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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How Do You Know When It’s Time to Say “When?”

Over the past two and a half years since I found a medicinal cocktail that seems to be working, I have slowly been rebuilding a life for myself. It’ s been difficult – not only because my entire life had been torn apart, but also because I’ve never “lived” as this person before. I’m experiencing things for the first time as whoever I am now, and I don’t know how it should feel.

But it’s been good. It started slowly with leaving the house once a day. to run an errand, usually accompanied by my mom. Then I started to go to the gym every day, also with my mom. I changed my diet and went back to being vegan. I finally moved out of my parents’ house and got my own place. I started running errands and going to the gym alone. I reconnected with friends and even made one or two new ones. I got a job for four hours a week and took classes at a community college. I applied for graduate school. Now that I’m in graduate school, I am taking a full course load. I am actively involved in our student association. I have a fellowship and recently a new job, 12 hours a week. I am doing research for an internship next year. Fuck, I went on my very first date in November, and while that is stagnant (by choice) now, I did it so now I know I can.

When you become a counselor, (that’s what I’m getting my MS in,) there is an ethical mandate for self-care. An ethical MANDATE. Faculty and friends are constantly saying “make sure you are not spreading yourself too thin,” “only do what you can to your capacity,” “make sure you are balancing your self-care and your school.” While I actually find it aggravating considering the faculty are the ones giving us copious amounts of work and my friends are all type-A and planning on getting A’s as they manage the rest of their lives, I also don’t know the answer.

I’ve tried to ask people – how do you know when you reach your capacity? They don’t usually have an answer. Maybe they don’t know what I am asking. I saw my psychiatrist last week, someone who has seen me at my very worst, and asked her how “normal” people know when to say when? How will I know if I am reaching burnout? Don’t you have to reach burnout to know you’ve reached it?

As someone with a behavioral health condition, emotions are never as simple as they seem. Anxiety could turn into a panic attack. Feeling sad could lead me to bed for days, or even self-harm. Knowing that possibility of severity is always lurking makes me hypervigilant with my emotions. Hence, my fear of not knowing my capacity. Because if you have to burnout to realize your capacity, that’s not something I can allow. What if burnout is a slip in recovery? What if I can’t come back? That’s why knowing the answer feels so important to me and not having one feels so frightening.

There is a part of me that wants to push myself and see what else I can do. I have surprised myself so much in the past few months by what I have achieved; I am excited and scared to see what else I could do. I still feel gaps are missing and traumas ungrieved. But I am curious as to who I am becoming. At the same time, there is a terrified inner child who just wants us to appreciate where we are and be grounded and centered and satisfied. It warns me to pull back, to remember the blows of rejection and failure. To ignore the intellectual understanding of the bullshit that is American values, and remember how it can feel.

And I find myself right back where I started: when will I know when to say when? And when will “when” be good enough? What about you? How do you know when you have reached burnout? When do you decide to say no? What does “self-care” look like to you? What’s the trick to this thing called living? What’s your “when?”

New Year’s Resolutions: The Best Gift Your Depression Could Ask For

While I appreciate articles like this, where an author sets lofty, idealistic resolutions for the coming year, and even agree with most of the points she makes in terms of her resolutions, unlike the author, I detest/abhor/fucking hate resolutions. It’s like a big, gift-wrapped present for depression and self-hate.

First, you’re supposed to look back on the year. Ah, yes. I suppose there are some that look back on all the great things: “I got engaged!” “I lost weight!” “I got a promotion!” Though they would never actually bring those things up during New Year’s because being proud in front of others is often viewed at rubbing it in and pointing out the others’ inadequacies if they have not succeeded in those areas. (Unless you’re posting on Facebook, a depressive’s tornado of self-hate where everyone seems to be having THE BEST TIME EVER. ALL THE TIME.) But the truth is, most people, especially those with depression, look back on all of their failures: “I didn’t do the things I am supposed to do.” “I’m not the person I want to be.” “My life is imperfect.” “X and Y and Z happened and they were horrible thus, I suck.” And it becomes punishment – “reflecting” on everything you didn’t accomplish this past year.

I suppose the intention is meant to be inspiring. Take your “failures” and turn them into effective goals for the next year! This is the year you will finally be perfect! This is the year where you will be “happy” and fix all the areas of your life you and society have deemed inadequate. And these goals are so outlandish and often vague – it’s just so American. The foundation of our society is built on these incredibly grandiose ideas of a world we can never truly achieve. Perhaps this is done purposefully, to make sure we keep going and moving forward. But as a depressive, all I ever see when I look at the Constitution (besides an outdated document that doesn’t reflect our current society,) is “Look at how fucking pathetic life is. So much hate, inequality, oppression. We are really disappointing.” (And yes, this year truly does reflect these thoughts, even without the Constitution involved.) Same with resolutions. You can’t resolve to “lose weight,””be happy in your sex life,” or “be the change you want to see in the world.” After all, what would that look like? How much weight is enough? What does happiness in a sex life look like? What does this change look like? And are these supposed to be permanent changes or just for the year? How do we know if we accomplished them or not?

If fighting depression taught me anything, it is that life is a process and a journey. There is no goal line. There is no “right” way to be. There is no absolute “happiness” that you can obtain. Life is moments of bliss and joy; achievements and progress; failure and sadness. It is about trying to find an acceptance with whatever your world may be.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have goals. I have a sheet for DBT I fill out every day that has a list of the negative things I do that I do not want to do anymore. Examples include: allowing others to control my emotions, avoiding social situations, catastrophizing. Every day, I write down my urge to do it, and then if I did or not, and what skills I may have used to help myself choose to do the positive thing for myself.

And while I hope every day I can fight my urges and overcome bad habits, it’s a daily log. And some days, I don’t. And I’m not trying to get a perfect log, I’m just trying to notice the days when I don’t and see what happened that day, think about what I might have been able to do, and accept that I didn’t but maybe the next day I can, or maybe I need to try something different to help myself not do it. I don’t get points for not catastrophizing, (though my therapist does seem happy.) I’m not trying to “win,” and there is no finish line. (Well, I guess until I die or get so depressed again, rip the sheet up, call it a piece of delusional shit, and get back to catastrophizing.)

Living life with this simplicity – the goal isn’t to “be thin enough” or “have a boyfriend” but more like “self-care” and “interpersonal relationships.” And yes, I obviously have intangible, unrealistic goal narratives in my head. Because I do want to find this “happiness” I know doesn’t exist. And not just because it’s been ingrained explicitly and implicitly through every facet of my life, but because my depression branded it on my brain from a very early age to make sure I would hate myself even more than I did the year before. If that’s not a depressive narrative, I don’t know what is, but that shit is hard to shake.

So I just think we need to be cautious when we look forward. I’m not saying we should all give up – on ourselves, our country, our world. I’m just saying that maybe our goals should be about just trying to live life to the best of our ability, a day at a time. To look within ourselves and see if we can use the year to work on things. Not to fix them. I do want a better world and I want to play a role in changing it – but there isn’t a measure of success in how I do it. (Did I seriously just write that? I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.)

So I don’t want to set resolutions at all. It’s too much pressure on things I don’t have enough control over. Given where I have been, being able to want that in and of itself is huge and continues to be a fuckload of work. So I suppose I do have one resolution, which is, to not have any resolutions – just live my life to the best of my abilities, whatever that may look like or be.

(It should be noted I will most likely reject this entire post should my medication stop working.)

The New “Normal”

I haven’t written a post in quite a while. It’s not that there haven’t been moments these past months that I haven’t thought of doing it. I think I have a few drafts even, but for the most part, I just fell offline. I don’t mind it for myself personally, but I have missed the people I follow. I know I am only a like or a comment, but I have thought of them often. It’s really my only regret – not being there for the people I respect. But it’s done, right?

I wanted to write a post about my new “normal,” but I even write that with trepidation. I have taken steps forward in the past few months. If I’m being kind to myself, I would even say strides. But there is always the narrative that warns me that it could all go away. That something might happen like it has in the past, and all of the work I have done will be for naught. All of my work will once again be erased. My medication working (well enough,) my progress in DBT, my healthy lifestyle, making the choice to go to graduate school, trying new things, doing things that scare me, being okay with being scared.

There is a part of DBT that is about accumulating positives. I find it rather funny since one of the many talents of being mentally ill is the ability to accumulate negatives no matter how good things may seem. I fear the idea of reveling in contentment. I feel like, for years, every time I did that, my depression or some mean girl or just life would whip me back and slap me down. So I downplay. And besides, it’s all relative. I mean, compared to some people I know, my positives would be jokes. But I know, I shouldn’t compare or judge.

I will say this. If this is how it’s going to be, I’m okay. I can make this work. It’s imperfect, it teeters, some days it feels like I lost it and I just have to hope it’s there when I wake up the next day – I just don’t want to lose it. I’ll always want things to be better, and I hope that isn’t innate. I hope rather than wanting things better, I’ll just want to try more things, but be at peace with how things are. I know that tragedy potentially surrounds me at all times. Not just the fear of bipolar taking up residency again, but people getting sick, being hurt, dying. Loss. Pain. Sadness. It’s laid out before me along with all the other possibilities.

And there are so many potential paths – waiting to see if A, then B, but if C, then E. Trying to gain comfort in what I can control and try to come to peace with that which I cannot. Once again, for a person with mental illness, control is not a high-functioning component of the disease and yet I believe it has been integral in maintaining whatever this viable life is.

I meet people now and they don’t know “me.” They don’t know what I have been through to stand before them, the person they think they see. A part of me wants to tell them “Oh, yeah – this isn’t me. I mean, I’ve had fucking ECT. I’ve done some pretty messed up things to myself. I was in bed for two years. Twice. I’ve been suicidal, and not just ‘I wonder what it would be like?'” And that is me. But at the same time, it’s not. Because right now, in this moment, I don’t need ECT. I can get out of bed. I do not have a desire to harm. I have problems, shitty days, and am definitely not where I would wish I could be, but seem to be okay. For now. In this moment. And that was never the case.

I say the new “normal” because people think that the person I am now is me. And it is. But it’s work. And it’s time. And I am so lucky to have those luxuries that allow me to have that space.

I could still accumulate a list of negatives that would rock your mental world. I have friends who are sick, I am incredibly lonely, I have some serious issues that are on the backburner that will have to be addressed. Yesterday was a shit day. It was actual the third shit day in a row. Today, it wasn’t even that different and yet, today was okay. I was able to appreciate what I did do today and be thankful. And right now, that’s just enough that makes me ready for tomorrow and all the fears, good or bad, the unknown brings.

I missed you guys. I don’t know if I will be able to be back on. Things are about to get a bit busy. But I wanted to check-in and let you know you have been in my thoughts and I have missed this community and all it has given me. I’m so happy to see you all on here, still fighting, still pushing, still making it day to day. Take care of you.

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

So I’m probably preaching to the choir, but I have had sleep problems forever. When I was little, I slept so deeply, I wet the bed till I was inappropriately old to be doing it. (Thank goodness that passed.) Then, I became a horribly difficult sleeper – everything woke me. With the depression, I would be able to sleep 18 hours one week, and then only 3 the next week. Besides, depressive sleep is a different kind of sleep – it’s deep and hard, but it’s sad and painful.

I try to sleep. My eyes are closed and I am in bed. But falling asleep requires drugs (of which I have tried an assortment – let me tell you about those side effects!) and then I have difficulty staying asleep. Sometimes I close my eyes telling myself, “ok, we are going to relax and get some rest, girl” and I open my eyes and 5 hours have passed. So that means I wasn’t really asleep for those 5 hours. A lot of times, I’m basically directing my dream – almost like I’m above it, directing a play. When I do fall asleep, I have anxiety nightmares (where for some reason someone is always yelling at me and won’t let me explain – yeah, you have to ask Freud about that…) and I wake myself up yelling or continuing the conversation. Funny thing about that is that I’m aware I’m awake but I still feel the need to finish the thought. I crack myself up. Sometimes, I get up to use the bathroom, and in the 20 seconds it takes me to get back to bed, start worrying about the day ahead and if I’ll be tired when I wake up and if I’m actually sleeping. Needless to say, sleep has become the enemy.

And no one can say I don’t try. I have an eye patch and noise machine. I only sit in my bed when it is nighttime. I do not nap. I only drink one cup of coffee at 8:30am every day, otherwise, no other caffeine. I wake up at the same time every day and “go to sleep” every time at night. I stop looking at computers and phones about 30 minutes before I go to sleep. I try to read, listen to classical music, sometimes if the meds have kicked in, I have the patience for a mindfulness exercise. The one error I make is that I sometimes eat too late and that makes it difficult some nights to lie down. But that is a whole other issue all on its own.

Evidently there is this new form of sleep therapy called CBTI and it’s what it sounds like: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia. (Check out the program and procedures.) They try about half the things I already do, and something I think is cool called “sleep restriction” which sounds awful but effective. Given my doctor would really like to get me off my sleeping meds, and the impact my lack of sleep has on my mood and my day, she really thinks this might be helpful.

Of course, my insurance doesn’t cover it. So now I have to decide whether it is worth the money to pay out of pocket. Does anyone else find therapy and programs really difficult to value? How do I know what’s too much for a program or a treatment? I mean, there’s no real comparison tools. Plus, with mental health, if it works, it seems like it was worth all the money in the world. And when it doesn’t, even $25 seems like a horrid waste that could have gone to buying some groceries.

I just remember that I used to love sleep. I loved that really deep, dead to the world sleep, where your body just felt like a rock. I remember as a child, I also liked dreams. They just felt so real even though they were so odd. Now my dreams feel so real that I carry their emotional impact around with me all day – and I don’t have good dreams anymore, I have terror dreams, which I believe are called night terrors or nightmares.

I’m not a morning or a night person, and without sleep, I’m not really a midday person either. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just know I’m tired and the idea of blissful sleep is such a distant idea, it feels like merely a dream I used to have.