When I was about nineteen, I got the words “try harder,” tattooed on my left wrist.
Of all the stupid things I did when I was a newly minted adult, this is one I regret quite a bit. At the time, it was meant to be a reminder for me to always give 100% at getting better. Back then, I was not trying my hardest. I was dabbling in all sorts of unhealthy coping mechanisms, and not even sure if I wanted to recover from my mental health afflictions. I would frequently decide I didn’t need my medication and end up in the psych hospital. Life was quite tumultuous in those days, and I was pretty much out of control.
At the time, a lot of my suffering was my own fault. When I could have chosen to learn self-soothing skills, I chose to self-harm. When I could have followed the advice of others who had been through what I was dealing with, I chose to compare rather than identify and find reasons why I was too different to get better.
These days, I usually wear a cuff bracelet over the tattoo so that I don’t have to look at it. It makes me feel like I’m an English teacher who never gives a 100% grade on an essay no matter how masterful it is. “There’s always room for improvement,” says the little English teacher in my mind, as she hands back a paper I slaved over with a 99% on the cover page.
The difference between a graded paper and mental health is that one is measurable and the other is less standardized. Some days are better than others. When I am really, really depressed, it’s a good day if I can take a shower, brush my teeth, and put on clean clothes. Should I be trying harder when that’s really all I can manage? Or should I let that be enough and be kind to myself, rather than beating myself up for only doing small things? If I have the attitude that I’m never trying hard enough, I will forever feel that I am running a race I cannot win. With mental illness, every day is different even if it doesn’t seem that way on the surface. Sure, I may do the same things every day, make coffee, feed the cat, go to work, etc., but internally the state of my mind can create drastic differences. There comes a time when I have to accept that I have reached my limit and can only try so hard.
Charles Bukowski became one of my favorite poets completely by accident. Years ago, I was at a bookstore, browsing their miniscule selection of poetry collections. I spotted a yellow book of medium thickness titled You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense. The long title grabbed my attention, and I flipped through the book to get an idea of what this author’s style was like. The poetry was accessible, all lowercase, and brief, so I bought the book. I have returned to this book many times before, and have loaned it out to friends who are looking to dip their toes into poetry.
Bukowski lived an interesting, yet tragic life. He was a raging alcoholic, and frequently refers to ending up in the “drunk tank,” in his writing. He is said to have papered his walls with rejection letters from magazines. He also wrote fiction, such as Ham on Rye, which I once borrowed from the library, but did not finish because I found it needlessly lewd. (And it takes a lot for me to say that!) He was a gambler, a sex addict, a wife beater, and just generally not a great dude, despite being a talented writer.
His philosophy on writing was simply, “Don’t try.” He did not believe in seeking out inspiration for writing. Instead, he waited for inspiration to come to him. To me, this seems like a very passive attitude. As a writer, I feel that I must make an effort to create new writing whether it’s fiction, poetry, a blog post, or just writing in my journal. Like an athlete training for a marathon, I must constantly work on building my writing muscles.
All-or-nothing thinking (AKA “splitting”) is a common feature of eating disorders and borderline personality disorder. Living in the middle ground is a difficult feat to attain. Sometimes it feels like I am either trying my hardest or not trying at all, but it’s important for me to recognize my limits and figure out exactly how much effort I need to put into something.
For instance, I’m thinking of writing a new fiction piece, which I described in my last post. I typed out a few paragraphs the other night, and it didn’t turn out like I wanted it to. I want to write like Mary Oliver and Jenny Zhang and Flannery O’Connor, and… I thought. While it’s great to draw inspiration from literary titans, it’s also okay for me to write like Katherine Orfinger. The goal of the first draft is to get it done, not to get it perfect.
Whenever I have a bad day, I always want to think myself into a more positive attitude. But sometimes there are just days that are boring, frustrating, or dissatisfying. It’s not necessarily because I have mental illness. It’s because I’m human.