Processing Decisions Without Freezing Up


The current status of my brain


You know when you’re on your computer and you’ve asked it to do eight things at one time and you get that circle that just turns around and around. Your screen is frozen and the circle turns. A part of you knows it’s just processing all of the requests, but after a time you start to wonder: is the machine frozen? Do I have to reboot? Will it eventually process my requests? Or did I just fry the shit out of it?

That’s kind of like my brain now.

I can’t tell if I’m just processing an overwhelming amount of information, or if I’m frozen, waiting to have a breakdown from being overloaded with change and choice. Am I malfunctioning? Because unfortunately, you can’t ctrl+alt+del a human brain.

In fairness to myself, I have a shitload on my plate. Not all bad – just complicated. (And let me note that I’m incredibly aware and grateful that it’s not all bad.) I wasn’t naive as to think going to London would provide a clear future path, but I suppose I did think I would walk away with a clear feeling, a sense of direction. I assumed, based on my previous trips, that London would give me chills inside; would make me feel alive. After all: the accents, the metro, the cobblestone streets. What’s not to love?

The last time I travelled abroad I was in my 20’s. I was depressed, unstable, and self-medicated with alcohol the entire time. All of these things warped my vision. And when I travelled, I saw a place to escape from my demons. Just like going to college across the country, I kept thinking that if I found a new place, far from my geographic life,  I could redefine myself without my depression. The bitch of it is, you can’t escape your demons. Those fuckers will sneak their way into your luggage no matter how hard you zip that baby up.

And being there, fully aware that my challenges, fears, and weaknesses would still confront me, whether on the tube or the London Bridge, was both exhilarating and exhausting. Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoy London. But I saw the grey now, (and I’m not talking about the fog,) rather than the black and white my bipolar II provided in the past. This isn’t my Mecca anymore. Or maybe there isn’t just one (when working on myself).

Each situation felt different than before – not better or worse, but more engaging and thought-provoking. Was it relaxing? Not really. It was more of a “working vacation” spent attempting to find myself, to face my fears, and to confront my choices.

It was a complicated, thoughtful trip – something I was not expecting. But being self-aware brought a nuance to my time there and allowed me to see my new strengths and continued weaknesses inside myself that I have missed within my daily life here.

Vacation’s over. I’m getting over my jet-lag, getting back to my routines, and have decided to let the circle turn, giving my mind time to process the experiences I had. I’m trying not to freeze up – to understand that just because I don’t have the answers, that my mind is still disorganized and frenetic, doesn’t mean I’m malfunctioning. I just need to take a deep breathe and give myself some more time. Eventually the circle will go away, and the deeper work will begin.

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. :)