All-or-nothing thinking is common in people with and without mental illness.
This refers to a cognitive distortion (AKA symptom of being human) in which aspects of life are labeled as either “good” or “bad,” without any room for ambivalence. Cognitive distortions like this are common among people with eating disorders, PTSD, and personality disorders, just to name a few.
My personal experience with all-or-nothing thinking is related to many aspects of how I view myself and how I view and interact with the world. It started with things like body image: if I wasn’t rail thin, then I was fat. For someone who loves words as much as I do, I was certainly limiting myself in the way I described things. As I got older and put some distance between myself and my eating disorder, it would have seemed likely that this kind of thinking would also improve. However, after I was raped in 2016, I saw the world in stark shades of black and white. I projected a bizarre idea of what seemed logical at the time onto my life and the world around me. I believed I deserved to be raped because I was a bad person. I was extremely angry, and I directed that anger first at myself, then at my rapist, then at God. I grappled with questions people have been exploring for ages, questions that can all be summarized as, “Why?”
Recently, my boyfriend and I were discussing the ways in which our respective parents treated us versus how our younger siblings were treated. I remember how, as a teenager, it seemed that my brother was allowed to do whatever he wanted, while I felt that I was unjustly controlled by our parents. Obviously now, I realize that my parents were faced with the very real fear that I was going to die–either due to complications from my eating disorder, or by suicide. Just as nothing could have prepared me for effectively coping with the rape, nothing could have prepared my parents for the complex chain of events and illness that preceded it. We all did the best we could with the knowledge we had at the time.
Moreover, I don’t think there are perfect answers to issues like this. There aren’t laws of physics sorts of prescriptions for what to do when your daughter is determined to starve herself to death. Nor are there step-by-step directions on how to heal from trauma. Of course, there are suggestions, numerous doctrines on what’s best, programs and treatment centers, etc. Ultimately, though, there is no universal timeline for “getting over it,” and healing looks different for everyone.
Recently, I told my therapist, “I still think about Tim every day, but I’m forgetting. I don’t remember what color his eyes were or if he had any tattoos.” This was relevant because whenever I’m in a public place, I am always on high alert, scanning the room for a tall man with long, blond hair. Because I barely remember what Tim looks like and most people are wearing face-coverings right now, many men fit this description. I frequently have to talk myself down, repeating, “It’s not him, it’s definitely not him…” and while logically, I understand that Tim is not even thinking about me, much less out to get me, the fear is still real.
In this same session, I admitted that nearly everything I’ve been writing lately has been about trauma, and that I would love to just “get over it,” I don’t know what I would write about if I were completely healed. “You’re a true writer,” my therapist said. “You’ll write about the trauma for as long as you need to, and then you’ll write about other stuff.”
I pondered this for several days. And then, a couple of weeks ago as I was leaving campus, I had an epiphany. There was no blinding light, round of applause, or choir of angels. I had just gotten out of my Intro to Writing Poetry class, for which I had compiled a chapbook titled Body Language. Of the other members in my critique group, I was the only one who had experience writing poetry before this class. One of my fellow students, a senior preparing to graduate and go to medical school, hounded me to explain what my poems were about. “Oh, y’know, they’re about… things… and stuff,” I stammered. I am a terrible liar and I’d already fabricated a story about how they were “persona poems,” written from the viewpoint of a character I’d invented, which fell flat. I was convinced everyone knew I was a liar. I wasn’t comfortable telling my classmates that these poems are about how I rebuilt myself in the aftermath of trauma.
What is it about“Bodies in Water”
the shape of water
that brings up unsavory questions
about your daughter?
What is it about
the shape of authority that makes me
wish I were the kind of woman who
could spit in God’s face
What is it about
the shape of a speculum
that makes me want to pit myself,
take a spoon though all the soft parts,
glibly remove the stone
in the middle?
the hard part is deciding
what to do with it.
What is it about
the shape of desire turned rageful
that burns holes
in the wings of angels,
brings any God with a conscience to His knees?
What is it about
the shape of water
that leaves you denying
she was someone’s daughter?
Take this one for instance. It’s not exactly bedtime reading. So I left class feeling quite uncomfortable and exposed, and on the way home I turned this epiphany over and over in my head. I’ve always told myself I’m one of those “write what you know,” authors, that I could only write about experiences I had, emotions I felt, things I saw firsthand. But why? Why limit myself to the narrow scope of my experience? Furthermore, how many times can I rewrite the same thing: I was raped, I wanted to die, I didn’t. Yes, that is an important story, and it’s valuable to put that voice out there for other survivors, but do I want to limit myself to being “that author who was raped and never got over it?”
As I continue to put space between the trauma and my current life, doors are opening for me. I have several pieces being published soon. I am involved in student life on campus and am an officer in my school’s Hillel chapter. Just as I am finding more to write about than trauma, I am also capable of being active and present in aspects of life that don’t directly involve mental health.
My Intro to Writing Poetry professor believes in me more than I believe in myself. I took a different class with her last semester, and over the course of the class, she became a mentor for me. She encourages me to keep submitting my work, she reviews things that I’ve written outside of class for me, and nearly every time I see her, she asks me about my plans for grad school. When we were discussing my dreams of becoming a college professor, she told me that I would be successful because I’m “real.”
Never in a million years will I ever say I am grateful for the trauma I have been through. It didn’t make me a better writer, it didn’t make me stronger, it didn’t make me a kinder person. But it also does not define me. It is not who I am. It’s just a piece of the puzzle, which is slowly assembling itself to reveal something beautiful. Sometimes there is no lesson, no moral to the story other than whatever meaning we choose to assign to things like this. I did the best I could with what I had to work with. This is why all-or-nothing thinking is not applicable to so many aspects of life. It is within the blurred areas that I can practice acceptance, and ultimately, find peace.