A Word on Growth

I think most people can recall their least favorite teacher pretty easily.

Mine was my twelfth grade math teacher, Mr. Bailey. I’ve never been good at math, and I had test scores to prove it. In fact, I was placed in his class because I’d failed a standardized test and was thus deemed in need of a remedial math class. Everyone in my class was bad at math, but it seemed that I was among the worst of the worst, and because I was an otherwise decent student, I was unaccustomed to making the low grades I was making in this math class. Moreover, I didn’t want anyone else to know that I couldn’t even handle a remedial class. So, when I had a question, instead of raising my hand, I’d sidle up to Mr. Bailey’s desk and whisper, “I don’t get number six,” or whatever I was having trouble with. Mr. Bailey let this go on for a while, but one day I must’ve gotten on his last nerve because he slammed his hands down on his desk and shouted, “C’mon, Katherine! My cat could do this!”

I remember absolutely nothing I was taught in that class, but this moment in which I felt humiliated by a teacher who was supposed to help me remains crisp in my memory.

“Look, I know I’m being dramatic. Really, I do,” I said to my boyfriend this afternoon. “But it literally feels like my world will collapse if I get something wrong.”

“You’re too hard on yourself,” he informed me, just as nearly everyone who’s ever known me well has also told me.

We were high school classmates, and although we weren’t friends back then, I remembered him being on the football team. When I hear him talk about his football days, he always mentions how being around athletes who were more adept at the game than he was helped him to improve his own skills. I’ve never been much of an athlete, so it took me a while to realize that this mindset is not limited solely to the football field or baseball diamond.

If I want to become a better writer, I must first humble myself and admit that I don’t know everything. I must learn to take criticism not as a personal attack, but as a means of growth. There are worse things than shouting out the wrong answer in class.

“To become oneself is so exhausting
that I am as others have made me,
imitating monumental Greek statuary…”
–Henri Cole

This stanza says to me that it’s okay not to know oneself completely, and that if one is surrounded by healthy individuals, it’s okay to build a sense of identity based on the perceptions of others. One of the hallmarks of BPD is “an unstable sense of self.” At twenty-five years old, I think it’s pretty normal to not have it all figured out. Answers to questions like, “Who am I?” aren’t the same as answers to questions like, “Should this sentence be in the preterite or imperfect tense?” In fact, entire genres exist to answer the question,”Who am I?” From confessional poetry to memoir, people have struggled with these concepts for ages.

I’m taking a full course load this semester, and I have a ton of reading to do. During the second week of the semester, I found myself falling behind and somehow became unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel. As they say, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” I did not, however, stop digging. I panicked. I freaked out. I considered swearing off academia for good. I contemplated abandoning the written word in all its forms.

And then, I settled down, did my reading, and looked back at how silly I’d been to think all was lost.

I don’t think these struggles are entirely attributable to mental illness, though anxiety that manifests as a constant feeling of impending doom doesn’t help. I lack time management skills. I lack confidence. And I put huge amounts of pressure on myself to never ask for help, to never admit defeat, and to appear flawless. Basically, there is a mini Mr. Bailey in my head telling me that his cat could do the work that is challenging me so severely. Coupled with a tendency for self-defeating behaviors and a penchant for believing the worst, it’s no wonder I was ready to throw in the towel after what was really just a minor bump in the road.

When I am spiraling, as I was earlier in the week, I tend to torture myself with big questions. I wrack my brain, asking myself, “Is getting this degree going to change my life the way I want it to? Will I ever feel good enough? Will I ever feel like a success? Or is this all pointless? Am I going to hate myself forever?”

I don’t know why I tend to hold onto the worst experiences of my life as my defining moments. I do know that trauma changes the brain. I know that after some very scary incidents, I was changed. I feel as though I am constantly sleeping with one eye open, even in my waking hours. And I tell myself nobody wants to hear it. Nobody wants to hear about how I was stripped of my identity–or how I allowed myself to be stripped of it–and how I became a victim or survivor. Regardless of which word I choose to associate with myself, they both refer to a past event as having changed and remade the individual.

Recently, I read this essay by Melissa Febos. In it, she states,

Transforming my secrets into art has transformed me. And I believe that stories like these have the power to transform the world. That is the point of literature, or at least that’s what I tell my students. We are writing the history that we could not find in any other book. We are telling the stories that no one else can tell, and we are giving this proof of our survival to one another.

The Heart-Work

The world is full of Mr. Baileys. It is so easy to become one myself and tear down my best efforts, ridicule my first drafts, and talk myself out of even trying. But with so many naysayers already present, there is no need for me to be my own worst enemy. As much as I would love to wrap this post up right here with the one-and-done decision to be gentle and kind with myself, that would be disingenuous. Self-acceptance is a practice, not an event. I do not frequently feel overwhelmingly positive towards myself, but I can sometimes feel neutral or okayish about who I am. It is important for me to consistently remind myself that I am not a mind-reader. I don’t know what other people’s expectations of me are, unless the explicitly tell me. A typical BPD trait manifests in me once more: the art of being a chameleon. I will be the perfect student/daughter/sister/employee/girlfriend… and I will infer what qualities are perfect for each of these roles based on a constantly shifting set of observations and interpretations. Good plan, right?

No, I didn’t think so.

At the beginning of my Intro to Writing Poetry class, I made a mental note that I wanted to get better at “writing from knowledge, not feelings.” To quote the Frebos essay again,

We are intellectuals. We are artists. And the assumption is that these occupations preclude emotional self-examination or healing. “I mean, you can’t expect people to be interested in your diary,” a friend and fellow teacher recently exclaimed. I nodded. What kind of monstrous narcissist would make that mistake?

–The Heart-Work

It is my hope to someday tame the tempestuous gale that is my inner world and find myself washed up on that elusive shore known as Middle Ground. No, no one should want to read the pages and pages of journals that chronicle years of self-hate and bad choices, nor would I want to show most of them to anyone. When I sit down to pen poetry, I am typically inspired by some strong emotion. While that can sometimes serve as a good foundation, basis, or theme for a piece of writing, I’m not able to look at the pieces objectively as I’m writing them. And this is why we edit.

Recently, I was assigned to emulate Anne Carson’s “Life of Towns.” The piece I came up with was hysterical, angry, and experimental. When I compared my product to the piece it was inspired by, I felt that mine did not measure up. It was too emotional, to informal, too raw. But it was also a first draft, it was a genuine effort, and it was a good starting point. It may be time for me to embrace my unconventionality. Cole may have been right that “[becoming] oneself is exhausting,” but I believe it is the most important work one can do in life.