Books can be as good a void-filler as anything else.
When I am feeling uninspired towards the numerous fiction pieces I’ve been working on this summer, I take refuge in books. I’m currently reading Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, and although it is a beautiful and compelling memoir, I don’t think I will finish it. I’ve read five chapters so far, and because I also read Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett (Lucy’s best friend) quite a while ago, I know that Lucy’s story ends tragically. Due to the sudden wave of depression that has hit me, I’m trying to avoid needlessly upsetting myself when I already feel like I’m on the brink of tears for absolutely no tangible reason.
Lucy was diagnosed with a potentially terminal cancer when she was nine years old and had one third of her jaw removed. While this is by no means a universally relatable experience, the emotions attached to it can be.
Though Grealy’s experience was extraordinary, it is utterly affecting, for there is no one who has not felt shame and self-doubt and physical inadequacy.-Elle
Maybe you have never had a significant health scare, or maybe you have, or maybe someone close to you has. Regardless, there is something relatable in a lot of Lucy’s writing. She expounds upon what it means to feel different, the desire to be special versus the desire to be normal, and what she understood about the world after undergoing numerous medical procedures and treatments.
How frustrating it is to find myself tossed from moment to moment, feeling totally capable and content, then suddenly despairing and feeling as though any progress I may have made has vanished. Even more frustrating is trying to explain to people that as much as I would love to “choose happiness,” or “just think positively,” I cannot. Of course, there are things that can be done to foster happiness or at least minimize suffering. (For example, not reading really depressing memoirs.) What I find most relatable about the above quote is the implication that understanding great or complex truths is not an all-or-nothing deal.
It makes me think back to when I was in intensive outpatient therapy at La Amistad a couple of years ago and I decided that not only was I over being raped in 2016, but that it had never even happened, that it was all a big misunderstanding, and that from there on out , I would be fine, forever free of the symptoms of PTSD. I really do wish that healing from trauma could work that way. I wish that I could “just stop thinking about it,” as so many well-meaning people have encouraged me to do. As my mom frequently reminds me, I’ve already done the hard part, I survived.
Ironically, the feeling of being misunderstood is quite common. As the summer yawns on with little to do but read, write, and think, it becomes increasingly obvious that idle time in my own head is not good. Yesterday found me scrawling incoherent gibberish in my journal to the tune of, “There’s no one in my life that I can be be true self around… No one understands how bad things can get when there’s nobody here to see it… No one understands me…”
After I calmed down a bit, I went back and read over what I had just written. I suddenly felt sympathetic for my eighth grade self, who was also convinced that she was chronically misunderstood, and I felt a little silly for indulging in such dramatics. “What is it about me that I’d want people to understand?” I asked myself. “Who is this ‘true self,’ that’s so repressed and hidden?” I came up with little in the way of concrete answers.
Now that I’ve had a little time to distance myself from the intensity of yesterday’s emotions, I have a couple of thoughts.The first is that the idea of a “true self,” is (at least in my opinion,) a bit flawed. Because I’ve been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a lot of psychiatric professionals have asked me questions along the lines of, “Who are you?” and “Do you know who you are?” As a diagnostic tool, this is a terrible question. It makes me feel like I need to have business cards printed up: Katherine Orfinger Professional Mental Patient and Writer, or some equally snappy response just to move onto the next question, (which is frequently some equally complex inquiry such as, “Are your relationships unstable?”) To me, knowing who I am is going to be an evolving relationship just like it would be getting to know anyone else. It’s not a one-time introduction, nor is it a static identity. Just as Lucy wrote that she couldn’t always hang onto her realizations, I cannot always hang onto my identity. There are moments when I feel as though I’ve been consumed by my depression or my self-destructive impulses, and there are moments when I feel completely serene and accepting of myself.
What I forget at times (like yesterday) is that one overpowering emotion does not eclipse who I am. When I open my most recent writing project and can’t stomach a single word, that doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly become a horrible writer and will never write again. When I feel lonely, it doesn’t mean I don’t have any friends and that my family doesn’t love me. When I feel like I hate myself and I am worthless, that doesn’t make it true. Yesterday, I felt sure that I would be despondent forever and that I needed to put on a happy face so that the people I care about wouldn’t have to deal with the burden of my existence. When I wrote that no one could see the “real me,” I was reducing my whole identity to this wave of depression. I don’t like to make people worry unnecessarily about me, and at times I downplay how bad I feel. While there is something to be said for putting on a happy face and going about your day, there is also value in having those people who don’t mind when you say, “I feel like shit!” If I can learn anything from an afternoon spent weeping into the pages of a notebook, it is that I need to be more upfront about the small things before they add up into a huge meltdown.
Although, as Lucy writes, “moments never repeat themselves exactly,” I have seen in my own life that I frequently go through situations that mirror each other until I am ready to make a change. While I may not be to blame for the traumas I have been through, it is up to me to decide how I will move on. More and more often, I find myself making jokes about things that really aren’t funny with my therapist. I find myself getting close to really, really big emotions and interrupting myself just to say, “Who cares? It doesn’t matter.” What I’m realizing is that if I want to be understood, I have to give people a chance to understand me. If I want connection, I have to be willing to be vulnerable. If I want to be heard, I have to speak up. I have to accept the duality of healing: that I have done the work and distanced myself from the rape, but that the pain is also still there and will flare up from time to time. Most importantly, I have to accept that even in those painful moments when I am hating myself and not thinking clearly, I am still the same person who continues to face life despite the burdens no one can see, and that she is a person worthy of self-care and love.