listening to shame

Shame definitely plays a huge role in my anxious depression. The TED Talk is a great starting point, and we need to explore this topic in a lot more depth for any meaningful change to occur. I’m terrified to commit to this, but I intend to explore how shame manifests in my own life and its affects on me. I’ll be blogging about it over the next couple of weeks.

The Trouble with Feeding Demons

We brought our rat Trouble to the vet last night. It brought up the guilt and sadness I’ve been feeling since the last week or so of his cagemate Schmoozer’s life (Hole).

Trigger Warning

I’d been meaning to take Trouble for a “wellness visit” after Schmoozer died, but I was mourning and concerned about my credit card bills after paying for an “exotic” to be hospitalized and hiding in video games to escape my anxiety about my pending legal marriage ceremony. Trouble seemed to be doing okay for the most part, maybe a bit lonely but otherwise healthy, so I half convinced myself that a wellness visit was an unnecessary expense.

Until a few days ago. I heard that telltale chirping noise – in my experience, the first audible indication of respiratory doom – coming from his cage. When I went over to him I observed that his breathing seemed labored. I was worried and sad and maybe a bit guilty, but I wasn’t going to sit by and let him suffer untreated as Schmoozer had. With Fox’s support and assistance, I made him an appointment.

As we coaxed Trouble into the carrier, I couldn’t help thinking we were taking him somewhere to die. I got lost on the way to the vet; the resulting frustration was actually kind of helpful because it distracted me from my other emotions. We had to wait a long time as a result of being late; Trouble was relaxing in his carrier so Fox gave me his smart phone to play games on (I still have a stupid phone). It was so embarrassing and disorienting to be playing a game when the vet walked into the examination room where we’d been waiting! Trouble’s symptoms hadn’t seemed as bad, and I felt disconnected from the urgency of fighting rat illness.

Fox maintained that the symptoms have been concerning us, and the vet heard Trouble’s labored breathing for herself. We briefly discussed antibiotics, but quickly agreed that they didn’t seem to be working – or, at least, that they hadn’t worked for Schmoozer. I’d been so focused on Schmoozer, who had the worse symptoms, that it was hard for me to remember how Trouble’s symptoms had responded to antibiotics. I felt so guilty, now not only that Schmoozer had suffered so much in his short life, but that I hadn’t paid enough attention to Trouble to provide useful information about his condition now. (I also felt responsible for causing both their suffering by introducing them to my previous rat, who had carried the disease and made it clear from their first encounter that he didn’t want cage mates).

The vet recommended a pediatric nebulizer, which would deliver treatment directly to the affected areas and provide immediate symptom relief. It was something she’d brought up when I’d finally contacted her about Schmoozer’s condition, and essentially what they’d done for him (too late!) at the veterinary hospital where he eventually died.

I embraced the idea wholeheartedly – finally, an effective treatment I could administer as needed to give my beloved pet a longer, happier, healthier life! It was almost like getting a second chance – almost.

The fact that Schmoozer is dead – my wonderful, extremely friendly, sweet and trusting little friend DEAD! – weighs heavily on my mind. I wish I’d done this months ago, in time to give my beloved pet a longer, happier, healthier life. Because I have to admit, I loved Schmoozer more than I loved Trouble, and if I could pick one rat to have I would pick Schmoozer. I feel like Denethor telling Faramir he wished Faramir had died, and Boromir had lived.

I try so hard to see Trouble for himself, to love him as he deserves to be loved, and so on. But I see a cage housing one rat when it’s supposed to house two. When Trouble runs off to eat the treat I gave him, I see Schmoozer sitting on my leg to eat it. When Trouble gets into an area I’d rather he not, I see Schmoozer staying closer to the areas where it’s easy for me to interact with him. When Trouble does whatever it takes to grab the treat from my hand, I see Schmoozer willingly doing the trick I’ve asked of him. When Trouble curls up happily in his hammock, I feel horrible because Schmoozer isn’t there to curl up next to or on top of him.

I remember the little black and white fur ball clinging to my sweater as though he thought I could save him from his pain and suffering and fear. I hate that all I could offer him was death – albeit a quick and merciful one. And I wish I could have at least another year with him, loving him up every day. But he died because of my negligence … and, I’ll admit, because Fox didn’t do whatever it took to make sure Schmoozer got the treatment he needed, even if it meant confiscating my video games. I wish he’d been more proactive in that regard, and I’m angry that he wasn’t. But we rushed Schmoozer to the veterinary hospital together, and we mourned his death together, and we’re doing our best to care for Trouble together, and to get our lives back on track together. We miss Schmoozer together, there’s no point in being angry with him.

Just like there’s no point in beating myself up, I know. But it starts with “I wish I had …” and then the Critic Heckler Evil Sadistic Torturer takes over, telling me I’m the worst person ever to live and I don’t deserve anything that I have – especially not love – and that I deserve to die the worst and most painful death possible, scared and alone.

At best I beg for forgiveness, and at worst I want to enact the punishment he has sentenced me to … except that I can’t. Because I’m aware of the suffering that would inflict on the people I love, and I just can’t do that to them. So I’m trapped. I might feel better for a time, but he’s always there, waiting. And the moment I give him an opening he charges in and I’m completely at his mercy. There’s no escape, its my own bloody thoughts that are doing this to me!

I told Mom about taking Trouble to the vet. All I got from her was a lecture about how much money I’ve been spending on these rats, and they cost more than the dog but live a much shorter life, and maybe I shouldn’t have pets anymore.

You have to understand, I had a dog before I was even born! There was just a very short time when we didn’t have at least one pet, after we put the dog I’d grown up with (who was no longer eating) to sleep. It’s taking all my willpower to resist the temptation to “get cage mates for Trouble” because it wouldn’t be what’s best for any of the rats involved, or me. I’m mourning and feeling guilty and trying to take good care of the pet I have.

Telling me I shouldn’t have pets – while financially sound – is like telling me I shouldn’t have a family. Even with all the emotional issues I’m having, just spending a few moments interacting with Trouble can brighten my darkest of moods. She’s also trying to talk me into “cutting back” on my sessions with Wakana to save money (I shouldn’t have therapy). Mom’s words cut through me like a burning knife. I know it’s not her intention, but she’s feeding the worst part of my illness. And I don’t even know how to ask her to stop.

Oh No! Interview?!

Applying for a job at the tea shop near Wakana’s office had an unexpected consequence: I was called to schedule an interview. I didn’t recognize the number so I let it go to voicemail, then panicked when I heard said voicemail. They actually want me to come in for an interview?! To be honest, I hadn’t really been expecting anything to come of this.

The rational part of my mind is saying I should do the interview for practice. If I’m offered the job, I’ll then have a choice as to whether to accept – in other words, I can still say “no.” If not – well, I went into it not really caring about the job anyway. That actually frees me to just use this as a practice interview. An opportunity to learn.

But the rest of me is having a mild panic attack. I can feel my chest constricting; it’s harder to breathe. There was some pain a little while ago. I feel dizzy, almost faint, and/or like I might be ill. There’s no way I can make a phone call under these conditions, it will have to wait.

The Critic is berating me. I should have thought this through before applying. I don’t really want this job, do I? I’ll never get a job! I thought I didn’t want to be helping other people, but that will be all I do all day if I get this job. I’ll spend most of my waking hours serving tea – is that what I really want? It will eat my life! It will be harder to schedule gatherings with friends and other fun activities – especially with Banji. How will I be able to stand for so many hours at a time? My feet will be killing me! I won’t make enough money to justify the resources I’ll have to put in. Do I really think I could enjoy it enough to justify the sacrifices?

I can hear the panic in the Critic’s voice. Ze’s terrified.

And then there’s the interview itself. I can go in and be professional enough and otherwise be myself and do well enough. Maybe not fantastic, maybe not impress them enough to get the job, but okay. As long as I’m not too anxious … the point is, I won’t spontaneously combust!

But I need something nice to wear. I made the mistake of letting my mind run through all these things in the shower; I wouldn’t even know where to begin trying to stop them. Everything came crashing down on me afterward, when it was time to get dressed. I don’t remember the last time I went clothes shopping, and a lot of the clothes I have don’t fit me anymore; mostly I’ve been getting by with comfortable items appropriate to lounging around the house. On rare occasions I can and will dress up a bit. But I don’t think I have anything clean right now that would be appropriate for an interview.

That was the final straw. I felt ready to fall apart.

I thought I would cry or something, but instead I feel incredibly tired. I’m having trouble staying awake to write this post. Granted, I didn’t get enough sleep last night and I’ve been tired all day; I even tried to take a nap and was mostly plagued by anxiety-filled dreams that weren’t restful at all.

But it feels like there’s some kind of alien force that really doesn’t want me to proceed with confidence in pursuing this or any job, or doing anything that might draw attention to myself. If it can’t distract me with video games and other forms of entertainment, if it can’t make me feel too horrible about myself to apply for a job, if it can’t squash any motivation I do manage to muster with overwhelming anxiety, then it will simply put me to sleep. I’ll admit it’s very tempting; the rats and Fox are snoozing, so why shouldn’t I join them?

The answer is: Because I don’t want to. I want to do something interesting, even if it isn’t particularly working toward my goals. I want to use what energy I do have. I want to go to bed at a decent time tonight and wake up tomorrow feeling refreshed.  I want to live my life. I just need … something … to get me started.

Writer’s Block

I’ve been struggling with writer’s block for the past few days, wanting to post something but unable to settle on a topic or focus on the writing process. Finally, today, I gave up on trying to express myself in words and decided to draw with oil pastels instead. Here is what I drew:

I colored with the oil pastels, then smeared the colors from left to right with a tissue. The shadow in the lower left corner was cast by me as I took the picture.

I colored with the oil pastels, then smeared the colors from left to right with a tissue. The shadow in the lower left corner was cast by me as I took the picture.

It is interesting to note that, like the sculpture I made a couple weeks ago, the face in the image doesn’t have a mouth. Fitting, seen as I’m having so much trouble expressing myself. I even had a hard time trying to answer Wakana when she asked how things have been for me. I had trouble forming complete sentences.

Worse, as I was drawing, The Critic kept bombarding me with some really mean thoughts. Some of them might be triggers:

  • You’re crazy
  • You’re decompensating
  • People are going to think you’re insane
  • People won’t get what you’re trying to say – are you even trying to say anything?
  • It’s rubbish
  • It sucks
  • An immature level of artwork
  • You should destroy it
  • You should kill yourself
  • It would be better if you used your own blood
  • WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS!?
  • Those eyes are too haunting. Make it stop.
  • You’re a failure and you’ll never amount to anything
  • Nobody cares about you
  • Why are you still breathing?

I showed the list to Fox and he said, “The one that stands out the most is this: ‘Those eyes are too haunting. Make it stop.'” The Critic is scared. It’s trying to keep me from expressing myself. All those horrible thoughts, lies*, to keep me from the truth.

What could I possibly have inside me that’s that terrifying?

* I tell myself they’re lies, echoing Fox’s Mom, but I’m not entirely convinced at least some of them aren’t at least partially true.

FUDGE THAT!!! – mmm, fudge? don’t mind if I do …

“Wait, you’re happy that the thing you’re reading is making you angry?”

“Yes, I find it liberating.”

~ conversation with Fox while I was reading a chapter of Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body by Susan Bordo.
(1993. Los Angeles: University of California Press.)

Once upon a time, in aristocratic Greek culture, diet and fasting were engaged in as means of mastering one’s impulses and practicing moderation; they were seen as a means of being a better citizen. Similarly, diet and fasting are a means of spiritual purification in Christian (and other religious) tradition(s).

It was not until the late Victorian era (late 1800s) that the middle class became obsessed with diet and fast as a means of attaining an aesthetic ideal – a physical pursuit focused not on the “self” but on the body.

We are aware of the multitude of “technologies” (as Bordo calls them) that are advertised as a means of attaining the ideal (i.e. slender) body. However, the only time we view them critically is when we focus on the “pathological” individuals who take them to an “unhealthy extreme.” The desire to be thin, preoccupation with this goal, and engaging in behaviors in pursuit of it are all normal; sensationalizing the pathological extreme diverts attention from the ways in which focus on being slender encourages conformity – especially to gender.

We are trained by the media to prefer and expect images of women in particular to feature a tight, contained, smooth body. Any body part that is soft and sticks out, especially the stomach, becomes a metaphor for fear of losing control over oneself. In ads the body is often portrayed as an alien attacking the individual, who must fight back … against her own body. The overwhelming message is: “You may not have wiggly bits!”

Well FUDGE THAT!!! Pretty much my entire body wiggles and you know what, I’m proud! I have a lot of fun wiggling, especially playing with my tummy fat. Belly dancing is an awesome opportunity to show off my beautiful fat in an outfit and using movements that flatter my wiggly bits. I’ll take that over your slender aesthetic any day!

But it gets even better. Where once fat was considered attractive as an outward sign of wealth, times have changed. Social power is not about wealth, but control. The body is seen as indicative of one’s internal state. Dieting and working out show that one has willpower, energy, control over impulses, and social mobility.

Fat people are seen as lacking the above qualities – in other words, unable to get anywhere meaningful in life.

Words cannot express how much that message hurts. My whole life, I have struggled with my body. I’ve wasted countless hours feeling insecure in it, hating it because I couldn’t wear the clothing styles I liked, trying to gain control over it through diet and exercise, feeling frustrated with it when I couldn’t excel at athletics. My overwhelming preference is to cover it, especially my thighs.

Lately my struggle has been to convince myself I love it – that I love myself. But the images and the message are everywhere, giving the Critic material with which to fuel my depression and anxiety. “I’m out of control; I need to manage my diet and start working out, or I’ll never get out of this slump! I’m a horrible person for not even trying.” … etc. When I’m not tearing myself apart about my atrocious habits, I’m worried about my physical health.

But according to Bordo, it’s not even about me. It’s about managing desire in society. Our economy requires a strong work ethic (willingness to put one’s own needs and impulses aside to “get the job done”) AND consumerism (“giving in to temptation” for instant gratification; buying things on impulse). It encourages bulimia: fluctuating between rigid control during the workweek, and unbridled indulgence (e.g. shopping, consuming alcohol and other drugs, eating out, etc.) on weekends.

Both anorexia and obesity are a failure – or refusal – to conform to the economy’s needs. A person with anorexia plays by the rules too well and abstains from the consumerism that helps bring in revenue. She outshines everyone else, while simultaneously revealing how harmful the rules are to one’s physical and mental health. (Of course, labeling a person with anorexia as “pathological” allows the average dieter to distance herself from the dangers of the rules she is also following …)

Individuals with obesity don’t play by the rules at all! Society can’t allow them to be happy; they must be punished for their transgression. For the nonconformist, “normalization” is penance: expressing pain and a desire to play by the rules, as well as frustration with one’s inability to do so successfully. This is the only way the obese can escape the hatred of society and instead receive empathy – or at least pity.

FUDGE THAT!!!

And this is why I’m happy that reading this chapter made me angry: By getting angry, I am extricating society’s hatred of obesity from myself. I am putting up a boundary between the true alien force that is attacking me – society’s preoccupation with the slender body – and my own body, which as long as I am alive is an inextricable part of myself. My body is not what has been causing me pain, frustration, and anxiety all these years.

I don’t have to fight it, ever again.

I haven’t gotten to the part where Bordo explains the link between slenderness and gender, but I think this is a very good place to end this particular post. I want to come back to it in a future post because I think it’s very important, so stay tuned!

Reference:

Bordo, S. (1993). “Reading the Slender Body” in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Los Angeles: University of California Press. pp 185-212.

Using Words to Say What They Cannot

Playing The Sims 3 too late Monday night all but ruined Tuesday. My plan had been to pick up textbooks from the bookstore on campus, leave from campus to go to my music therapy session, then return to campus for my evening class, attend class and come home. Instead, I overslept by 45 minutes. I was sluggish, groggy, and disorganized. I left an hour later than I’d intended. When I got to the bookstore there was a long line; I was worried about being horribly late for my session, so I left without accomplishing what I’d gone to campus to do. 😦

I was late for the later time to which I’d pushed back my session when I realized I was running late, but my therapist (Wakana) was very nice and actually allowed it to go on longer than our usual hour. Fox came with me, per my request, so we could work on some stuff together:

The Issue

I’ve been feeling very trapped in our relationship, like I can’t express myself fully. It’s fueling the depression. Sometimes I feel like he’s trying to shape my thoughts regarding a topic (e.g. saying we know my pet rats are smart) or change some aspect of something I’ve said (e.g. repeating it with an inflection that suggests a different emotion/meaning, or changing the wording). He (almost) always has a response for (nearly) everything I say and most of what I do; that response always seems to convey either approval (like I need it) or the suggestion that I should do/think/say something different. When he doesn’t respond, I worry that I’ve broached upon an unapproved topic.

Other times, I feel like his actions (e.g. opening a drawer for me) or reactions (e.g. shrinking away when I express anger) limit my ability to be an active agent in accomplishing my goals. I feel like he doubts my abilities when he helps without me asking him to. I feel unsafe expressing anger – and harnessing that energy to complete tasks – when he shrinks away from it. I worry that I’m being too aggressive. I almost never practice music when we’re together because I know he doesn’t like hearing the same thing repeated over and over again. I waited almost an hour and a half to call Banji Monday night because I felt uncomfortable excusing myself from Fox to do so.

I don’t know whether these are red flags suggesting an unhealthy dynamic to our relationship (as my mother seems inclined to suggest), or whether I’m taking his behavior too personally. One of the mental distortions in depression is perceiving others’ neutral behaviors as somehow negatively directed toward oneself – for example, as disapproval. Knowing this can help me quiet the Critic enough to get through a day, but it might also cause me to doubt instincts that I really need to trust. Do I need to just be myself, assert myself, do what I need or want, and leave it to him to express his needs directly? Or is something more sinister going on here?

The last thing I need is an abusive relationship.

What Words Can’t Say

I am distressed by the impact of Fox’s actions on my quality of life, but just as distressing is my impulse to ask him to change his behavior and speech patterns to better suit my needs. How is that not limiting his ability to express himself fully? Don’t we both have that right?

I feel horrible bringing it up, especially since he’s done so much to show his love for and dedication to me. He’s stuck by me through some very rough times, shown me more respect than I was once inclined to show myself (and still have trouble requesting from others), and even remained supportive and present while terrified by the strength of my anger. (I think it helps that I was not angry with him at the time.) How dare I question his motives?

I worry about falsely accusing him, controlling him until he’s forced to become someone he’s not, hurting his feelings, and/or driving him away. The anxiety steals my voice and silences my thoughts. I have trouble coming up with the words to express how his behavior is affecting me – or, how I feel in response to his behavior. If I manage to think the words, I can’t bring myself to say them. My mouth and vocal cords refuse to work.

If I manage to say something, I don’t communicate it clearly. I think it comes across as nitpicking about this instance of the behavior instead of trying to address the broader pattern. Fox becomes defensive. I get frustrated and fall into a cold, hostile silence full of pain, anger, and guilt. At some point we both let it go. Rinse and repeat.

Tuesday morning was particularly bad because we were both cranky from lack of sleep, and on a schedule. It didn’t help that (as he expressed later) he was trying to navigate the thin line between giving me the nudge I need (and have requested) and being overbearing; I felt like he was guilty of the latter. I was convinced he was controlling me and I hated him for it. Even when he went to take a shower and I was putting our breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, these thoughts were running through my head. I felt abused, unappreciated, neglected.

Finding a Voice

I talked to Fox about feeling trapped on our way to the music therapy session. I told him I hoped we could use music to work through some aspects of our dynamic that I was having trouble understanding and expressing in words. He agreed to try. We also talked about what happened Tuesday morning to try and find better ways of interacting. I suggested we work together as a team, with a routine and different jobs we each know we need to do, to make mornings run more smoothly. He suggested we have a technology curfew – no computer/internet use after midnight or too soon after waking – to help us get the sleep we need and start the day focused on reality.

(I’m breaking the technology curfew to write this, ironically. But he’s not here to be affected by my choice; he’s at his own home near his campus. I’d probably benefit from maintaining it whether he’s here or not, though. There’s just one problem: late night is my favorite time to write!)

The music therapy session was the one part of the day that went well. Wakana opened it by asking what our objective was, so I explained my perspective of what was going on and desire to use music to work through it together. We showed Fox how to play a variety of instruments, then he and I selected several to improvise with. He played the djembe (African hand drum held between the knees/thighs). I started with the cymbal, but when I saw that it was interfering with his music-making, I switched to the “nicer” and “quieter” malimba (African thumb piano).

If I’m making music with one or more other people, I listen to and might watch them, but the majority of my attention is on my own playing. This time, most of my focus was on Fox: his playing, facial expressions, and other body language. I tried to give him time to find a rhythm and play something that made sense with it. I got frustrated and even once played loudly on his drum when he played very quietly around the edges.

It was only when I backed off and became engrossed in the melody I was playing on the malimba that he was really able to join me. We responded to each other in the music and smiled at each other. He started to play with more confidence and volume. Where before my cymbal playing had interfered with his ability to play anything, I found I could punctuate and to some extent respond to his rhythmic patterns with it … then go back to playing the malimba. We connected and had a lot of fun.

Using Words

I was a bit annoyed when it seemed like Wakana was focusing mostly on Fox’s experiences, but listening to Fox speak was actually very helpful. I learned that, like me, he feels like he is putting a lot into our relationship and not getting as much out of it as he would like; his needs aren’t getting met. He expressed that he’s trying very hard to support me in dealing with my depression, all the transitions that are happening in my life, and day-t0-day stress. Sometimes it’s hard for him to figure out how to fit in his own needs, particularly because he doesn’t want them to have an adverse effect on me. It reminded me so strongly of what I’ve learned about the therapeutic relationship – the therapist should never use the session to meet hir own needs at the expense of the client – that I actually told him very firmly “You are not my therapist.”

I think sometimes we both need to remember that his job in our relationship is not to meet my needs. We are two individuals, equals, both of whom have needs that need to be met in a mutual and reciprocal way. I can’t meet all his needs and he can’t meet all of mine; we each need to find ways of taking care of ourselves and reaching out to other people for support. I think a lot of my anger toward him comes from forgetting this.

I’ve also finally come to acknowledge that, whether he is intentionally or subconsciously controlling me or not, I am putting stupid amounts of energy into trying to control him. Let me say that again: I am controlling him. For a while I was reading a book Wakana had recommended, titled Codependent No More: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself by Melody Beattie. As soon as I read the subtitle I denied that I could possibly be guilty of controlling others. My mother did that to me, Fox was doing it, even Banji. Everybody else. Not me! I was the victim.

Now I’m thinking maybe I should give this book another read with the understanding that maybe more of it applies to me than I had thought. Maybe Fox and I can read it together – codependency is something we both struggle with and a significant, 2-way issue in our relationship.

Wakana also gave us a valuable tool we can use to better assert our needs to one another, while still respecting each other and being polite. She suggested that if one of us wants to talk to the other about something, we set a date – it could be “in half an hour” – so we both have time to prepare mentally. Then no one’s activity gets interrupted and everyone’s needs can be discussed, hopefully addressed to the satisfaction of all parties.

A New Vocabulary

Wakana and Fox also helped me find the words to better explain something that’s been happening to me that is very distressing, interferes with my functioning, and has yet to be addressed by mental health professionals despite my attempts to bring it up. Sometimes I freeze up (I used to say “get stuck”): I feel like I either can’t or really don’t want to move; sometimes my head is swimming with thoughts. Sometimes I can’t think at all. All I can do is hold still and feel my body.

From my subjective experience it seems similar to my understanding of catatonic episodes, though for me it usually only lasts a few or maybe several minutes. I’m afraid to use that word with mental health professionals, though, in case I’m wrong. My understanding is that, even in the context of depression (vs. schizophrenia), catatonia is considered a severe psychotic symptom. One of my major goals in life is to avoid being involuntarily committed to inpatient psychiatric care – or needing it, for that matter. Applying inaccurate labels to myself around authority figures does not seem conducive to that goal.

Wakana didn’t use that word, though, she put it in the context of trauma response. There are 3 typical responses to a traumatic experience: fight, flight, or freeze. She noticed that, in my suddenly-much-clearer-than-usual explanation of the symptom, I said I feel overwhelmed by my (often self-deprecating) thoughts and conflicting emotions. “It’s anxiety,” she said, “probably linked to a past trauma.” There have been several times when I’ve frozen up to varying degrees – from feeling like I couldn’t move to completely shutting down emotionally – in response to trauma, such as: hearing my parents argue (as a child); learning my father had just died (as a preteen). Those responses seem sensible. Freezing in response to my own thoughts as an adult is a bit of a concern. Clearly I have a significant anxiety disorder that coexists with and feeds into my depression.

Well, now I have the words to describe one of my most distressing symptoms, and a nudge from Wakana to address it with Psychiatrist B.

But It Comes with a Cost

The downside to the extra session time Wakana gave us is that I left her office too late to make it to my class on time. I was beating myself up mentally for being late, especially because I did not have the book the instructor had emailed us three times saying to bring!

I tried checking my email to see if the order had been filled, so I could at least get the book and keep up with assignments, but I didn’t have an internet connection. I was too exhausted to deal with showing up significantly late for class without the book, never mind attempting to learn anything (and driving home afterward).

I went home with the Critic angrily lecturing me about the extra money I’d wasted on transportation to campus and how irresponsible it was/looked to miss the first day of class – especially as a graduate student! It went so far as to tell me I’m not allowed to spend an equivalent amount of money on other things! (Suggesting maybe I shouldn’t would be reasonable. Saying I’m not allowed is a bit harsh.)

I told the Critic that I’d made my choice and to shut up, but the guilt lingered. It only faded when I decided to make an appointment to meet with the instructor during her office hours. I’m also thinking I should look into filing for official disability accommodations with the school; it might be the difference between graduating and being forced to withdraw – i.e. give up my dream career – “for medical reasons.”

If I were given a choice between that and being involuntarily committed for inpatient psychiatric care, I’d take the latter – at least temporarily.

Confronting the Critic: Taking Back My Thoughts

The Critic is the voice in my head that criticizes me. It goes beyond pointing out legitimate mistakes and tears me apart emotionally, often over very minor missteps or decisions I make that are completely neutral.

I’ve actually been hearing less from the Critic since I started taking Zoloft, but it’s still there. It has been hiding in the form of expectations of harsh criticisms from other people. It wants me to believe that I can hear their thoughts, that they are the ones who think whatever I’m doing is stupid, or wrong, or ugly, or dangerous, or gluttonous, or whatever. They are the ones who question my logic, my motives, my abilities.

It is irrelevant whether the people around me actually think what the Critic is telling me they’re thinking. It is up to them to think it, and to express it – preferably to my face – and then I can respond. I keep telling myself this, but it isn’t easy.

I’ve also been trying to reclaim the Critic as a part of my own mind, while simultaneously confronting it and reducing its power over me. As painful as it is to admit this, the Critic’s denunciations are my own thoughts.

I am the one second-guessing myself, finding flaws in my thought processes, thinking that I could have made a better or healthier choice, wishing I had prepared better, doubting my abilities, etc. etc. etc. When I accept the Critic’s words as MY thoughts, then I have a say in how they’re worded and thus the impact they have on me. I can think through them, learn from my mistakes, and make decisions about how to move forward. I don’t have to be the victim of verbal abuse from my own brain.

I can be a person who thinks through multiple aspects of and perspectives on a situation, including the ones that contradict. I can acknowledge the difficulties I face living as an imperfect being in an imperfect world, making decisions and facing obstacles as best I can and sometimes – often – making mistakes. I can be frustrated when, despite my best efforts, things don’t go the way I’d planned. I can admit to not having all the answers.

Maybe I can even admit that I don’t have control over every aspect of my life. Sometimes, it’s not something I could or should have done better. It’s not a matter of being worthy or unworthy. It just is.

I also need to admit that I feel insecure and worry about what people think of me. I wish I could be above such concerns, not care what people think, be unshakably confident. But the bottom line is, I’m not. I want people to like me, or at least accept me as I am, and on some level I’m constantly worrying that I’m going to do or say the wrong thing. I’m afraid I’ll either hurt someone, or get them angry enough to hurt me. I’m walking on eggshells. I don’t want to be abandoned again.

The Critic lets me externalize these concerns. That’s not me, it’s society being stupid. That’s not me, it’s that person being judgmental.

That’s not me, it’s the mental illness.

I can let the Critic live in my brain for as long as it likes – and keep suffering its abuses.

Or, I can OWN my self-criticisms, doubts, and insecurities.

I can admit that it’s very hard to live in a world where unattainable images of “perfection” are everywhere. No matter how much we try to make ourselves believe we don’t care about attaining them, the message does seep through and become internalized. Several of the thoughts I have in the form of the Critic’s abuses are expressions of my own internalized perfectionism, and of anger at myself for not conforming to it. Maybe now that I’ve acknowledged this truth, I can start to let some of these thoughts go.

I can let go of the pride that dictates that I can – and therefore must – be perfect. Pride lies. The truth is that I cannot be perfect, and therefore I need not strive for it. This is not a personal failing. It is a universal reality.

I can also make a commitment to myself: to work through and overcome my fear of abandonment, to accept myself, and to allow others to accept me as I am.