Sometimes the Answer Lies Within

I’ve been rehearsing the conversation I need to have with the instructor of my group therapy course, preferably before our next class. I’ve told “him” about my desire need to experience group therapy as a client, my difficulty dealing with groups, how I’m impacted by existential issues – which would make for an excellent post – even spoon theory.

In my imagination “he” patiently listened while I explained all this stuff and why I couldn’t join the class on Wednesday, even though I’d gotten dressed and traveled to campus and was standing right outside the fucking door. Then “he” took a deep breath, looked me in the eye, and said:

“This class isn’t therapy, it’s an academic class. But maybe it can provide the experience you need. Think about it: you like your small group mates – that suggests some sense of safety in that group and desire to belong to it, yes? They’re also trying new things in front of a group; it’s a common experience you can support each other through.

“Trying to be in this group – the small group and the whole class – is relatively low-risk. If you see these people again, it will be in maybe one or two more classes, or perhaps as colleagues… they’re not going to make or break your entire life. You have plenty of experience losing relationships and forging new ones. You have survived, even thrived. You’ll continue to do so regardless of what happens here.

“So take a risk. Be yourself with them. If you can also find group therapy, great, I’m sure it will help you a great deal. But don’t walk away from the group you’ve already joined. Use the resource you’re holding in your hands.”

I have no idea what the actual, separate person who is the instructor of this course – and happens to also be my academic adviser – will say when I talk to him in real life. I hope he’ll be willing to work with me to make the course a bit more accessible. But it almost doesn’t matter anymore.

What matters is that I have this voice inside me. These are my thoughts. I have this resource I can tap into whenever I need. I can see the world more complexly than my mental illness would allow.

I find it interesting that I’ve chosen my academic adviser – someone I trust and admire, but whose pedestal has been cut shorter as I’ve observed his limitations over the years – to represent this guiding voice. He’s already told me that my mental illness need not prevent me from entering this field – actually, it might make me a better therapist. He is not only a professional therapist but a trainer of professional therapists; this can’t be the first time he’s dealt with someone like me. If anyone can help me right now, I think – I hope – he can.

And if not the actual person, my internalized version of him can. That means I can. It’s I’m taking an extremely challenging experience and turning it into an opportunity for growth, and more importantly trusting that I already have what I need to get through it in one piece. I just need to trust myself – and I guess I already do.

I just need to believe that I am worth the struggle, the pain, the uncertainty. Not that life is worth living – honestly, that’s up for debate. That Imy dreams, my creativity, the ways I want to influence the world, the relationships I hold dear – that I am worth living. That I – whatever unique meaning or purpose I create for myself in this meaningless void called Earth in the 21st Century – I am worth the pain of existing every second of every day.

It doesn’t “get” better. I will make it better, or die trying.

No, seriously, become ethereal.

TW: suicidal thoughts

In Skyrim you learn Dragon Shouts that let you do awesome things like breathe fire, cross a distance in the blink of an eye, and even force a flying dragon to the ground. The Become Ethereal shout temporarily suspends you between the physical and spiritual worlds. You cannot harm anyone, and more importantly, you cannot be harmed.

Combine that with invisibility, and you basically have the only way I feel I can safely exist right now.

One of my classes is about group therapy, intended to train students to be good group therapists. We’re reading The Theory and Practice of Group Therapy by Irvin Yalom. Before today I would have said that the more I read it, the more I want(ed) to participate in group therapy as a client. I think I need to have that experience for my own healing and before I can responsibly become a therapist.

The feeling was coming up as I read before class today, so I decided to call and see about joining the psych counseling group I mentioned in my previous post. The receptionist asked if I’d ever worked with campus psych services before. I said I’d tried but been unsuccessful. Then she said she didn’t know if the group was still open and transferred me to the person in charge of it. No answer, so I left a voicemail. No response (yet).

I tried joining a group by this organization once before. The person I’d spoken with had said she didn’t think short-term therapy would be good for me given my psych issues. Even though she offered to refer me elsewhere, I felt rejected. My experience today brought up the expectation that this is likely to happen again; they probably don’t want to deal with anyone who has severe – or even moderate – mental health issues.

The clinic Fox and I have been going to doesn’t offer groups that would be appropriate and won’t give me a referral. Even Wakana hasn’t been helpful in this department. I doubt I could find an appropriate group covered by my insurance, and Mom already seems to resent paying for my individual music therapy. I feel like there is no place for me.

I kept reading and what I read confirmed my fears. The very issues driving me to pursue group therapy would probably make me incompatible with the group they’ve created (to address a separate issue that’s just as important to me as any of the members they’ve deemed worthy of it). If I’m not a good fit, then I won’t benefit and may be harmful to the group.

And even if I were granted the privilege of joining a group, the early stages might be toxic for me. They consist of people measuring each other up and jockeying for position in the group. Initial attempts at unity and mutual support degrade as members become very critical of each other. I fear that in such an environment I would at best be ignored and at worst become a scapegoat… or just be outright rejected!

I wondered if this might be happening in class and felt unsafe with it. I thought that if it’s already bringing up all these issues, maybe I should drop the class. But if I do that, it will definitely take me much, much longer than the allowed time to graduate. I already need to request an additional year – that still might not give me enough time.

Then I read Yalom’s thoughts about tardiness and absenteeism and started to feel guilty about all the (non-therapeutic) groups I’ve left. I’d be running late for some reason, then embarrassed about being late so I wouldn’t go, and finally feeling weird about missing meetings so I’d drop out. I’ve done this more times than I can count. Any group leader would be wise to exclude me. The more I read about how harmful this behavior is, the worse I felt.

All the while the clock was ticking. I couldn’t even finish the chapter before it was time to go to class. I took too long in the bathroom. I felt anxious about my inevitable tardiness, but resolved to go to class because there’s a very strict attendance policy.

I arrived almost half an hour late. I looked through the window in the closed door to the classroom, but didn’t see a seat I could slip into easily. I hid in the bathroom to sort out my thoughts. Maybe I could join my small group when the class split up for the hands-on component? But my fellow group members are very nice and likely to ask friendly questions that are my worst nightmare – and even if they didn’t I’d have to explain myself at some point. (Maybe in front of the whole class! – they’d definitely be wondering…)

If I made up an excuse for being late I’d probably end up caught in a lie. When I’m feeling so vulnerable that I want to hide under a rock is not the time (I want) to come out as mentally ill (by admitting that the reading triggered me). I’d feel so much safer doing it so I could share things I’ve learned about therapy by experiencing it as a client. (How very academic of me!)

I looked at the time and realized that even though I was quite late, there was still the majority of the scheduled class time. I could still get quite a bit out of it. I tried to muster up the courage and looked in the room again… but still didn’t see any easily-accessible open seats. Anxiety got the best of me and I left, feeling defeated. I’m not sure how I got home in one piece. I crept back into my apartment and hid.

My own thoughts are my worst enemy. They have been battering me this entire fucking time: I’m worthless. I’ll never be able to support myself financially. I’m a burden and I’ll always be a burden. I should kill myself…

But the worst and most painful thought was this:
(I should contact [name] about this!)
No. Everyone who could help is probably busy, unavailable, or has more important things to do. They would be upset. You shouldn’t bother them.

I’m alone. I feel like my voice is gone. I thought about going to the ER but I don’t think they could help me. I think I’d be mistreated and that would make it worse. I feel like there’s nothing I can do… except maybe play Skyrim. It’s better than cutting myself…

Right?

Great, Ziya can express zir emotions spontaneously again … well, most of the time. Unfortunately, Ziya’s mom still can’t tolerate that. You know, one of the people – to an infant, practically gods – whose behavior required Ziya to create and hide all zir emotions behind the Censor in the first place… Yeah. Now Mom is no longer a god, but rather a person with a lot of her own psychological issues on whom I’m financially and sometimes somewhat emotionally dependent, who sometimes tries to help and understand me/my depression and sometimes …

We spent 2 days with her. 2 days. Not even the whole day. Late lunch on Wednesday, an appointment with the florist yesterday, that’s it. Explosions. She can’t deal with my emotions. While were at lunch Fox received a phone call, during which he was offered the job he’d just applied for! We were all thrilled; Mom offered her congratulations. Oh no! Ziya dared to smile, use inflection in zir voice, and hug zir spouse!!! In public!!! This could not be tolerated. “Okay, you two, quit it. C’mon!” *sigh*

Talking to the florist went well, just a ton of information. Later in the evening, we wanted to use Mom’s credit card to acquire an item for the ceremony – she’s supplying about half our budget, so instead of putting it on my card and having to pay interest and get reimbursed, we thought it would be a lot simpler to put it on her card.

Well, Ziya was still recovering from interacting with Mom and Fox earlier in the day, and getting very frustrated with logging in and out of sites, forgetting passwords, having to enter and re-enter card information, etc. Ze kind of had a bit of a nervous breakdown, not quite crying with tears but sobbing and … you get the idea.

Again, Mom couldn’t handle it. She actually yelled at me to “Stop it!”

Not good. Suicidal thoughts triggered by concern over our financial situation and difficulty communicating with Fox about it. I hate having to make joint decisions because I feel like I can’t act on what’s worrying me; I feel helpless and trapped and hopeless and if I can’t do anything about this horrible situation I’d rather just die so I don’t have to feel the pain! Later I was reading and enjoying a webcomic and Fox reminded me about my paper and it reminded me so much of my mother pushing me to do my homework (at the expense of my emotional well-being) that I broke down completely. Internalized voice of Mom: “Stop being so melodramatic!”

I’d almost rather have the Censor back. Almost.

I don’t think she’s really gone. I think that aspect of myself has been integrated. I still have some control, though maybe not as much as I would like especially given my current circumstances. I can still do things like edit my writing and empathize with people and look beyond my own wants and needs when considering how to respond to a situation and be polite. I’m just more likely to feel and express my emotions … even when it means getting into arguments with Fox and getting yelled at by my mother.

I’m an adult. She has no right to yell at me like I’m a disobedient child. Parents shouldn’t yell at their disobedient children, anyway. All it does is teach them to be mean to people, especially themselves. She was very mean to me.

We have a marriage counseling session we should leave for now and I still have a blanket over my head. Literally. I need family therapy with my mom and/or my mom to go for therapy. I don’t want to work on my relationship with Fox right now, even though it could certainly use some work. I just want to rest, alone, without anyone to see me.

In my mother’s words, I’ve “trashed” the place again. The clutter has returned. It’s not enough.

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.

Re: How to Clear One’s Mind

I would like to let all the lovely web bots and lonely souls who post spam comments to my blog know that, even if I don’t allow the comments to become visible to the public, I do read every one of them. I’m very touched by the high esteem in which you hold my writing, though you might want to try and make it seem a bit more like you actually read the blog post on which you are commenting. Today I received a particularly interesting comment that I would actually like to respond to:

First of all I would like to say wonderful blog! I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your thoughts prior
to writing. I have had a hard time clearing my mind
in getting my ideas out. I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first
10 to 15 minutes tend to be lost just trying to
figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints? Thanks!

This comment happened to be in response to my recent post, PANIC!!!, in which I hope I conveyed a sense of, well, panic in the tone of my writing. In the case of that particular post – as well as most of the ones about my actual life experiences, dilemmas, and emotions – writing the post was my process of centering myself and clearing my mind.

I often begin my posts with a strong sense of what I want to express in writing, but no idea what words I’ll use or where the post might go. I pretty much just start typing. I like to write because it forces the thoughts to “get in line;” only one can come out at a time and first they have to form themselves into remotely-coherent English sentences. Writing is the process through which I get the jumbled mess of nebulous thoughts and conflicting emotions out into a form where I can literally look at them. It’s like looking in the mirror, except that instead of freaking out over a new zit I can enable my rational mind to process all the important information my emotional self is trying but failing to communicate to it.

I read and re-read each post several times during the process of writing. I edit as I read – I catch and have the opportunity to fix typos and grammatical errors that way. I also take the opportunity to re-word sentences so they will be easier to read and understand, and so they can more accurately convey whatever I’m trying to express through them.

The reading and re-reading of the post as I’m writing also serves to center my thoughts – again, as I’m writing. It’s part anxiety management, part a reminder of what I’ve written so far and where I’m going, part how I make sure that the post is coherent. I’ve re-read this post several times, now, so I know that it’s been about my writing process and not about, say, cheese. I also have a strong sense of the tone I’ve been using, so I can continue to use it for the remainder of the post.

My experience of written language is almost identical to my experience of spoken language, the only real difference being that with written language I have to see the words with my eyes before I get to “hear” them in my head. Similarly, while I am writing, I hear the words in my head instead of with my ears and move my fingers instead of my mouth to share them with the world. The biggest difference between spoken and written language is that it’s easier to remember what I wrote – I can read it! – and I have a chance to edit it before anyone else gets to read it. Once the spoken words are said they’ve been said, they can’t be taken back, and we might disagree on what they were.

I believe that the way I experience written language gives me a significant advantage when it comes to reading – and especially writing. Both processes come very naturally to me; sometimes they are actually easier than spoken conversation! (If nothing else, interruptions are less likely to mean I never get to make my real point.)

That said, I do also find it helpful to read the post aloud. Reading a post aloud helps make its content feel more real to me and to center my thoughts around the topic. I also find I can express my emotions better through the inflection of my voice. Sometimes I even become more aware of my emotions when I hear myself: “Wow, I sound really angry! I must be angry! Who knew?”

The process is a bit different if I’m writing on a more academic subject, whether for school or in a post like The Complexities of Language, Gender, and Identity. Then I need to do research – to learn what others have written about the topic, organize all the different ideas, think critically, and respond to them.

I tend to organize my own thoughts through – not prior to – writing. That said, it helps to start with a clearer sense of what points I want to make, what information backs them up, and where I got that information. I like to start papers – such as the one I’m procrastinating by writing this post instead – by creating the Works Cited / References page. That makes it easier to keep track of what sources I’m using and to cite them in the actual paper because I already have a handy list, complete with the authors’ last names. Sometimes I’ll make an outline, even if it’s just a basic list of topics to cover. In the case of “Complexities” (link above), I actually wrote a first draft. If an assignment for school requires a clear thesis, I might wait to write it and/or the introductory paragraph until after I’ve used the process of writing the rest of the paper to fully organize my thoughts.

Finally, popcorn works wonders. Settle in with a nice large bag – or three! – and start munching. Just try not to get too much grease (or crumbs) on the keyboard.

What I Need

My depression has been rather severe lately. Very low energy, no motivation. Someone even worse than the Critic tearing me apart verbally and emotionally. Anxiety dreams. Insomnia. Disappearing into The Sims 3 for entire days.

Thoughts about harming myself take 2 forms. One is brought on by strong emotions; I want to release them by ripping into my own flesh. The other is looking at a sharp object and imagining what I could do to my arm with it, how that might feel. I need to feel something, and physical pain is so much simpler than the mess of thoughts and emotions that have been plaguing me constantly. Sometimes I use it to get the cloud to lift for a few seconds, so I can literally see more clearly. Thoughts about suicide stem from the idea that maybe that’s a way to make it all stop.

Then, on Saturday, I learned that my uncle had died. Mom has been supporting her best friend / sister; the dog and I have been feeling the strain. Today she stopped to talk to me on her way out to the wake. I was so hurt by the things she said that I could do nothing but curl up in fetal position on my bed, with Fox curled around me. The only thing that could “snap me out of it” was the sound of the dog attacking the door that kept him away from us. When I let him out I said, “You’re just doing to the door what I feel like doing to myself. It’s okay. You’re not alone. We’re here and we love you.” I held him in much the same way Fox had held me. It brought comfort.

On Saturday I had the opportunity to be honest about everything I’ve been experiencing, witnessed by 2 very loving and supportive people who Understand. One of them, the first one I opened up to, asked me, “What do you need?” A hug. My concerns and feelings and fears to be taken seriously. The opportunity to be genuine and accept my reality. To know I am safe; I will not be committed to a psychiatric hospital against my will.

They met my needs.

It was then that I first gave validity and words to a more troubling need. I need to drop 2 of my classes: the ones relevant to my career field of choice, that I need to complete my Master’s degree, that I’ve already waited 2 years to take.

One is the source of the dreaded Piano Midterm that I’m scheduled to take tomorrow. I’ve stopped thinking of myself as completely unprepared for it – either I’ll go and do something and accept the results, or I’ll go and we’ll talk and the instructor will agree that there’s not really much point to me taking it.

The other class would be fantastic, but the experiential component is literally hazardous to my health. I feel paralyzed by anxiety about doing it, I force myself to try, and then I tear myself to shreds with berating comments. Any mistakes I made, the uncertainty I felt, the things I did that were a repetition of what others had done, the ways in which I failed to use the instructor’s feedback, the things I said that I know aren’t helpful because others have said them to me or I’ve tried them on loved ones and they haven’t worked, even my appearance. Anything is fair game and all of it tears into me emotionally, until I want to tear (cut) into myself physically. If I were to act on the compulsion, I’m not sure when – or whether – I’d stop.

If I drop these 2 classes I’ll be left with 2 that I enjoy and that put a lot less pressure on me but that I don’t really need in an academic/professional sense. I need them in an emotional sense – for feelings of accomplishment and self-worth and opportunities for structured social interaction.

I’ll also have time – likely, another 2 years – to heal the giant festering wound that has consumed most of Me, and to do some of the activism and advocacy that I feel inclined toward. I’ll come out of it better able to enter my chosen career field – if they’ll still have me. My biggest fear is that my school will cast me out and at best I’ll have difficulty re-entering the program. And I’m not looking forward to my mother’s reaction. But if I can survive the hell my mind has become, I think I can survive her.

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.