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Angels and Demons

I thought of something I can say to the part of me that tells me I’m undeserving. In fact, I say it all the time. It’s “Shut up demons! You don’t know me!”

People usually think of that little devil on our shoulder as the part of us that tells us to do something bad, like “Go kill that person!” Plus some less extreme things, like “Call that ball out! You’ll win the game!” From a mental health perspective, the devil tells clients to do things like “Get black out drunk instead of staying in to study. And then miss your therapy session so you don’t have to talk about it.”

Sometimes that little devil will disguise itself as the angel and will try to make us believe that we are doing something good when we are actually hurting ourselves. Things like “There are people starving in the world, and here you are eating all of this food that someone else needs more than you. You really shouldn’t be eating at all.” Those are the most insidious messages of all.

When I was depressed I went around yelling at my demons all the time. They were constantly telling me that I should kill myself for stupid reasons. But I didn’t want to die. I knew it wasn’t coming from me. So I would literally go around the house telling the demons to shut up. Which I found hilarious.

My psychiatrist, on the other hand, did not appreciate my sense of humor. When I told him I had started yelling at my demons, he did that stereotypical psychiatrist thing where he just looked down and wrote something on his legal pad. Probably something like “She’s f@%ing crazy!” But whatever. It worked. All that warrior training paid off.

I was really tired on Sunday and Monday. I had been obsessing about my Halloween party for weeks because I have an anxiety disorder. I am in the midst of the busiest part of the semester and rarely have an hour to myself, unless someone doesn’t show up. I’m playing on two tennis teams and am captaining one of them. And the weekend before I drove 4 hours to watch my beloved UVA team blow another lead to lose the game, which was both tiring and depressing.

So for once, when I needed to sleep all day on Sunday and a good part of the day on Monday, I did so without beating myself up about it. Without trying to will myself to be productive. Without telling myself how pathetic I am for being so tired, when the average human being wouldn’t be. Instead, I tried to take care of myself. I would ask myself things like, “What do you need right now? Are you hungry? Do you need to go back to sleep? Would it help to take Advil? How can I make you feel better?”

Sometimes the little angel on our shoulder tells us not to do bad things. But more often, in my case at least, it encourages me to be more loving to myself. So I’m going to counteract messages about being undeserving with love. And by yelling at my demons.

Declaration of Independence

I am working with a client who was sexually assaulted and is thinking about taking her case to our judicial board. We talked about the levels of awareness that she went through before she could be ready to take this step. How at first she didn’t want to acknowledge what happened. Then she opened up to a few people who felt safe. Now she wants to make sure he understands that what he did was not OK. To force him to think about it the next time. She hopes to eventually share her story at Take Back the Night so that other people can benefit from it.

She knows that there will be people who won’t believe her. Who will blame her for what happened. She prepares herself by reminding herself that as long as she knows what happened, that’s all that counts. But that’s a hard thing to do–to face the judgment within us and around us. It takes a lot of courage to face that kind of scrutiny.

I like to think of this process as a kind of declaration of independence–from our demons, from judgment, from fear. It happens every time someone goes to AA and admits they’re an alcoholic. Every time someone finds the courage to say I have an eating disorder. I struggle with depression. I live in fear. In making this declaration, they take away the power that their condition has to make them feel weak. Defective. Crazy.

To a lesser extent, I think of my blog as a kind of declaration of independence. I’ve tried to hide these things about myself all my life. I don’t want to be held hostage by them anymore. I want to be able to embrace everything that makes me who I am–especially the things that I am ashamed of.

The president of the student organization I advise, Active Minds, told me that he reads my blog, which kind of freaked me out at first. But he thought it was the most powerful way to fight stigma and to let other students know that they are not alone in their struggles with mental illness, which is the primary goal of Active Minds. So he is finding ways to give students the opportunity to make their own public declarations. It is a wonderful feeling to know that this has come out of my willingness to share my vulnerabilities.

I’ve always liked the expression that freedom isn’t free. You have to fight for it. Although blogging has been a surprisingly supportive and positive experience, I am well aware that there will be times when someone will judge me for what I say. I try to prepare myself for it by doing what my client is doing–to remind myself that ultimately, the only person who counts is me. Then I take a deep breath and hit Publish.

Declaration of Independence

Free Will

When I was in college, one of my fellow psychology majors asked me if learning about psychological theories made me question whether we had free will.  It did not.  Although his question did make me read through the theories again, just to make sure I understood them correctly.  But I was still convinced of my free will.

In my last post I used the example of an alcoholic father to illustrate how difficult it is to sort out blame and responsibility.  If alcoholism is genetic, and his parents were alcoholics, and all of his friends drink, what chance does he have of living a sober life?  How much of his behavior is in his control?

What if you have someone who is depressed with no family history of depression and no apparent cause, and she can’t get out of bed to make it to class.  Is her depression real?  Does she deserve to fail?  What about if she refused to go to therapy and start meds?

I mentioned in my last post that these problems require forgiveness.  We have to forgive ourselves for having the disorder.  We may have to ask for forgiveness from people whom we have harmed.  And we may have to forgive people who have added to our suffering.

When I’m depressed, I think everything is my fault.  In the midst of an episode, I am angry at myself for not being able to function.  I don’t think I have an excuse to be depressed.  In those moments, it’s hard to forgive myself for not being able to control everything.

I also mentioned that there is always some part of the problem that we can take responsibility for.  It may not be the alcoholic dad’s fault that he is prone to addiction, but he can join AA.  He can stay away from friends who pressure him to drink.  He can see a therapist.

I believe that knowing our limitations allows us to have more freedom.  In my work, clients often try to convince other people that their suffering is real.  I tell them that they have limited control over what other people think about their disorder.  However, they don’t have to blame themselves.  They can take control of what they can control.

Some people think that going to therapy is a sign of weakness.  In reality, therapy increases your degrees of freedom.  And I want to make sure I capitalize on all the freedom I can get.


Whose Fault is It?

I love playing games.  One of my favorites is the Blame Game.  Even though any couples therapist will tell you that you’re not supposed to do this, I’ll use every piece of evidence of every argument I can remember to prove that it’s not my fault.  I have no doubt this has contributed in part to the demise of some of my relationships.

However, even though I don’t like being at fault, I also blame myself for everything.  I’m one of those people who takes too much responsibility for problems.  Maybe that’s why I am also willing to do more than half of the work to try to “fix” the relationship.

The whole blame and responsibility thing is even harder to sort out when you throw in mental illness.  Lets say, for example, that you have an abusive alcoholic father.  Is it his fault if he hits you while he’s black out drunk?  Is it his fault that he has an addiction-prone brain and can’t just have one drink?  What if he had been sober for a year but relapsed because a buddy guilt-tripped him into going to a bar to celebrate his new job?  What parts of the alcoholism are his responsibility?

In my work, the Blame Game is the most problematic in a sexual assault.  It is often the case that both parties were drinking.  However, when friends are assigning blame, the perpetrator is seen as being less responsible because he was black out drunk.  The victim is seen as being more responsible for allowing herself to get that drunk.

And when the victim comes to therapy, she also believes it was her fault because she had been drinking.  The perpetrator usually doesn’t come to therapy.  In rare cases, the victim will bring the sexual assault to our judicial system to get the perpetrator to take responsibility for his behavior.  And the victim almost never wins.

The two most common disorders we see in the Counseling Center are depression and anxiety.  These are disorders where the person takes too much responsibility for their problems.  If they can’t will themselves to get out of bed and go to class, it’s their fault for being lazy.  When I suggest that a client try meds for her panic attacks, she often says no.  That’s a cop out. She should be able to do it on her own.

I don’t claim to know the answers for how much blame a person should assume.  I do know that the split in assigning blame is rarely 100% to 0%.  There is always some part of the problem that we can take responsibility for.  And when we take responsibility for our part, it usually makes things better.

Sometimes no one is to blame.  This one is really hard for people to accept.  How can you play the Blame Game if it’s no one’s fault?  But let’s say a typhoon hits the Philippines and causes mass destruction.  Whose fault is it?  There is power in blame because it gives us the illusion of control.

But there is also power in forgiveness.  We can forgive the other person for wrongdoing, even if they haven’t accepted any responsibility.  And we can forgive ourselves for our role in the problem.  And forgiveness is much more freeing than blame, regardless of whose fault it is.