How to Eat the Elephant

Sometimes common sense eludes me.

Now that I am a full time student, I have to manage my time more carefully than ever before. Last week, I was scheduled to work at my job for more hours than I thought I could handle, and I stressed myself out far more than was necessary over finishing the assignments.

I even went so far as to make an appointment with a counselor through my university, thinking that she would have some magical solution to fix a problem I perceived as being related to my ineffectiveness at being human. By the time the appointment rolled around, I’d already devised my own solution, and I felt a little silly for acting like the sky was falling.

I didn’t come up with some novel, innovative solution. No, in the end, it was the humble to-do list that saved me. The day I was at work, lamenting the fact that I was behind a register, not behind a textbook, I thought, “I have so much reading to do, just tons and tons of reading and material to cover, and it’s going to take me hours and hours… I may have to pull an all-nighter… Ugh! If only I weren’t such a dismal excuse for a student!” Once the pity party had concluded and I was preparing to sit down and do the work, it occurred to me that “pages and pages,” of reading could amount to any number of pages ranging from two to ten thousand. I figured the specific amount I had to cover in that night would be somewhere in the middle. To make an otherwise unremarkable story short: I wrote down how many pages I needed to read, put them in order of importance, and added them up. Seventy-three pages waited for me that night. And I read them all.

I try to avoid giving advice here on the blog because I realize that everyone is different and that I definitely don’t speak for everyone with mental illness. But what I would encourage anyone who struggles with longstanding feelings over being overwhelmed is to be specific and careful with the language they use. It can be easy to make generalizations, “I’m always tired/depressed/anxious.” “I don’t have any friends.” “All of my coworkers hate me.” “I make bad choices.” “I’m self-destructive.” Maybe it’s just because I like to argue but when I find myself repeating these mantras as if they were facts, I have learned to stop and question them. (What can I say? I come from a family of lawyers and judges.) Am I always tired, or do I just have less energy depending on where my body is in relation to my injectable medication? Have I been depressed since the beginning of my life, or have I had three or four bad days in a row and it just feels like forever? How can I be sure all of my coworkers hate me, when I normally have very positive and cordial interactions with them?

And when it comes to these statements that seem like deep truths about who we are, it’s important cultivate them carefully. If “I make bad choices,” is your default, your baseline, then any good choice you make is a coincidence. If your truth is, “I am self-destructive,” then it doesn’t matter how many times you choose other harmful things over a healthier option because that’s just “how you are,” you’re self-destructive, anyway. It becomes harder and harder to change when this is your mindset. That’s all the advice I’ll give for now, but I would encourage you to think about it if these statements sound like you.

These statements we make about ourselves, our personal truths, can shape the way we see and interact with the world and each other. For the longest time, I viewed my life through the lens of mental illness, “I do this because I’m sick.” I didn’t have good days or bad days, I had depression. I didn’t have stage fright before a performance, I had anxiety. I didn’t have a big dinner on special occasions, I had a binge.

When I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I quickly learned that one of the hallmarks of this disorder is an “unstable sense of self.” I wonder how many Romantic poets would also fit this criteria? From Coleridge to Wordsworth to Keats, these writers are celebrated for their unique ways of viewing the human condition.

I will be honest with you, I hate my British Literature class. It’s not the professor’s fault that 1800’s era poetry is dry, dense, and difficult to understand, but I definitely don’t want to take another semester of British Literature. In contrast to the uninteresting reading, the class discussions are lively. The one thing we all keep coming back to is the idea that these authors (mostly poets) were moved by everyday occurrences, they experienced their emotions more profoundly, and they were so awestruck by nature, the night sky, or the love of their friends and family that poetry became a necessity.

To jump ahead a few decades, it was Bukowski who said, “Poetry is what happens when nothing else can.” And that is what happened and keeps happening as eternity rolls on and more and more people like Wordsworth, Keats, Bukowski, (maybe even… me?) find it necessary to create, to say, “I was here. I saw this, I thought that, I won’t last forever.” These poets were contemplating what it means to be a person. In “Simon Lee” a lyric poem by Wordsworth, he spends eight stanzas telling the tale of a poor old man too frail to farm or do anything else, only to break the fourth wall in the next stanza: “O Reader! had you in your mind/such stores as silent thought can bring/O gentle Reader! you would find/a tale in everything.” Right here, Wordsworth is basically saying, “You thought I was going to tell you a story, and you’d already constructed a story in your mind.” The rest of the poem is mainly a celebration of the fact that our minds can do this.

This is the art of being human. I return again and again to the quote from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, “We’re much more afraid that there might be a God than we are that there might not be.” I cannot speak for all of the Romantic poets any more than I can speak for everyone with mental illness or all creatives. But I do know that in my experience, I have been plagued by unanswerable questions, all of which come down to, “What am I doing here?” I seek to answer these questions with religion, with writing and art, and I have no more solid conclusions than Coleridge or Shelley.

Just as I needed to break my schoolwork down into manageable chunks, I try to approach life with a one-day-at-a-time attitude. I easily paralyze myself thinking about my goals such as editing my novel into something presentable, finishing my degree, figuring out what the heck I’m going to do with this degree…

This state of uncertainty could be attributed to “negative capability,” which was basically Keats’ way of saying it’s okay to not have all the answers. So, if these celebrated poets were just as unsure of themselves as poets like myself are today, I’d say I’m on the right track.

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