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Accepting Love

accepting love

I always find reading previous journal entries enlightening. Here’s an excerpt from 7 years ago about my struggle to be “normal”:

There’s always this doubt that I’m doing things right. Like if I’m passing for a normal human being. I have to learn what normal people do from observation and piece it all together. Like maybe the way someone feels when they have a learning disability in a non-disabled world. You kind of don’t want to have to point out to people that you don’t get it so you pretend that you do.

A clear precursor to Normal in Training.

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been reading journals from way back. Once I got past the entries about Rick Springfield and started having real relationships, it was difficult to read some of them with compassion because I was so frickin’ crazy. I know I still struggle with accepting love, but back then I was downright out of touch with reality.

In one entry, a friend of mine would repeatedly call me in the middle of the night to tell me that he loved me. Granted, he was drunk every time, but based on my experience in working with college students, it is when a person is drunk that they often reveal their deep, dark secrets. I have an eating disorder. I think about suicide. I’m in love with you.

My response in my journal was, I wonder what he means by that? I’m going to have to ask him next time. As I read this, I was like, what the hell is wrong with you? Are you delusional?! Is it not obvious what someone means when they tell you they love you? And then the next line was, why doesn’t anyone like me? Which was even more maddening to read. No wonder my ex boyfriends would tell me that nothing was ever enough.

I get it now, though. I couldn’t take in anything good. I didn’t believe I was lovable, and there was nothing that anyone could say to convince me otherwise.

I have been depressed for the past few weeks because, even though I did a much better job of saying no and conserving my psychological energy, eventually my work load was beyond what I am capable of carrying. Because I have such good friends, many of them recognized the signs (not being social, turning down tennis) and checked on me, invited me to dinner, sent me food. Because they know me well enough to know that I never have food.

It was difficult for me to accept their love. I have the same reaction to love as I do to pain. I can feel myself tightening up, trying to brace myself against it. It’s the craziest thing. But since I was practicing mindfulness, I did what I do when I realize I’m trying not to experience pain–I let myself feel it. Consent to it. I imagined giving the love space, letting it move within me and around me, and to express itself in whatever way it wanted to. I told myself that it was OK to let them love me.

I often tell clients that receiving love is not selfish. It is a gift, and refusing it hurts the person who is giving it. That it is more generous to accept it with gratitude than to tell the person that you don’t deserve it and list all of the reasons why. I actually told a client this yesterday.

I also told a friend that this is what I’ve been trying to do to make myself feel better, so now he reminds me that I have great friends who love me, and that I need to let them. Which pisses me off. Because even though it’s good advice–my advice–I still don’t like to be told what to do. He knows about this flaw, as well as all of my other flaws, but he loves me, anyway. I’m trying to let myself believe that, at least.

And you know what? It really did help. So I’m going to add it to my list of strategies of what to do when I’m depressed–to let people love me.

Like a Garden

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Lately I’ve been reading a lot of old journals. I’ve been writing since I was in 7th grade, believe it or not. I haven’t found those particular journals, but based on the ones from 8th grade, I’m guessing they’re not very interesting. Because in the ones from 8th grade, 95% of the entries were about Rick Springfield. Stuff like, “Don’t Talk to Strangers” came on the radio 10 times! I can’t wait to see him perform on Solid Gold on Saturday! I just bought the latest Teen Beat magazine and he’s on the cover!

In my defense, back then you couldn’t hear or see whatever song or video you wanted instantaneously like you can now. If you were really determined, you could call the radio station and request the song. And if you wanted to record it, you had to sit in front of the speaker of your stereo with your finger on the record button, waiting for “Don’t Talk to Strangers” to come on because the DJ said he was playing it next, and hope that he doesn’t talk over it at the beginning or end. And hope that your brothers don’t come into the room fighting or playing or whatever. So it was a bigger deal to hear the song you wanted back then.

But still. It doesn’t make for very interesting reading.

But in between the Rick Springfield stuff, there were glimpses of deep and meaningful things. It has been enlightening to see how I dealt with relationships back then. How I could never be convinced that someone liked me, despite the copious amount of evidence that they did. How little it took for me to believe that someone hated me. How not having contact with a friend for a day would be enough to make me believe I had lost them. My sense of self was so fragile. It’s as though I believed I ceased to exist without constant affirmation.

The sad thing is, that’s still true. All of the things I’ve written about in my blog about how demons are always telling me that no one cares about me, that I’m not important–it’s the exact same thing. I can at least say that I am more self-aware. I understand, at least intellectually, that people’s love for me endures, even when I haven’t heard from them in a day. I understand why it’s hard for me to believe this. I am aware of the ways I have manipulated other people because of this fear. It is the reason why I’m afraid to be in a relationship now–I don’t trust that I have changed. I don’t know if I can be less controlling.

Seeing that I am still essentially my 13-year-old self with more introspection makes me have a better appreciation of the garden metaphor of life. The essence of who we are never changes. Whatever was planted is what will grow there, no matter what I do. But I can do nothing, and nothing will grow at all but weeds. Or I can water, fertilize, prune, and protect, and the best version of what I am can grow. But at any point I can stop caring for myself, and all the work that I’ve done can be lost. Everything can die. Weeds can reappear. It’s a lifetime thing, tending to your garden.

I realize that gardening is how you cultivate wisdom. If you don’t garden, you can go through life and have no more understanding of yourself than you did at 13. You can cease to grow psychologically. You can be in a perpetual state of adolescent angst, wanting to be loved, but going about it in all the wrong ways. The extent of your internal world can be listing the number of times you heard “Don’t Talk to Strangers” on the radio, without ever going any deeper.

So even though I continue to battle the demons that tell me that I am not loved and am not worthwhile, just as I did back then, I am still a more cultivated version of myself. Always a work in progress, but also a beautiful landscape to behold in this moment.

 

Defending Hope

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Guess what the best predictor of suicide is? Here are some possibilities, in multiple choice form, since I used to be a psychology professor.

  1. a diagnosis of depression
  2. a diagnosis of anxiety
  3. feelings of helplessness
  4. feelings of hopelessness
  5. all of the above
  6. none of the above

I just threw in those last 2 options because students hated those. They are a bit sadistic, I have to admit.

The correct answer is…#4. Hopelessness.

I have only recently become aware of Hope. Among the cast of characters in my mind, like the Inner Critic and the Drill Sergeant, you’d think discovering Hope would have been a pleasant surprise. But I was actually annoyed with her. I had been calling her by a different name: Delusions of Grandeur.

In a previous post on optimism, I defended its merits even when it believes in something that is statistically unlikely to happen, like winning that lottery. Or that you’re going to win when you’re down 0-6, 0-5, 0-40 in a tennis match. I don’t feel like I risk too much by being optimistic, because when I lose, it’s really not that devastating. I wasn’t expected to win.

I don’t feel the same way about hope. Hope wants me to believe in things when the stakes are high. She wants me to put my dreams out there, knowing that they may get dashed. To open my heart up, knowing it might get broken. To believe in something, knowing that I might become disillusioned.

I blame a lot of my failed relationships on Hope. I yell at her whenever I think about the pain I’ve endured. How foolish she was. What the hell were you thinking? That was a terrible idea! Why did you not heed the warning signs? Why didn’t you protect me?

That’s why sometimes I am not so kind to her. Especially after I’ve been hurt. Hope must die! I must kill her off! So she hides from me. Slips between the cushions of the couch and throws pillows over herself so I won’t find her. Because I’m really not that thorough in my vacuuming.

Sometimes she tries to placate me. Pretends she agrees with me when I say things like, what’s the point of trying to get a book published? No one will probably read it, anyway. But then she tricks me into writing another blog post. Like tonight. Maybe it will make you feel better, she says. That’s the goal, after all. Not fame and fortune. It’s meant to be for you. Except she still secretly believes I will become a famous writer someday.

The truth is, I need Hope. I mean, she thinks I’m great. How can I kill off a part of myself that thinks I’m great? And she inspires me to do great things. It is because of Hope that I became a therapist. Without her, I would never have been able to help anyone.

And even when she breaks my heart and leaves me disillusioned, she convinces me that things will get better. That is the thing that keeps people alive, even in the midst of depression, after all. The hope that things will get better. So Hope has actually saved my life many times.

So I guess I’ll try to be nicer to her.

 

Walking the Line

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They say there’s a fine line between creativity and insanity. I would actually draw the line between sanity and insanity, with creativity and insanity on the same side. Sane people would be on the other side of the line. The further you get from the line, the more extreme you become.

For example, people who are creative might be the depressed artists who use writing, painting, music, or whatever to express their pain. But the further you get from the line, the more likely you are to lose touch with reality. The more likely you are to think that things like suicide might be a good idea.

People who are on the sane side might not have experienced depression, but they can imagine what it might be like and have empathy for people who are depressed. The further you get from the line, the more likely you are to believe that depression isn’t real. It’s just an excuse that lazy people use to avoid taking responsibility for their lives.

I would say that most of the time I’m pretty good at walking the line, but sometimes I get pulled over to the insanity side. Usually because I’m feeling someone else’s pain. Because my emotions are pretty intense already. So once they are combined with someone else’s feelings, it becomes too much. Then my demons seize upon my vulnerable state and try to convince me that my pain will never end. Why go on living? Follow me into the woods. You’ll be free from your pain over here.

Writing requires being able to walk the line. I have lots of entries in my journal from the times when I first started to feel depressed but none during the times when I was in the depths of despair. Because at that point, all my energy was focused on survival. If I wrote at all when I was happy, I usually didn’t have much to say because I was too busy enjoying life to have time for introspection.

I’ve been trying to keep my balance over the past month, but sometimes I have to cross over to the insanity side to bring people back. It’s a risk to my mental health, but what can I do? It’s like going into a burning building to save someone you love. How can you stand there and watch it burn down without at least trying?

Maybe it takes more than one person to bring people back to the sane side. Maybe you have to form a human chain like you do in a tug of war, where someone is anchored at the line. That way the person who has to go deep into the woods won’t get lost. They have people who are holding on to them, pulling for them, making sure they’re able to get back. That way demons can’t win.

So maybe I need to start recruiting for a team, just like I do in tennis. Find a few sane people, some people who can walk the line, and a few who are adventurous enough to cross the line so I can save someone who is lost.

If only I could find some sane people.

 

 

Journaling, Part 2

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There is this space that exists between the relationship that you’re in and the one you dream of. The land of if only. If only he would call more. Compliment me. Say I love you. Put me first. Then everything would be perfect.

I lived in that space for a long time. But it required a lot of denial and distortion. Like a really extreme version of tunnel vision. If I looked at the relationship through one eye and squinted so that everything was sort of blurry, it would faintly resemble something that might give me what I needed.

Until I opened my eyes again.

I often say that the thing I miss the most about being in a relationship is having someone to share my day with. Someone to witness my life–even the mundane things. But recently, when I thought back on my previous relationships, I realized that I actually haven’t had someone to listen to me in a long time, even when I was in a relationship.

At the time I was angry with them for not wanting to listen, but after the relationship ended I was angry with myself for not seeing what was there–or not there–all along.

I so enjoyed reading old journal entries last month when I was feeling down that I’ve been writing every day since then. Not only does it help in the moment, but it provides my future self with ample entertainment.

At first journaling felt like a lame substitute for talking to another person. But now I look forward to it. It has become my favorite nighttime ritual. I keep a running tally throughout the day of the things I want to talk about, just like I did when I was in a relationship.

And there are lots of advantages to writing about my day rather than telling someone about it. Like:

If I want to talk about a dream where I ordered a burger at some diner and they wouldn’t let me add anything other than cheese because that would be too fancy, I can retell every insignificant detail of the dream without boring myself.

Or if I want to talk about every random association I had about this story I heard on the radio about this guy in China who jumped in the river on his wedding day when he saw his bride-to-be for the first time, I can do so without seeming obsessive. (Was he trying to kill himself? Did he still marry her after he got out of the water? Were his parents pissed off? That must have made the bride feel like crap.)

Or if I want to talk about how I cried in session yesterday because I felt my client’s pain, I can do so without worrying about violating confidentiality. And without judging myself for getting so emotional.

Or if I write about the exact same problem for the hundredth time, even though I’ve written about it for pages and pages, I can give myself permission to do so. For as many times and as many pages as I need to, until I no longer feel the need to talk about it.

And when I need to practice self-compassion without being judged or criticized, I can give myself permission to list every single thing that is hurting me in that moment and respond to myself by affirming that this is pain. This is suffering. And I am sorry that you are suffering.

And at some point in the future, when I have forgotten the details of each day, I will delight in rereading these entries–even the sad ones. Because they capture my experience in the moment so perfectly. Because they help me put my life in perspective. Because I’m interested in what that person has to say. She fascinates me. She reminds me a lot of myself.

So now I no longer worry about when I will meet someone who will take pleasure in hearing about all the mundane details of my life. Because I can give myself exactly what I need right now, in this moment.

If You Don’t Keep a Journal, I Highly Recommend It

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I was feeling sad this week so I did what I always do when I’m sad: go back and read old journal entries to try to get some perspective on my current situation.

I don’t know how to put into words what a gift my journal has been to myself. It’s a surreal experience to remember all of the events I write about but to also feel as though I am reading my story for the first time. Here are a few of the things that I have learned about myself:

1 I think I’m hilarious. Maybe no one else would laugh out loud while reading my journal, but my jokes are funny to me.

2. I have been depressed a lot. My journals are biased in that I have more to say when I’m depressed than I do when I’m happy, but still. There are a lot of journal entries.

3. I really do need to trust my intuition. Some of the things I said were downright prophetic, but I had no idea at the time I was saying something important.

4. I’m a positive person. Which seems incompatible with being someone who has been depressed for so much of her life, but the proof is right there, in writing.

It was six years ago that I had my most severe episode. Last night I was reading my entries from around that time. Below is the entry from the week before I got depressed:

March 10, 2009

OK, so I’m finally reading this book on Life Coaching that I’ve had for years, and the first exercise is to make a list of what we want out of life. That seems like a pretty good idea. So rather than using my journal for focusing on the negative, maybe I can also use it to focus on how to make my life look more like I want it to.

I want to write a book.
I want to get paid to do public speaking—the motivational kind.
I want to help people live lives that are more fulfilling.
I want to be surrounded by people who remind me of what is good about myself.
I want to continue to improve as a tennis player.
I want to continue to have time for the things that I love.
I want to keep spending time w/ my friends.
I want to get better at enduring my feelings.
I want to be a more compassionate person.
I want to have more faith in myself.
I want to have some kind of successful business that gives me more freedom.
I want to be in good shape.
I want a personal chef!
I want to continue to develop my spiritual side.
I want to be loving in all of my relationships, including w/ myself.
I want to have more money in savings.
I want to have a better sex life.
I want to be a good wife and be in a healthy marriage.
I want my brothers to be happy.
I want my friends to be happy.
I want to approach life without so much fear.
I want to feel comfortable with whatever decision I make about children.
I want my ankle to heal!
I want to be comfortable with myself.
I want to have an impact on the world.
I want all my teams to win!
I want to be able to enjoy the present for as many moments as possible.
I want to feel like an expert in something.
I want to be wise.
I want to be able to make people feel.
I want people to love me and see me as lovable.
I want to believe that I’m lovable.
I want to believe in myself more.
I want to be a good therapist and teacher.
I want to be able to have a good balance b/t being honest and helpful and being intrusive and critical.
I want to be able to ask for help when I need it and accept it lovingly when it’s given.
I want to be more forgiving.
I want to be able to let go of anger, pain, doubt, fear, anxiety, and frustration.
I want to be able to age gracefully.
I want to be able to sleep when I want to!
I want to be creative.
I want to sing.
I want to spend time with my family.
I want to be able to be more appreciative of all of the wonderful things in my life.
I want my life to be meaningful.
I want to pee!
I want to be able to follow the serenity prayer.

That pretty much sums up what my blog is about. Which brings me to the last thing that I am reminded about myself:

I am the same person I have always been, striving to be the same person I’ve always wanted to be. 

200 Posts!

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You know what I love about blogging? Unlike birthdays and New Years, I feel different as I reach each landmark. In honor of my 200th post, I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned up to this point. Here are the highlights:

1. Vulnerability works. I started this blog in part as an experiment to see if sharing our vulnerabilities really makes people feel more connected to one another. The answer is an emphatic yes. Every time I read posts warning of trollers whose purpose is to write mean comments on your blog, I brace myself for the cruelty. But perhaps it’s harder to be cruel to someone who has already shared their weaknesses with you.

Perhaps there is less of a need to tear someone down when you know they feel just as flawed as you do.

2. Compassion works. You’re not supposed to judge how well you are practicing compassion, so I will just say that at this point, criticism is still my default. However, the more I practice, the more amazed I am at how powerful it is. MLK day was last Monday, and I think about how someone tried to strike down the message of peace and love. But that has only multiplied exponentially the power of Martin Luther King’s message.

Hate might be easier, but love is stronger than hate, so it is well worth the practice.

3. Prayer works. Every time I pray, I throw in a caveat that I totally understand if my prayer isn’t answered, given how trivial my concerns are in the grand scheme of things. And every time, I am surprised that God cares about my problems, big and small. I hate to admit it, but when I’ve heard people say that in the past, I looked down on them. But now I know it’s true. I guess if my parents care about my problems, why wouldn’t God?

It’s good to be reminded that my suffering is never trivial.

4. I love being alone. I have always been one of those people who had to be in a relationship, even if it was a crappy one. Of all my faults and failings, this is the one I have been the most ashamed of. But it turns out that I am happier when I am not in one. I admit, the first year was hard. I imagine it’s sort of how it feels to go through detox. Which gives me a better appreciation of how hard it is to overcome an addiction.

But now that I am “clean,” I have never felt better.

5. I am a writer! Perhaps the biggest philosophical question in the blogosphere is when you can call yourself writer. When you are published? When you receive your first paycheck? When you have declared yourself a writer? For me, it was when I discovered that many writers are night owls. They are always in their heads. They are plagued by demons that tell them that their writing sucks. They write even when they don’t get paid or published. Even when they find out that fame and fortune are unlikely.

I’m not even sure if I care about publishing a book anymore. Or about trying to make my blog popular. I like the freedom of writing about what I want when I want. I write because the joy is in the act of writing itself.