’s supposed to be a representative of this organization and she was literally turning her back on the woman and saying “just turn around and swim, miss. it’s fine. you’re wrong. just turn around and swim.” And then turned to me to roll her eyes as if to ask for my agreement in her technique. I guess now I know what I would have been like if I had ever been in a clique in school because I smiled and rolled my eyes back even though I thought she was unprofessional, the woman was right, and if she had been more kind, I think the woman wouldn’t have gotten so agitated and the process of them arguing wouldn’t have taken yet another five minutes I was paying for away. I kept asking how my form was, and she kept asking me how it felt. She gave me an exercise to try and work on my breathing and then left exactly at 10 to see her 7-year old client. The third time, she was late again. Not only did she not apologize but she spent the first five minutes talking about her boss, and this training, etc. I was listening but the whole time I was really pissed. I’m on disability and found the money to take this class – what the fuck?! But I didn’t say that. At one point, I said “So just to reevaluate my hopes for these sessions, I want to…” and she agreed and tried to show me another stroke. I was floundering underwater to the point where she had to hold me. I told her I was frustrated and asked what I was doing wrong. She told me to just do the breast stroke. She didn’t continue to work with me, I’m still pretty sure I’m not doing it right, and while I don’t know how to teach someone a swim move, that’s why she’s the teacher!? She had another student to which she said “This kid really tests my patience” and she was off. I got out of the water and realized I had a question. I came back and she told me to meet her at the showers. She briefly gave me a tip of what I could do, and then proceeded to wash off for 10 minutes while discussing her cable situation. I’m standing there in my bathing suit, not getting ready for work, and she’s telling me about AT&T. Since when did we become friends? Since when did I ask about her internet woes? She knew I had work, so why wasn’t she saying anything and why couldn’t I just say “I have to go.” I was so worried about being rude I stood there with a grin on my face meanwhile in my head really hating her. I spent the rest of the day in a pissed off huff. She also asked me what time I went to a certain spin class and I stupidly told her. Now I’m worried she’s going to come to my class.

Perhaps because I didn’t speak up for myself, she thought that I was interested in what she was saying and therefore thought we were creating a bond. It’s an odd feeling to think someone sees you not only as closer than you feel, but thinks you feel the same. A part of me feels guilty.

But still, this is about people who when I offer an inch, take a mile. This is about me being polite and talking with my fellow renter below me, and having him text me the next weekend (he lives below so he can hear when I’m home) telling me to “come down now and hang out.” This is about people not listening or attempting to understand my interests and likes, and continue to invite me to things I have no interest in but then are offended if I say no too much. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings because I don’t think any of these people are malicious or even realize what they’re doing.

While I believe the people who have abused my physical boundaries of safety are to blame, I don’t know whether I feel the same about these people. I almost want to be like them. I want to be strong-willed enough to say “You know what. I paid for this and you are not providing it. You are unprofessional and I want my money’s worth.” But then she might mess up my lessons or yell at me, or critique me harshly based on the fact she knows I’m insecure. Maybe if I tell people they are taking too much of my time and energy, they will think I am selfish, or rude, or that I don’t like them. But without my boundaries, I do grow weak. People take without giving back and I find myself tired, sad and frustrated. I am losing myself without getting the energy and fuel back to maintain a steady energy flow – to keep the force field strong.

I only have one more swim class. I can’t afford anymore. I thought about complaining but she’s going to know it’s me because I don’t think the five-year old is mad, and I know her boss is already mad. Sometimes, I want to be a bitch. I think it would strengthen my force field. Every time I tell someone I do not want to do something, I am not interested, I cannot do something they want me to, I actually feel stronger. I feel like I am marking my space, time and self. And I really think if I’m going to manage in the world, while I don’t want to put up walls, I am allowed to say no, and I suppose I need to learn to take care of my own feelings even if I know it might hurt the others.

But it’s a tricky thing. If people need help, I want to help them. Especially if they don’t get that support from anyone else. I do like knowing that people like me and think I’m kind. I’m glad people trust me so easily. But I do not need it as much as I did when I was depressed. I know now that I would rather be lonely than spend time with someone I don’t like.

I recently made a comment to someone about how I was noticing the more I got to know people, the less I liked them and how I wish it could be the other way around. Maybe as you get older, and you get to know yourself better, it takes less time to know who you want to spend your time with and who just does not tickle your fancy. But sometimes those feelings aren’t always mutual. And I worry I give mixed messages because while I do not care for someone, in order to not be rude or hurt their feelings I still laugh at their jokes, nod and ask questions, and even if I don’t agree, allow them to feel entitled to their opinion. And maybe in that behavior I am telling people I like them and they are allowed to proceed.

How do you stick up a stop sign? How do you maintain your force field when people are pushing you hard, and at your weak spots? Why does it feel like sometimes I want to put up a wall of space or time, just so I can catch my breath and sort myself and my needs. How do I learn to stop being afraid of upsetting people and start putting my foot down. This isn’t about asking for what I want – it’s about saying no. And I think it’s a skill set that would be so empowering and I have no idea how to strengthen it. Any ideas?