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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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?