Is emptiness a feeling?
The first time I was in residential treatment, I was fifteen years old. Every morning, we’d have a check-in group, during which everyone had to go around the room and say how we were feeling that day. Nearly every day, I told the staff, “I don’t feel anything. I feel empty.” They told me I had to feel something, so I continued to proclaim that I felt empty, and they told me that wasn’t a feeling.
Much like unlocking hidden backstory in a video game, it turns out “empty” is a feeling. In fact, “chronic feelings of emptiness,” are one of the main components of borderline personality disorder. So, what exactly does it mean to feel empty?
Obviously the answers vary for everyone, so I can only speak for myself here, but I’ve been feeling quite empty for about a week now. Different ideologies attribute this emptiness to various sources. The Twelve Steppers call it, “a God-sized hole in the soul.” BPD communities call it “the void,” and creatives might call it “writer’s block, apathy, or downmoods,” (the last one can be attributed to Bukowski.)
Whatever you want to call it, filling the void is hard. In the past, I’ve greatly relished staying up late and tormenting myself with thoughts of what a bad person I am, how I should never have been accepted to Stetson, and how I’m going to flunk out of school, never amount to anything… you get the picture. Lately, though, there’s been so much void and so little filler that I’ve gone back to sleeping for 12+ hours a day. I take my medication early in the evening and I’m in bed by 8:30. From a harm-reduction standpoint, this is a positive. If I am asleep, I cannot beat myself up physically or mentally. Still, I can’t actively participate in life if I’m sleeping through half of it.
The void is more than just trying to entertain myself. A recent journal entry: I get it, my personality is disordered. I don’t even have a personality so much as an endless void within me… What is it? What do you want? I feel like a sick or wounded animal unable to articulate where the pain/need is, almost ready to chew a limb off to escape this trap.
I think a lot of life really is filler. It’s waking up to your snoozed alarm, brushing your teeth, going to school/work, and coming home and doing laundry. It’s having the same conversation with your roommate or partner each evening, or sitting in silence with your mom and saying, “Well, I don’t really have any news…” It’s making baked chicken and a caesar salad for dinner again because you just don’t have the energy to figure out something new and exciting. All of this is okay, it’s more than okay, it’s great! These are the moments of filler in which we are comfortable, where we find safety and solace in the mundane. These are the mental spaces that we gloss over in our memories, the things that slip through the fingers of time and become the beige backdrop on which we paint our colorful lives. This backdrop could be called stability. It is a framework, a starting point. We need some predictability, otherwise life becomes completely chaotic.
As someone with BPD, I have been told that I love to create chaos, that I “love drama.” While I wouldn’t characterize myself as a drama-loving life-ruiner, there is evidence in my past that supports these claims. A journal entry from last week: I keep asking Archie, “What do we do, buddy? How do we fill the void?” He doesn’t have an answer, which is probably a good thing. […] The void just sort of haunts me. I feel like I just flit from one thing to another, that I make messes just so I can clean them up. And I feel that all of this, the cooking, shopping, cleaning, walking… all of this is just so superficial. I always say I crave connection on a deep level, but when someone actually gets close to knowing me, to seeing me for who I am, I push them away. Perhaps if I were my own therapist, I would ask myself if I do this because I don’t want/am not ready to see the self others see.
December is coming to a close and once again, I have found myself at odds with God. I want a perfect world. I want a world where the wicked (or those I consider wicked) are aptly punished. As Anne Lamott wrote, “You know you’ve created God in your own image when He hates all the same people you do.”
Again, an excerpt from my journal, I had no idea how hard a hit my faith would take once the synagogue was closed down. I did not know that I, personally, require community for something so deeply personal. I am angry at God. I feel like God is an acquaintance […] I don’t have a “God of my own understanding” because I don’t understand how there can be such injustices in the world, and simultaneously, that any Universal Benevolence would give a damn about what I do in my spare time or if I’m practicing “His will.” And then, I feel like I’m being a sore loser; I didn’t get the hand I wanted, the path I felt I deserved, so I’m mad at the Referee (so to speak), not at the coaches or players. If God gives a damn about me, then I have to give a damn about me!
The amount of emotional work I have done in my short twenty-four years here in this life is nothing to scoff at. I have explored my mind as if it were the catacombs of an ancient castle. I have named my demons, I have repaired a psyche I once thought was irreparably shattered. These things, too, are just as worthy of celebration as being accepted to college or getting an A on a paper. And I’m not just saying that to toot my own horn. I want you, reader, feel that you are a success even if you “only” succeeded in getting out of bed today or if “all” you did was hold yourself together. These things take huge mental effort. Whether you choose to attribute your achievements to God, a Higher Power, your therapist, your medicine, yourself, or some combination of all of the above, they deserve to be celebrated.
I’m currently reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which basically outlines a spiritual approach for unblocking one’s creativity. It asks a lot of big questions, all of which can essentially be boiled down to, “Why?” If I glean nothing else from the book, I have certainly noticed that its pages are deeply relatable. Cameron describes her “inner critic,” that voice in one’s head that tears one’s ideas to shreds before they even hit paper. This book has sold over 4 million copies, which suggests that many others also relate to these sentiments of, “I’m not good enough… I’m a phony… No one will care about what I have to say…”
Back when I was freshly diagnosed with mental illness, I thought of myself as a freak, nothing short of crazy. I began to feel that I was broken, but had hope that I could be fixed. What I have learned since then is that nobody has it all figured out. Nobody loves themselves 100% of the time, always says the right thing, always feels happy. Perhaps I, and the other four million blocked creatives are all just winging it, trying to figure out the next snapshot, brush stroke, or stanza. Perhaps I am not the outsider I once thought I was.
I will leave you with an untitled poem.
We turn a corner.
And I wonder
what goes on here?
Myriad tiny windows into tiny lives,
tables and chairs containing universes,
the Christmas lights, and
your freckled shoulders.
We turn a corner.
Guitar strings, coffee cans,
the glorious jangling of change,
cigarette butts, all
the grit and glamour of being human.
We turn a corner.
And my senses return to me.
I smell smoke and chocolate and liquor.
I smell sweat and aftershave and gasoline.
I smell someone else’s life and
the perfume my mother wore
to synagogue on special nights.
My voice, too, returns to me.
We are not that different,
not too far gone.
The tired waitress wilts on her feet,
for the night to be through with her.
The evening rolls on,
the cosmos continue to spin.
Eternity utters a day.
It’s not a bad life.