Last Monday I had a psych evaluation at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville.
It took a few hours and consisted of a lot of brain-teasers and memory tests. At the end, I spoke with a psychologist, who asked me about the coping skills I use to deal with depression and anxiety. She said it seems like I’m doing pretty well and that she wanted me to see their head of psychiatry just in case I ever needed a medication change or adjustment.
As far as medication goes, I really don’t want to change anything. I’m on the fewest medications I’ve been on in years, and I feel better than I ever have. A few days ago, my Facebook memories showed me a post from my brother’s college graduation that said, “I slept for 19 hours today and I’m still tired.” Back then, I was so heavily medicated that I just slept all the time. I had to set multiple alarms to make sure I could get to work at 5:00 PM. I wasn’t really living. I was just existing.
These days, I actually play an active role in my life. Instead of sitting around, waiting for good things to happen or for life to begin, I’m trying to make things happen. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a writer, and as a writer, I want to be published so that people can read my work. I’m constantly lamenting the fact that I haven’t been published since high school. However, that’s my own fault because to be published, I have to actually send work out to literary magazines or other publications. I’ve had a very self-defeating attitude of “why bother?” But the worst an editor can tell me is “No thanks,” which is a lot better than not trying at all. So, I decided to enter a poetry contest. I rounded up some old work, wrote a few new pieces, and asked a few friends to look over the manuscript for me. Now, I just have to wait until August for the winners to be announced.
I was very hesitant to reach out to my friends for a critique of the manuscript. “It’s like giving my friends homework,” I thought. I also needed a very quick turnaround because I procrastinated and didn’t finish writing until about two days before the contest closed.
I pretty much always operate on the assumption that I’m a burden, everyone is mad at me, and so forth. This is a very annoying way to live, to say the least. One of the people I reached out to was my high school English teacher, who I hadn’t talked to in a few years. We are Facebook friends, so I sent her a message asking if she’d have time to read over some of my poetry. This teacher made an enormous impact on me as a student. Most of my classmates thought she was too strict and her class was too hard, but it was the first time I’d ever been challenged in an English class. I had also just discovered poetry, and would churn out pages and pages of moody, angsty, adolescent verse. My teacher helped me grow as a writer and as a person. She made me feel heard when I couldn’t speak up for myself. She only taught for a a year or two, and when she left my high school, she gave me a little book called The Writer’s Book of Wisdom, which is still on my bookshelf.
I’ve had a lot of time on my hands to sit around and think, which isn’t always a good thing. I can get just about anything twisted up in my head to support the idea that I’m a bad person. For example, when Chance cooks dinner for us, I usually don’t help him with the prep because we’re complete opposites in the kitchen (Guess who’s the messy one!) and I tend to get in the way or slow him down. Chance genuinely enjoys cooking, so it is indeed, a labor of love when he makes dinner. The logical side of my mind knows this.
But as I busy myself with other things while he cooks, I start thinking, “Here I am sitting on my butt doing nothing while he does all this work for me in the kitchen… I must be so selfish and lazy…” and so on. It isn’t as if Chance only cooks on my account. Not only that, but I contribute in other ways, and I clean up when he cooks because that’s fair. Chance is a pretty mellow person, and when I ask him (sometimes ten thousand times a day) “Are we good? Is everything okay?” he is patient and understanding. He has lovingly listened to countless ramblings about how I’m a bad person, how I’m mean and nasty, how I’m a bitch, and on and on. And for every bad thing I have to say about myself, he has a counter-argument.
I’m not saying that true love’s kiss is the cure for low self-esteem and mental illness. It’s not. But surrounding myself with people like Chance, my parents, and other creative friends who see the best in me certainly helps.
I do not expect to win the poetry competition, but I am still (quietly) hoping to at least get a runner up award. The unusual thing about this collection of poetry that I assembled, was that the poems are not all completely depressing or self-loathing. I wrote about watching my parents get older, about nature, about being in love, and about living in Florida. To me, that is true growth. There is only so much navel-gazing one can do as a poet before it becomes tired. Here is one of the more recent poems.
listening to the young girls call,
beneath my thrift-store loafers,
black licorice or even mold…
milky seagulls cawing,
the girls on the beach,
cherry-red bikinis dancing
rhythmically, faithfully, frantically
who is to say–
do the seagulls
merit more honor, more
respect, more, more, more morality
than the cherries
on the dunes, and
what of the cherry stems
after the tourists,
the surfers and beachcombers
have left their footprints–
who is to say?
A recent excerpt from my journal, “I am going to have a good day whether I like it or not!” There comes a point where one has to decide if one wants to feel better. I grew up in therapy, having labels like “anorexic,” “depressed,” “anxious,” “noncompliant” slapped on me. For most of my adolescence and young adulthood, I felt that these defined me. And maybe that was necessary for me to survive those harrowing times. I lost a lot of my teen years to mental illness, and I have a hard time forgiving my past self for the bad choices I made. Then again, as my former therapist used to say, “You didn’t know what you didn’t know.”
Being in my twenties is weird. Some of my friends are married with kids and some of them are just barely getting by. Regardless of what milestones I feel I’m “supposed” to have reached by now, I think the most important thing is finding myself. When I was at the Mayo Clinic, they asked me questions like, “Do you know who you are?” “Do you have a strong sense of self?” “Do you feel empty a lot of the time?” I would be quite concerned if a twenty-something actually did know who they are. It’s not like I look in the mirror and don’t recognize the face looking back. But the question, “Who are you?” brings up a lot of big ideas, ideas too complex to be expressed at 7:30 AM to a psych tech who I’ve never met before.
I know that I feel like me when I’m singing in the car. I know that I feel better when I’m creating something. And I know that a growing part of me does want to feel better. In one of my many therapy workbooks, I read something along the lines of, “If you were hurt in the past, you may make sense of it by continuing to hurt yourself, but it makes the most sense to stop hurting yourself. You have survived the abuse, and are only perpetuating it with self-harm.” That was a wildly inaccurate paraphrase, but you get my point.
I don’t believe that God is really involved in everyday decisions like which pair of pants to wear to work or which movie to watch on a night off. But I do believe that if I’m listening, the universe will reveal itself to me. As I sat down on the couch after a long day at work last week, I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a post that said, “You are not your thoughts.” It wasn’t the first time I’d seen something like that, but it was the first time it clicked. As my dad would say, “Actions speak louder than words.” No one is perfectly virtuous in their private thoughts. Everyone has moments of being judgmental, selfish, demanding, and mean. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t have these traits. But another trait of humanity is that we have the ability to decide what to do with these thoughts.
For me, this is a revelation. So many of the goals set in therapy revolve around eliminating negative thoughts or reframing them into “better” thoughts, but sometimes thoughts are just what they are. They come and go, they vary in relation to all sorts of factors (like how much sleep I’ve gotten, if I’m hungry, time of the month, the weather, current events, etc.), and they do not define me. Sure, some thoughts may be cause for concern such as, “I want to die,” or “There is a snake inside my body,” but overall, they’re not reasons to freak out.
As they say in AA, “I can’t think my way into better living. I have to live my way into better thinking.”