I don’t know about the rest of you, but one thing I struggled with a lot in the worst of my mental health was feeling free. Not just from myself and my own judgments, but from other people’s judgments and the judgments of life; I talked a bit in the previous post about how it feels life has a standard of living we should be striving toward.
Growing up with anxiety meant every little thing made me cry. I felt kinds words reprimanded me, I felt harsh words reprimanded me, and silence or confusion around my actions or word made me feel “stupid”. That’s been a big hurdle for me: feeling stupid. Let me give you a recent example.
I decided to quit a second job I had acquired about six months before. One anxiety I still battle is approaching people, and a series of events lead up to me ghosting the job (as I have every job I’ve quit for the last 7 years). Their incessant calling my phone, my mother’s phone, and my primary job sparked paranoia; I heard the workers talking about me, their voices, their thoughts, and had the first panic attack I’ve had in 2.5 years. At the end of it all, friends seemed to reflect that I’d felt bad for ghosting my employer. But that wasn’t the case.
The things I heard were them discussing how stupid I’d been to do this. I feared looking stupid in the eyes of people I’d probably never see again.
There’s no guarantee had I quit “properly” I wouldn’t have experienced the same things. I always thought they considered me stupid, and that is in relation to how little I speak. That’s traced back into a childhood of selective mutism and gut wrenching anxiety and people actually thinking I was slow.
So, freedom felt hard to come by. Unobtainable. Non-existent.
My first realization came some months back: I needed to give myself permission to speak. I had never been given the chance or the encouragement as a child; at home, I was bullied into stifling my voice, especially around “grown folks”, and at school I was reprimanded for never talking. My child brain didn’t know how to reason through that contradiction. And so my first step as an adult was to remind myself I’m allowed to speak.
My second revelation came as I thought about the meaning of freedom. Could I do whatever I wanted? Murder without a conscience? Disregard consequence? Revel in havoc and embrace chaos? I dabbled in heavy partying for a brief period, mixed medications and alcohol hoping to feel alive and free in debauchery and carelessness. I didn’t feel trapped anymore, but I didn’t feel free either. So chaos wasn’t freedom, it was just a localized, appealing version of pain.
If recklessness wasn’t freedom, than what was? I thought back to the days I berated myself and physically hurt myself out of confusion and some underlying need to be noticed. I didn’t consider myself a bad person, but I didn’t think I was very good either, and then I learned.
I learned I judged myself (and assumed other people’s judgments) were based on whether or not I saw myself, or they saw me, as a bad person, a stupid person, an awkward person. I wanted to be good with the assumption that good meant genius, perfect, social. Being smart wasn’t enough for me–I needed to be smarter than everyone or my intelligence was worth nothing. I needed to not have acne or be so tall or wear unflattering clothes. I needed to not isolate. I needed to not need isolation. I needed to meet people and have friends and be normal. Normal was good. By those standards, I was very, very bad.
I spent time cycling around town, hiking in mountains, and thinking. I learned bad was pretty good.
I don’t mean this in the cliche sense of “in every bad person, there’s a good heart”, nor do I mean “not being normal is also good.” I mean, quite literally, we wouldn’t understand this concept of “bad” without good, and visa versa. Both are within each other, and created from each other, and therefore to label myself one or other, I labeled myself both. And I don’t mean that in the sense of “yes, everyone has a good side and a bad side”. Again, I mean this quite literally, and in a concrete sense, separate from the outcome of actions or thoughts. I.e, starting a riot in the middle of the street is called bad and therefore also called good. One concept can’t exist without the other in every form of life.
It didn’t mean that because snorting coke was both good and bad I should indulge. It meant I could acknowledge the duality and weigh my choices based on the outcome I wanted. I don’t not do drugs because it’s “bad”. I don’t do drugs because it would serve no purpose in the way of freedom.
That brought a lot of comfort because I no longer logically needed to live up to an invisible standard.
Being content with and understanding the connective duality of life gave me freedom from myself. It allowed me to allow space for those voices in my head, including my own negative thoughts; we were all now equal in our non-equality. Their darkness, and my own, was now also light. There was freedom in not fighting, and by not fighting, I fought. It’s similar to breaking an enemies resistance without fighting, which I believe is a central theme in Doaism teachings.
None of this stopped the pain. But all of this let me understand pain, and what I understand, I don’t fear.
It’s refreshing to understand yourself.
When I stopped seriously blogging about two years ago, it was abrupt and painful. Painful because I missed the writing community of almost five years which had enjoyed stories and laughs and tears and memories and traumas alongside me. They were there when I got my first car. They were there when I quit each job I got. They were there when I became employed at a Peer Respite house. They were there in my largest transformations of self.
Also painful because I was cracking up. Breaking down. In the hospital, confused and somewhat oddly satisfied in my terror of life. I felt alive again in a twisted way. I felt targeted and special and immortal and genius and connected to something greater than myself.
I posted every once in a while, but lost my follower’s attention. I created a slough of new sites, but WordPress changed so much of their format that I got frustrated trying to adapt. So, I went dark.
I told myself I’d be back only when I felt secure in myself. I’d be back only when I knew I had something important to say. I have something important to say.
This journey through depression and delusion and anxiety has given me new insights on darkness. Its introduced me to the true duality of nature so described in daoism. It’s roughly coddled me into accepting not only myself but all of life.
At the beginning of the pain, before I even worked at the respite house, a voice kept telling me “dead man walking”. Considering I’m a woman, it kind of cracked me up and also simultaneously terrified me; someone, something, was coming to kill me I thought. But I don’t think he predicted my future. I think he commented on my present. I was dead. I enjoyed nothing. I faked smiles. I practiced expert avoidance. I ignored myself and my inner processes because they scared me and because of that fear those inner processes found a way to express themselves for the first time in both of our lives. That way was voices, beliefs, depressions, a mania, panic attacks, and the underlying feeling of being broken.
I could talk about childhood stuff here. I could talk about medication and homelessness and the trauma of school. But I spent years reiterating that on my previous blog. I’ve spent time reiterating it to friends and therapists. And now, I can sum it all up in one word: fear.
I feared everything, for many reasons. I feared life. I feared being sad. I feared being happy because sadness came after. I feared anxiety, I feared death, I feared fear.
I think many of us go into therapy or other treatments confused on what “processing emotions” means. I think some therapists and psychiatrists who have never really gone through that heavy process are also confused on what it means. So they blurt it because they’re supposed to, it’s part of the script.
Processing emotions for me meant more than just talking about them and feeling them. It meant not telling myself “tomorrow will be better” or “this is temporary” or “I’ll be happy some day”. It meant not telling myself “you need to get up”. It meant greeting darkness with a handshake and respecting the space it needed within me. The darkness is lonely, too.
It meant sharing my body and my mind with panic and voices and fear and setting boundaries with them; if we all have to live in here together, we need to communicate and I can’t hold the power. But neither can you.
It meant getting comfortable with uncertainty. There is no standard “life”. My experiences don’t make life worse than what life should be, they don’t make life better than what life should be because life doesn’t have a designated “should”. It doesn’t have a designated “have to”. It’s just there.
It meant veering from my psychology degree and studying philosophy, a bit of physics, and leafing through neuroscience articles. It meant studying research. It meant, for me, getting off medication, and really feeling ALL of myself.
I’m sure most people have heard of the double-slit experiment in physics. I remember hearing about it for the first time as I sat high as a kite in High School chemistry. You learn the conclusion is that photons (and other particles) behave as both a wave and a particle, given the observed interference pattern. What high school teachers don’t talk much about is that the reason we come to that conclusion and label it as a reasonable consensus is because, as of right now, we’ll never know if we’re wrong.
We can’t see a single photon pass through anything with the naked eye. And so when we don’t observe it with a camera, when we can’t see what’s happening, the photon behaves as a single photon. The camera we use to observe this particle has a tiny light. That tiny light is a confounding variable–it could be affecting the particle’s behavior. Or maybe it isn’t. But, because we can never see for ourselves with a naked eye, we’ll never know. That’s the paradox, and part of the foundation of the Uncertainty Principal.
We’ll never know. We’re limited in this life we have, and when we’re not okay with that, we run ourselves exhausted trying to fix what isn’t broken.
I’m not scared of darkness anymore. What is there to be scared of?