The Whole Wide World

In the past, it has been very difficult for me to travel.

When I was still in the throes of psychosis and working with my psychiatrist to find a combination of medicine that would keep the symptoms at bay, my life slowed to a crawl. I still had my part-time job at the grocery store, and that was about it. In order to preserve my then-tenuous connection to reality, I became wedded to my routines. Doing the same things over and over helped me to achieve some sense of normalcy. These routines, however, would be interrupted if it ever became necessary for me to leave home, like for my younger brother’s college graduation. This was a few years ago, and all I really remember from the trip was being convinced that the place we were staying in was haunted and sleeping for about nineteen hours straight after the ceremony.

Eventually, my doctor was able to find a combination of medicines that were effective against the voices and delusions that plagued me. Surprisingly, this combo has actually continued to work for the past two or three years, contrasting with the series of past meds that stopped working without warning. My journey to stability was a long, tough road, and accepting that I could be stable, that I could have a life that was not consistently upended by the psychological crisis du jour was another journey in and of itself. As strange as it may seem, I was not entirely comfortable with being stable at first. So much of my identity and the way I moved through the world were informed by an “I hate myself and I hate taking care of myself,” kind of attitude. Little by little, that faded away due to a combination of medicine, therapy, and yes, coping skills.

As I mentioned in my last post, running has seriously changed my life. I did not think I would stick with it once the novelty wore off, but yet again, I surprised myself. I have also found that I thrive when I have a lot of structure in my life. The mundane routines I once relied on to keep me grounded in reality have been replaced by robust participation in academia. My friends think I’m silly when I tell them that I wish I could be a student forever, but not many of them know the complete transformation I have undergone since enrolling in my university’s English program. I am no longer the isolated, depressed person I once was. College has given me the structure and motivation I needed to grow as both a writer, and as a person.

So where am I going with all this? A few places. Over my spring break, my mom and I took a road trip to visit my brother in North Carolina, spend a few days in the mountains, and then we drove into Knoxville, TN to see the University of Tennessee (my mom’s alma mater). On the trip, I was surprisingly not anxious, perhaps even calm. Of course, it helped having my mom with me the whole time and being in a semi-familiar environment (I’ve been to this particular part of North Carolina many times), but it was also a huge confidence booster for me that I could feel so relaxed and laid-back in a different environment.

For our journey into Tennessee, I had contacted the MFA office at the University of Tennessee and asked if I could speak to someone on the faculty or a current student while I was on the campus. Surprisingly, I was able to meet with their Director of Creative Writing. My mom and I spent quite a while walking around the campus, exploring the surrounding downtown, and I got to marvel at UT’s fantastic library.

Smokey and me!

When it was time to meet the professor, I was prepared with a list of questions. He and I really hit it off, and our conversation lasted for nearly an hour. I was thrilled! He gave me an overview of the program, we discussed our personal writing practices, and I could tell he was a genuinely enthusiastic person who loves what he does. I told him about my career goals of being a professor of creative writing, and that from what I’d read online, it seemed like UT would thoroughly prepare me for that. As we talked, I was focused and calm. At one point I realized, “Hey! I’m not even anxious!” As someone who used to feel paralyzed by nerves just by answering a simple question during a class, the ease with which I met with this professor was a massive accomplishment for me.

This semester has been the most challenging one yet–both academically and personally. I am reaching the end of my undergraduate studies and am both excited and terrified about moving on. I have had less time for my creative pursuits because I have been so busy working on two semester-long research papers. One of the requirements of my university is that all seniors must produce a senior project in order to graduate. It’s basically a massive paper about anything related to our majors, with an accompanying class, a hybrid of workshop and seminar. In practice, this plays out as a bunch of nervous, senior English majors in a classroom run by a professor who shows a lot of movies and does not provide a syllabus. Needless to say, the anxiety is palpable.

For a while, I let my classmates’ anxiety feed mine. But what I finally realized is that I don’t need to approach this paper any differently than I have with any of my other papers I’ve written so far. It’s very easy to get caught up in the competitive talks of whose page count is highest, who slept the least, and who has the most sources cataloged so far, and for quite a while I did. Finally, I noticed that I was constantly speaking in a self-deprecating manner about all of my efforts on this research paper to a lot of my classmates whose intellect and work I really admire. I was minimizing the amount of background knowledge I already have about my topic and dismissing the hard work I’ve been doing all semester to further my knowledge.

As I’ve said, it’s weird getting used to this stable mentality, and it’s also been weird to become aware of how frequently I put myself down. The more I notice myself doing it, the stronger the sentiment of, “Hey, don’t say that,” becomes. I was really struck when I heard a classmate repeat my own put-down back to me. “I took a break over spring break,” I said to the class while we waited for the professor to arrive. We were talking about how burnt out we already were and how most of the class had worked on their papers throughout all of spring break. “And I really regret it! I was so dumb!”

“Yeah, that was really dumb!” this classmate remarked. Everyone laughed, including myself, and the professor started the day’s movie. What the hell? He just called me dumb! I thought. Well yeah, but you said it first, I admitted.

Maybe it’s cliche, but one of the most significant things I have learned during my time in college has been to believe in myself. It’s hardly a surprise, but I have noticed that when I spend less time engaging in negative self-talk and behaviors that reinforce negative beliefs about myself (such as self-harm), I feel better, which in a cyclical fashion, lessens the perceived need for those behaviors. Another cliche, but I wasn’t able to see this until I was willing to change.

I wanted it to be easy. I wanted it to be quick. I wanted a simple behavior I could just substitute for self-harm. I have endless lists (like the one below) contained in treatment center-issued binders that were essentially useless because I never tried to implement self-harm alternatives until it was way too late.

While these coping skills can help lessen the urge to physically harm myself, in a vulnerable moment, they are temporary measures. My personal truth about self-harm is this: In order to stop using self-injurious behavior to escape unbearable emotions, I need to create a life I don’t need to escape from in such a destructive way. Everyone, regardless of relative mental wellness or illness, experiences stress and anxiety in some way, and everyone has ways of coping with these emotions. The insidious thing about these feelings, at least for me, is that I find myself convinced that I need to do something that only makes me feel better in the short term. For example, I frequently find myself harming my body when I feel like I’m drowning in overdue assignments. In those moments, it feels like self-harm will help me calm down “so I can focus on my work.” Basically, I solve the problem of the urge by giving into it. And this never, ever works.

What has perpetuated this messy mentality and practice has been a chronic sense of worthlessness. Where this came from, I’ll never know, but these past two years of consistently working towards a goal, getting mostly positive reinforcement from people who see me as a student, writer, and friend, and getting a taste of how wonderful a stable life can be have convinced me that I can successfully give up self-harm.

On sunny days when I get enough sleep, am caught up on all my assignments, and all seems right in my world, this is an easy prospect. The self-destructive person who isolates herself and doesn’t ever ask for help feels so far away that I can’t believe I ever embody that identity. And yet, there are times when I find myself terribly close to reverting back to that old habit. It’s inevitable, this is just who you are, this is what you deserve… I don’t have to believe that if I don’t want to. As I continue to amass more and more time spent engaged in the real world with friends and classmates, time spent doing the things I love, it’s easier to see myself outside of that small and melancholy context.

Over the summer, I will be attending Disquiet International, an international literary program that takes place in Portugal. I have dreamed of opportunities like this, and am finally in a mental place where I can actually live the life of a writer and student. I will be going with three other students and a professor, who reached out to me and asked me if I would be interested in attending. I didn’t even have to think about it–I immediately said yes.

The prospect of traveling so far is daunting, I will admit. But the nervousness stems more from real-world worries like, “What if I get lost in the airport? What if I get lost in Lisbon and can’t find a bathroom? Will I be able to maintain my five-cups-a-day coffee habit?” I am less concerned about delusional plots involving being killed by human/alien hybrids or trying to hide a self-harm habit. Challenges do still crop up, and they will continue to do so. Just before my mom and I headed north, I had a conversation with a pair of scissors on my desk asking me to snip off my fingertip. Even as recently as this week, I’ve struggled with hearing voices during class, but I’m able to roll with it and ignore them, which hasn’t always been the case.

I have a little counter app on my phone that alerts me when I hit a milestone related to self-harm cessation and other things. I recently hit a small milestone and while I can recognize that this is very positive, I still have mixed feelings about it.

I feel horrible, like I shouldn’t be taking care of myself, like I can’t, or shouldn’t or that this is just not me.

A recent excerpt from my journal describes my discomfort with this newfound stability, followed by a contrastingly positive observation that,

“I guess, if I were my own therapist, I would say […] maybe you’ve spent so long hating yourself and getting comfortable in your self-destructive-harming-hating ways, that maybe it’s going to take some time, more than a month, even, for you to get comfortable in a different mindset.”

When I was diagnosed with BPD, I was told that one of the hallmarks of the diagnosis was lack of a “fixed sense of identity,” so I scrambled to find an identity in order to disprove the diagnosis. While some doctors’ office make it seem like an identity is something to check off on a list, a concept I bought into for a while, as it happens, an identity is nuanced, complex, and always in flux. As I progress through life in college as well as my mental health journey, I am still uncovering who I am, who I can be, and all the places I could go.

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