I'm finally willing to admit, only to myself, that I think it's so hard for me to set goals or value delayed gratification these days because I just can't picture myself alive in 10 years. I hate myself too much and feel like almost everyone in my life has failed me. It makes it really hard to dream or focus or feel drive toward self development. Might as well enjoy more visceral or carnal pleasures now. In a sense I've always been this way, but in another sense it's the opposite of who I actually am. Anyone else feel this contradiction?
My guess is most people have a complicated relationship with the concept of “happiness,” but I’ll speak for myself in saying that as someone living with mental health challenges, the way our society talks about happiness can be particularly difficult. Happiness is so often pitched, through news stories, cliche quotes, movie plots and more, as someting one “chooses,” almost as if through moral superiority or enlightenment.
When I’m feeling depressed, when self-loathing overcomes me, it feels impossible to “choose” happiness, and knowing that I “should” just makes me feel guilty for not being able to do so.
The quote below about happiness did really resonate with me though. Yes, I found it while Googling the very cliche quotes I dismissed above. While I think the societal/widespread idea of “overcoming challenges” and “choosing happiness” hurts our understanding of mental health and those living with mental health challenges, as a person I do enjoy seeking new perspectives and hanging on to a mantra or two. Disclaimer: I’m not familar Stephanie Dowrick or her work.
“Happiness can come in a single moment. And in a single moment it can go again. But a single moment does not create it. Happiness is created through countless choices made and then made again throughout a lifetime. You are its host as well as its guest. You give it form, shape, individuality, texture, tone. And what it allows you to give can change your world. Happiness can be stillness. But it isn’t still. It wraps, enchants, heals, consoles, soothes, delights, calms, inspires and connects. It is on your face and in your body. It is in your life and being.”
STEPHANIE DOWRICK, Choosing Happiness
Written March 28, 2014
Yesterday, I was really happy. I wanted to write about. I thought specifically, “I should write about this.” I thought specifically “right now I cannot relate even one small bit to being sad, to the other side of me. I acknowledge that it exists, but right now I can’t force myself to feel it even if I tried.” I didn’t write about it yesterday, though. I was too busy walking with pep, learning Spanish, and eating cookies with no regret. I was too busy looking forward to things, feeling things, smiling without tears.
Today, I think about yesterday and I smile, but with the tears. This morning, no. This morning was great. I was at work and I didn’t mind, and it was fun and it was good. I felt okay. Then came Friday afternoon and the world was mine—mine to do as I pleased, living in a country far from home, in a bustling city, on the first day that actually feels like fall. But I didn’t take Friday afternoon, it took me. It swallowed me whole, but slowly, digesting me bit by bit until the sadness engulfed my whole brain in its slimy monster throat.
At first it’s scary, the feeling of being swallowed, then familiar. Then I want to resist, then I try to breathe into it. I know that it won’t last forever—there will be breaths without it, if brief. I try to think about yesterday, but again I can’t relate. Even trying, I cannot make my soul feel as light as it did yesterday, as naturally happy, as comfortable. I cannot make myself feel like I did yesterday, with no self-pity, no confusion, no desperation and fear that I might really be this unpredictably up-and-down forever.
Tonight I’m wondering if “the one” is out there. The one who can cure me, the one I will finally let cure me. I’m not thinking about a romantic relationship, a passionate love. I’m just thinking about a therapist. A professional. Surely there has got to be someone. I hope they’re in New York City. Then I had a brief moment of fantasy—what do people who aren’t like this think about with all that extra brain space? All that extra emotional capacity? All those extra pillowcases they haven’t ruined from runny mascara? How do people feel, with maybe 85% happiness and 10% self-conciousness and anxiety mixed with sadness and 5% just pure, raw, illogical sadness, instead of my special recipe of maybe 55%, 25%, 20%? At the same time, the real fantasy is like- who would I be without this? What would I think about? Who would I be? I’m partly convinced that you/I can’t have great highs without great lows. I’m partly convinced this is part of what makes me, me. But I’m also convinced it’s scary and makes my chest tight, my actual heart ache, my actual brain feel netted in with a giant finger trap.
Writing helps though. It does help. Like I’m squigeeing all the badness down, down, letting the black water drip into text and off of me. Like I’m wringing the dishtowel, squeeeezing it out.
Right now, after writing, my head feels happier—there’s a lightness that wasn’t there before. But behind my eyes still hurt, they still sting from it. My nose too. I have another cry in me perhaps, a few more silent sobs, or maybe just tears.
Before it took me completely, I was having a nice thought conversation with myself, reflections on what I’ve learned this year. It mostly focused on my new deep, deep, appreciation for the kindness of others, the welcoming of others. How important it is in life to make the extra step to welcome someone new, and then I thought, maybe it’s just as important to just welcome everyone, be sincerely kind and welcoming to everyone. Just because we’re not new, doesn’t mean we’re not lost.
That was corny.
Written February 25, 2014
It’s back. It’s burrowing deep within me, winding its way through tunnels filled with love and contentment, leaving tarlike anxiety in its wake. Every little thing, every little thing I know doesn’t matter, isn’t a big deal, has joined hands, banded together to come knock on my door and say “and you thought you could get away.” The knee, the missing photo, the bad haircut, the late class, the Brazil photos, impending school, Jessie’s flu, the misbehaving pill, the horrible music playing in this café, my dwindling bank account… it’s all swirled together now, they’ve all built a cheerleading pyramid on my shoulders, trying to push me down. And it’s working.
After writing that, I feel close to shaking it. Suddenly I do, it’s true. I feel optimistic, like I want to smile. I want to leave this café and go to a museum, wander around and draw my attention outside myself. Then I remember my knee, my late class, the photos. I have things to do.
Here and there, I have Word Documents saved on my computer, entries in my journal, and drawings on plain, white computer paper that I created while feeling in the compartment. This isn’t one of them, at least I don’t think. I just found it, nearly no memory of its existence or why I created it.
I’ve spoken about feeling depressed with exactly four people besides my therapist- my college boyfriend (once), my parents (also once), and my best friend (two or three times). Below, written over three years after the memory and a few months before starting therapy… one of my first attempts at dismantling the compartment.
Written November 1, 2014
The first time I felt very close to happy was also the first time I realized (or acknowledged) that something was deeply, deeply wrong with me.
All my boxes were finally checked, some that I had been dreaming about for 7 years or more: friends and roommates that I loved (check), a social life that I felt actively a part of (check), sweatshirts that were acceptable to wear most days because of their adorable embroidered Greek letters (check), and, maybe most importantly, a boyfriend. He called me his. He walked with me through the quads. He kissed me upon arrival, and no one else. He linked my arm at parties and said “let’s go home,” and I didn’t have to be embarrassed that it was clear we were going home together. It was blissful and made me giddy.
After we started ‘officially’ dating, it only took me a few weeks to get over the unworthiness feeling, the sense that people looked at us and thought How? Why? Because it was already clear that we were, it was, and so I could be, finally, unapologetic for being. That unapologeticness—it was intoxicating.
The night I cried to him was a Friday or a Saturday- a night and a time that unspoken social codes dictated a college couple should not spend in a small dorm room discussing dark things.
I guess I was being weird, which led to the explaining, which led to the crying. The weirdness came, I guess, because of the feeling inside, the darkness that, for the first time, I couldn’t name. I couldn’t say it was loneliness. Or insecurity. Or anxiety. It wasn’t and it was—it was so much more than those things but also none of them. It had no reason, and it was terrifying.
The explaining came, I guess, because of the unapologeticness. He called me his. That, and I didn’t want to let the weirdness go misinterpreted. Maybe I also wanted something deep and dramatic between us. Maybe I wanted him to say it was ok. For him to call me his despite it, because of it.
The crying came because of the feeling in general, but also because he didn’t really get it, and I could tell. The guy who wore his heart on his sleeve, or filled it into his cup, didn’t, I don’t think, really grasp what the girl meant by a deep, unexplainable, paralyzing sadness, resulting in guilt, resulting in sadness-guilt.
He was genuinely confused, I think, but he knew what to do.
We left the dorm and had a perfect night, driving his rust-colored Jeep down the one main road and to the baseball field, unloading thick, scratchy, blankets from his trunk and making our bed beneath the stars. From our backs, we stared ahead into the vastness and laughed, signaling we had gotten through something. Nothing profound needed to be said. I probably breathed in the spring air and thought consciously to myself about enjoying that moment, about not taking it for granted. I felt loved, wanted, cared for, if not understood. I felt very close to happy.
But, I realized, confused, it wasn’t enough, and maybe never would be.
I’m accustomed to telling myself I feel joyful, or grateful, or in the moment, instead of actually feeling it in my pores and in my cells. The only things I actually feel are tears welling up and that sinking, sinking feeling.
I’m starting this blog as a way to practice sharing the pieces of me that I usually keep to myself – the depression, anxiety, self-loathing and body dysmorphia that have been a part of me for as long as I can remember. After 5 years of dreaming about it, I started seeing a therapist at age 24. My progress toward being able to share authentically and openly in therapy (and in all relationships in my life) has been slow. Nearly three years in, I still start nearly every weekly session with an “I’m fine” and claim I have nothing to say. However this is due less to my unwillingness to share, and more to a go-to coping skill of mine: compartmentalization.
While compartmentalizing can be a helpful skill that serves its purpose of easing pain in order to live day-to-day life, I think I’ve relied on it, almost unknowingly, too much. Lately I’ve realized it’s caused this inability to synthesize all my different experiences and emotions into one cohesive sense of self. I block out nights of painful thoughts to the point where I wake up the next morning and forget they even happened, until I look in the mirror and see my puffy eyelids or notice the pile of tissues next to my bed- evidence that reminds me of a feeling I can genuinely no longer relate to as I get ready for the new day. I sit silent in a therapy session I can barely afford, wracking my brain for something to say and come up with nothing, while the skull outside my brain still lightly throbs from how hard I hit myself that painful night two days earlier.
The handful of times I’ve made myself journal while going through an episode (what an awful word– anyone have any other ways to describe when depression, anxiety, self-loathing swallow you whole?)– I’ve been grateful to have captured the experience in writing, since I can so rarely recall it or relate to it once it’s happened. Poems, blogs, and articles by others who viscerally and honestly share their experiences with mental health challenges have also deeply impacted me, made me feel that much less alone, validated feelings I often chalk up to my own over-reaction, made me think about things in new ways. Which brings me here- The Compartment. The feelings I’ve learned to forget, deny, feel ashamed for, out in the open (though anonymously) for me and for you. For me, may it be one step closer toward understanding myself and ultimately bringing that full self to the relationships in my life and those in my future. For you, maybe The Compartment will bring you connection, or relief, or curiosity, or a place to lean in to all the parts of you that you deny from others and maybe even yourself.
Please know, this is my compartment- it needn’t be yours- but I share with the hope of adding one more voice speaking on the too often unspoken realities of mental health challenges. For years, my fantasy has been for the compartment within me to be gone, fixed, cured. Sometimes, no doubt, it still is. But I’m going to try, practice, see how it feels, to seek relief not by erasing the “me” that is within the compartment, but by acknowledging it, maybe even honoring it, braiding the strands of myself together, believing that the silky and thorny, supple and sturdy strands alike support, strengthen, and make me whole.
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