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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Perfectionism and the Terrifying Fear of Failure

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I was accepted into a Master’s program in London and decided to defer for a year to prepare myself for the challenges I might face. As part of that preparation, I signed up for two classes at a community college. After 12 years of being out of college, I wanted to freshen up my writing skills, get back into the “groove” of school. I have written quite a bit for my previous jobs, but writing an action alert and writing a critical essay require very different skills. I also wanted to see how I handled the stress, time management, ability to focus, retain large amounts of information, etc. I just wanted to make sure that the impact of the last three years would not make school an impossible task.

And I love school: going to class, learning, asking questions, debating, having homework. Still, I leave class overwhelmed, anxious, and often feeling very lonely.

I had my midterm essay for one of my classes due this past Friday. About two weeks ago, I noticed an increase in panic attacks, crying fits, random, rapid, and intense mood swings, and horrific insomnia. I was nauseous all the time, and often too exhausted to eat, call people, go to the gym, shower, or clean. As I started to prepare to write the paper, bad habits and feelings reared their ugly, gigantic heads. I was rereading and over-reading, creating intricate outlines, going on tangents, overanalyzing the question. Sometimes, my mind would just go totally blank. I hated everything I typed. It was taking me hours and I was getting nowhere. Most days I would sit, the books and my computer on the table in front of me, watching tv, avoiding the process of creating a piece of shit.

At that point, I would have rather not turned anything in, than turn in something I was ashamed of and let my teacher see what a fucking moron I was. No matter what I wrote, it just sounded so awful. I was so angry at myself for being so stupid. I was sad that I would never be good enough. I mean, I couldn’t even write a six page paper at a community college, for an introductory class, on a subject I had already studied.

I went to my therapist a mess. She asked me if I ever felt this way before. I have always been the engaged student: participating in class;, seeing my teacher after to make sure I was understanding the information properly; discussing the issues with my friends at lunch (while they rolled their eyes at me) – but I wasn’t the “A student.” I believed this even while getting A’s and awards for my academic work. I always found an exception every time I succeeded.

Turns out, a lot of these problems actually manifested at work too. I was scared that if I produced great work, there would be expectations that I wouldn’t be able to maintain. However, I also worried that I might create something subpar, and disappoint my boss. I always got my work done, always got fantastic performance reviews, but I would always focus on the “things to work on” with overwhelming shame – even though (funnily enough) they were usually about confidence and anxiety. I actually think a part of me believes that I need the anxiety and fear to ensure I do a good job – that it pushes me to work harder, see things others would miss. No matter how many accolades, I always felt like the other shoe would drop if I ever relaxed or thought I had mastered anything.

This constant fear of failure led to migraines and massive depressive burnouts. After large events, I would have to take days off from the exhaustion – not because of the event, but due to days spent not sleeping, worrying constantly about forgetting something or the event falling flat. Over time, I would completely burnout, missing weeks of work, and quit my job. This has happened at every job I have had since I graduated college. At the last job, I kinda kicked ass, and then quit, right after receiving an award for my work.

My therapist says that this fear of failure is derived from being a perfectionist. I find that so amusing because I have never viewed myself as a perfectionist. In fact, far from it. My fear of failure and rejection has manifested into a habit of always doing slightly less than my best. Take for example my appearance. My thought process has always been that if I don’t try to look my best, if someone thinks I’m ugly, I know that I could look better; but if I try to look my best, and they still aren’t interested, that affirms the validity of my worthlessness. There is a comfort in knowing I can’t truly fail if I don’t truly try. And that doesn’t sound like a perfectionist to me.

I turned in my paper Friday afternoon. I don’t know if it was good. A part of me imagines my teacher sitting in front of my essay thinking “what the fuck is this?” Sometimes, I give myself a moment to imagine him reading my paper, thinking: “I get why this kid is going to a top grad school.” But then I feel cocky, embarrassed, and ashamed in my vulnerability of allowing myself that contentment.

So how do you change something that feels like an ingrained component of your personality? How do you change the way your mind thinks? How do you really know when your’re good at something? What if success is chance? Why do some people believe in themselves and others don’t? I know I’ll never be a person who sits back in my chair, smiling with my hands laced around the back of my head, thinking: “damn, i rock.” But it would be nice to be okay with trying, and when validated, allowing myself to feel the joy of that success.

Will I ever be able to believe in myself? To accept who I am, both my strengths and weaknesses? To approach projects with rationality and excitement, rather than fear and anxiety? Maybe CBT and DBT will help, but I’m not sure if even those techniques can break down what has become a belief system of sorts.

Any suggestions – ‘cuz I’m stumped. Hey look, I failed again. :)

My Failed Attempts at The Pursuit of Happiness

This is not only the kid from the movie

This is not only the kid from “The Pursuit of Happiness,” he is demonstrating my feelings on finding happiness.

Every time I see my therapist, she asks me what I’m going to do between then and the next time I see her that will make me happy and bring me joy. And every time, I come up blank. I can list things that make me feel productive, helpful, or good. And I suppose in a way, those things make me happy. But like I tell her, happiness to me is a fleeting emotion. Contentment is what I think we are all aiming for. After all, contentment implies an acceptance and peace with the life at present. While something might give you a kick of happiness, contentment means you are okay with your life, warts and all. Maybe you still have dreams, and you still want to move forward and achieve things but when you sit down and look at your life you think: “Yeah. Not too bad. Good job self. We should rock out because things are what they are and they are good.”

Ok, so I’m not really content either. But I felt so sad when I couldn’t think of anything that made me happy. I think part of it is because of where I live, the fact that I do not have many people my age with my shared interests around me, and because it’s so much easier to do things because you are supposed to do them, than because you want to do them. With choice of your actions, comes the stress of fear and failure. What if it’s a bad decision and I don’t enjoy it? What if I do something wrong or embarrass myself? What if others look at me and think I’m pathetic? I’ve always had so many fears, some instilled by my family and friends, others created by me, that have held me back. I’ve spent the last three years just trying to stay alive – so I’m a bit thrown by this idea of doing something that I want to do not because I have to, but because I want to and because I know it will make me feel joy or strength or confidence.

In the past, I think I did things I thought I should do rather than things I wanted to do. I mean, we all have to do those things. Sometimes I need to cook, keep the house clean, get books from the library. And I enjoy most of these things – but do they provide me with happiness?

In the past, going to work was also on that list. I liked people-watching but in retrospect I think it had a lot to do with being depressed and being curious to watch others around me that seemed to have their shit together. I enjoyed public spaces because I could step back and see how unique and odd we all are. I liked museums because certain art makes me feel something deep inside me, but I always felt so sad afterwards. I actually think a lot of things that would give me happiness, have in the past brought me down hard afterwards. The feeling could never be sustained.

So I look at my life for signs of happiness. I mean, I enjoy spinning but does it make me happy? It makes me feel strong, accomplished, and I get a little endorphin kick for the day. I like hiking but I never do it. I like walking around the city but I don’t live there so I rarely do that as well, and with my knee, it’s not as fun as it used to be. I used to really enjoy giving platelets but evidently in the area I live in, the nurses are just unable to find my veins and give up on me way too easily. I enjoy a good talk with a friend or a successful social encounter, but those seem so fleeting and usually leave me coming down, exhausted and nervous about the fragility of the future conversations.

As my therapist continues to ask me this question and I continue to look at her with a wincing face of self-doubt and frustration, I am truly trying to figure out what my barrier is that is blocking my mind from finding something that I could do to make me happy. A part of me knows it’s out there. I imagine it would be something simple – I tend to roll that way. Maybe it’s something I’ve done in the past but given all of my worries, anxieties, and self-doubt, I’ve never really been able to feel the full effect of the deed at hand. Maybe I haven’t found it yet – it’s waiting for me to take a taste and understand that it’s what I am meant to do when I need a little extra “jazz hands” in my day.

I want to find things that make me happy. I imagine as time goes on, especially if and when I begin to work again, I’m going to need things in my life I can turn to for relief – and not just the gym or volunteer work. Or maybe those things?

I’m jealous of those who have a passion. I can see it when they are talking about it – that high they get from whatever it is. For one friend, it’s running. She doesn’t do it to stay fit (though I’m sure that’s a side perk) but because she truly enjoys it. Before, during, and after. My mom even has something – she just loves to garden – I don’t get it, but it truly gives her pleasure. It’s adorable but frankly I find it quite dull.

Do you believe in the idea of happiness? Joy? Contentment? Are they different things to you? How do you define these ideas? And more importantly, what do you do to find them? What do you do for pleasure? If you had a day ahead just for you, what would it look like? What do you do to make you happy?

I guess all this thinking of happiness makes me feel empty, boring, and melancholy. After all, isn’t life about the pursuit of happiness?

If Pharrell Can Be Happy, Why Can’t I?

“Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do”

– “Happy” by Pharrell Williams

My therapist recently asked what my schedule for the week looked like. We do this a lot because I find structure and productivity can calm me. I listed off doctor’s appointments, calls to insurance companies, a few errands, some cleaning – the usual. Then she asked me what I would do during the week that I would enjoy or derive pleasure from- something that would make me happy.

I laughed at first, an excellent stall tactic, and then began to cry. My mind was a complete blank. In attempting this second chance at building my life, she asked a very simple question: What do you like to do? What is one thing you would choose, want, and like to do in your day? She wasn’t asking me what I wanted to do with my life, she just wanted to know what I was going to do to “treat” myself between obligatory tasks.

I of course have heard so many people talk about what they enjoy: mani-pedis, a day at the beach, a long hike, going to a movie, snuggling in and reading a book that’s been gathering dust. In the past, I have done all of these things, but because of the depression and anxiety, there was always a caveat that took away pleasure. I hate getting pedicures because I feel like the process is so condescending and I hate my feet so why should someone else have to touch them? (Even now, I still agree with this statement.) A day at the beach usually means wearing a bathing suit which would mean showing my body which I hate and where scars and cellulite abound. Also, too much sun – I worry about my skin aging or sweating profusely. (Is this where I should say I know most of these reasons are not entirely rational or fair? Yeah, no duh.) I would say I love hiking but it could lead to looking out of shape if I start heaving up a storm, sweating all around, and I really hate how I look in shorts, but then when I wear pants I get so hot…(Don’t worry, I’m almost done with the list.) I have loved movies since I can remember seeing one. They are the epitome of awe and wonder mixed with an opportunity to step out of my life for a few hours. And going to movie theaters, at least when I was a kid, was “an experience.” But now I worry I will miss the movie if I have to go pee. I used to be really nervous there would be too many people. Now, it’s just too fucking expensive. Snuggling in to read a book, I like to do this. But it’s rare to find a book worth snuggling in for. In the past, it also gave my mind a chance to double-time and start thinking irrational thoughts and leaving me anxious with a Xanax and water in hand.

But I’ve gotten better with my body (on good days). I openly admit that since I turned thirty, I evidently became a sweater (but at least I’m hydrated so it’s odorless!) I still prefer to watch movies at home but that’s because when you hang out with your parents for a few years you get addicted to closed-captioning and when you watch movies without it you feel like you are missing half the dialogue. Besides, movies cost like a bagillion dollars nowadays (my rates of inflation may be a bit off) and I really do have to pee like a pregnant lady. And yeah, I’m down for a book – but it better be fucking good. I’d say 1 out of 15 I get rocks my mind and then I spend two weeks trying to tell everyone and their mother why their lives will be changed and they can’t understand life fully without reading the book. But are those things I “enjoy”? Maybe.

Now, I’m not saying I don’t have things in my life that bring me joy. I only have to see a picture of my nieces and nephew and I get a surge of love. Sometimes, I’m on the phone with a friend, and I have one of those laughs that go deep down to your core – the kind that is so pure you can’t breathe. Sometimes, I do something that scares me, and for a moment or so, I feel flushed with happiness.

But, I’m not sure those are what she meant. It’s not like once a day, I can look at a picture and that’s my “me” time for happiness. And it makes me really sad that I don’t have an answer. All of a sudden, I have this personal choice and a strength of will I’m building. I can, for the most part, fight my fears and try things. But with this choice comes the stress of fear and failure and the realization that I’ve been depressed for so long I don’t even know how to be “happy.” It should be noted that I am also in the process of learning how to be “sad” while depressed, too.

I guess I have to start experimenting to see what makes me “happy” even in unideal circumstances. What are the things that bring me joy? Do I still love art? Cooking for other people? Sitting in a classroom and having my mind blown? Taking long walks to nowhere? Walking through book shops and getting excited just by reading the back cover? People-watching – anywhere really but especially in coffee shops or in restaurants? Giving platelets or volunteering?

What are some things I can do now, that maybe I couldn’t have done before that would now give me pleasure? What about the things I used to do, will I still enjoy them? Will it feel different? Is it okay if I don’t enjoy them? What else should I try? What does enjoyment actually feel like? How long should it last? What if it’s like drugs and it only feels really great the first time you do it?

Fuck. Should it be this hard to know what you like? Well, my mind is still kind of speechless. What do you do for pleasure or enjoyment? If you had a day ahead and could decide what to do, what would that be? How did you find it? Has the “it” of happiness changed in life or has it always been a certain thing? Have you found enjoyment with “it” during depression or only when you are in the clearing? Do you need to do them with a friend or do you prefer to do them alone?

In the meantime, I’m still hesitant to “clap along” Pharrell, but good for you.