As a writer, I am obsessed with endings.
When I write fiction, I almost never begin a story without knowing how it ends. Ideally, I like to know exactly what the last line will be. For me, a plot is a transportation device: I’m getting my characters from point A to point B. My characters and I may get side-tracked, we may take a detour, we may see a roadside attraction and say, “Hey! Let’s go see the world’s largest ball of twine,” but as a general rule, I have to at least have some idea of where I’m going.
In life, however, it can be difficult to discern where one thing ends and another begins. For example, I can’t tell you the exact date I became recovered from my eating disorder. Recovery, like many other things, was gradual. Another great example of a transition rather than an ending is the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, which just passed last week. On Rosh Hashanah, we eat apples and honey to signify a sweet new year and we also eat round challah bread. The round challah (as opposed to its normal braided shape) symbolizes that the year’s ending flows right into its beginning.
After the joyful celebration of Rosh Hashanah, comes the somber Day of Atonement: Yom Kippur. On this day, Jewish people often fast. We are taught that this is the holiest day of the year, that we must ask God for forgiveness, and we pledge to be better people in the coming year.
I am very lucky to be involved in my university’s chapter of Hillel, and to be a board member. In the past, the High Holy days have not been a positive experience for me. There were a few years during which these holidays gave me such intense anxiety that stepping into the synagogue left me hallucinating. Even after the psychosis was more manageable, I had such an aversion to the concept of forgiveness that I refused to go to services.
It’s not that I was so arrogant that I refused to ask God for forgiveness. I would have been the first one to admit my sins and to beat myself up over things that weren’t so bad as well. My issue with the concept of forgiveness stems from being raped in 2016. The journey from blaming myself to blaming my rapist was a tough trek, laden with self-injury, suicidal thoughts, and numerous hospital stays. Nevertheless, the intense anger I felt was better directed at him than at myself, so I considered that change of mindset a victory.
A recent journal entry reads, “It seems like pretty much everything I worry about turns out to not be that bad in the end.” Indeed, that has been a pattern for a good bit of the recent past. As I have mentioned, in my many years of journaling, I’ve experimented with different formats, including dialogue between different parts of myself. What I know now that I didn’t know then is that I was “externalizing,” my issues. My working definition of externalizing is looking at my problems as being a force or consciousness outside of myself. Jenni Schaefer does this beautifully in her book Life Without Ed. Externalizing is beneficial for two reasons. One, it helps me to see that I am not my diagnoses. And two, it helps me gain insight into the feelings driving the way I talk to and treat myself.
When I find myself writing things in my journal like, “I’m such an idiot, I’m sure everyone here hates me. I’ve got to get my shit together!” I am able to talk back to those thoughts. Externalization helps me realize that those are not me. I don’t want to deny my insecurities and anxieties, so I give myself time to feel those feelings, but I don’t wallow. When I was younger, it was so difficult for me to believe anything even remotely positive about myself. I had no distinction between my healthy self and the negative self-talk that plagued me. These days, through journaling, I am able to challenge those negative thoughts and I can choose not to believe them.
When I was in group therapy at La Amistad, I began to experiment with self portraits as a form of coping. I have always been creative, and I wish I could say that my writing and photography allowed me to break free from the perfectionistic mindset that dominates so many other aspects of my life. I suppose I am less of a perfectionist when it comes to these things, but I am still pretty hard on myself. However, the practice of taking my own portraits has made me so much more confident in both my appearance and my skills as a photographer.
Recently, I decided to organize my files on my laptop so that it would run faster. As I deleted miscellaneous reading responses for past classes, random screenshots, and whatnot, I realized my self portrait folder was one of the largest on the computer because not only was it full of a few years’ worth of finished products, but it also contained tons and tons of outtakes. As I clicked through each one, I saw a story I’d never seen before, the story of a young woman in intense pain, trying to figure out how to make peace with herself. I felt so much compassion for past-Katherine, compassion and kindness I wished I could have shown myself all along.
During the High Holy days, we say “May you be inscribed in the book of life.” I love this idea, that God is writing the book of everyone’s life, and that perhaps I, too, have a hand in the creation of my own story. Unlike my fiction, I don’t know where my story ends, only that it is far from over. On this new year, I have the opportunity to really think about what Judaism means to me and who my Higher Power is. One of the most important of my Jewish values is compassion, and while I do my best to embody that ideal with others, I am severely lacking when it comes to showing that same compassion to myself.
One of the other members of Hillel frequently tells me how brave I am. I always brush him off–I’m not brave, I’m just existing. But maybe there is something to be said for pushing through the anxiety, the self-doubt, and the “I’m not good enough,” mentality and doing my best anyway. In the aftermath of the rape and the ensuing fallout, I viewed myself as a complete failure. Steeped in self-loathing, I could not see that I really was doing my best. It was only when I looked back at my outtakes that I saw how hard I really was trying. Sometimes, compassion is just cutting myself a little slack. Yes, I’m running late, they can start without me, rather than, I’ve ruined everyone’s night because I can’t even show up on time. Compassion is also redefining my view of myself, realizing that I have intrinsic worth that does not fluctuate in relation to my grades, publications, or achievements. God loves me as I am right now, not more when I finally graduate or less when a magazine rejects my work.
My dad once told me that the difference between Torah study and academic studies is that Torah study is meant to last a lifetime, while studying for something like a history test is finite. Similarly, I will be in the process of recovery for as long as I live.
“As you taught Torah to those whose names I bear, teach me Torah, too. Its mystery beckons, yet I struggle with its truth. You meant Torah for me: did You mean the struggle for me, too? Don’t let me struggle alone: help me to understand,to be wise to listen, to know… Lead me into the mystery.”–Mishkan T’filah
I am ill-equipped to unravel cosmic mysteries. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there injustice and suffering in the world? For a very long time, I projected my version of fairness, of good and evil on the world. Bad things happened to me, so I must be a bad person… and so on. I don’t know if God has a plan. I don’t know if God is even paying attention. The Artist’s Way, a sort of self-help book for creative people, describes God as a “Great Creator,” the vein of creativity that pulses through the minds of writers, painters, and other artists. Perhaps the fact that despite all of the trauma and angst I’ve endured, I am still writing, still taking photos, and still participating in my own life is evidence of some sort of Higher Power. On the other hand, looking for evidence will get me nowhere. When it comes to faith, the challenge is to believe despite all odds.
Recently, it occurred to me that I get to define myself and I’ve been selling myself short. I am an expert at taking a positive and turning it into a nebulous negative. For instance, at the last Hillel event, one of the other members pulled me aside and said, “I think you’re doing a great job in your position.” Oh, wonderful, I thought, with a sinking feeling in my stomach. He thinks I need extra reassurance because of how terribly I’m performing. It took me a couple of days to unthink that reaction and realize that I was misinterpreting a very kind comment. In nearly every aspect of my life, I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who appreciate me and who treat me well. Still, my outlook has been so skewed based on a few events that were the exception, not the norm, that although I have no reason to, I treat kindness as though it is a rarity and perceive malice as the standard.
This could not be farther from the truth. A recent journal entry reads, Maybe the people who know me the best, Mom, [my therapist], Professor R., Makayla… maybe those people who consistently tell me I’m a good person, a good writer, that they love me, maybe that’s what I deserve,more than the way Tim treated me, and the way I subsequently treated myself for all these past years, maybe that’s me taking my will back from God and it’s actually God’s will that I treat myself well, that I experience love, not meaningless sex,not obsessing… Maybe the world is not the terrifying, cruel, and dangerous place I’ve imagined it to be.
As for the outtakes, they have shown me that it’s okay to make mistakes. They have shown me where I can improve and how to take joy in the creative process. They have shown me that sometimes it’s okay not to be in focus, that I can always take another shot. With each click of the shutter, I am learning to forgive myself.