Year in review: picking myself back up

I haven’t been doing well this year. Lots of things have happened (that’s intentionally vague) and I didn’t have any time during the semester to sit down and process everything. Perhaps this is why the summer is always terrible for me; I suddenly have all of this idle time to think about the previous semester, to unpack statements, review glances, scrutinize past decisions. And it’s only coincidental that my summers are always full of idle time to just sit around and think, instead of busy doing things, being places, focusing on something more present. Anyways, I have been trying to write a post reviewing my first year of graduate school. Each time I sat down to type it out, I was disappointed with what I produced. It is not wise for me to begin writing when I am already anxious or sad, and while that may have worked in the past, I find it only makes me feel worse, while also making me self-conscious about the language and syntax I am using. The first draft was okay, but I lost it. The second draft was awful, and I haven’t looked at it. I am feeling optimistic about this one, although I know that it will take multiple posts to really doing the work of isolating and growing from the past year.

I haven’t been writing a lot this semester because I’ve been in the process of figuring out my place in grad school. My first semester was a moment of great transitions; everything was in flux and moving at so quick a pace that I couldn’t really take stock of what was going on. I had made a couple of friends, and was happy being around them. I was eating well, going to the gym, and generally feeling content in my adultness. I was writing well, if not publishing to this blog, reading often, and building up my self-esteem.

Something happened in late January of 2018, though. Something fell of the shelf in the night, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Around that time, I had pledged to myself to write something for this blog every week for a year. As you can see, by the fourth week of January, I was no longer committed to this plan. It wasn’t because of laziness or business, but it was because of something I could not have seen coming.

I had a depressive episode in late January through February. I talked about it briefly in post-language, although I didn’t have the language to describe what I had been feeling as depression:

I am unsure of the source of this malaise inside of me, this feeling of momentary dread. My IBS has flared up, and everything I eat accompanies discomfort and nausea. I don’t have much motivation to do anything, find my reading uncompelling, have been going to the gym sporadically. I have been very sensitive and prone to jealousy, have felt at times too isolated in a once-beloved solitude, yet suffocated by the presence of others. Everything seems to bring me a kind of disquiet, I cannot pay attention in class, my research has become a chore, and I’m slipping into the kind of “sensory” dressing that haunted me when I was younger.

I used the word “malaise” here in order to avoid “depression,” primarily because I hadn’t yet been diagnosed, but also because I thought that what I had been experiencing was symptomatic of other issues of wellbeing in my life, such as having chronic anxiety and generally being a melancholy person. Yet, in that moment of time, I was face-to-face with a demon. I did not want to be alone, and felt increasingly isolated from the world around me. I sought out the friendship of those near me, but felt it almost paralyzing to really speak about myself, to tell them what was going on, how I was feeling. I have been in so many situations in the past where I have told people how I feel and they’ve met me with a mélange of fear and disgust – it’s made me generally distrustful of other people. In that moment, however, I needed camaraderie and I needed affirmation, but did not know why or how to find it.

I am not entirely free from that moment in time. I still feel at times miserable for no reason, still have yet to rebuild my self-esteem or self-discipline. I am taking concrete steps towards building a better relationship with myself, but it is very difficult. I do not imagine I’ll be able to successfully complete these tasks by the end of the summer or of 2019. The road towards wellness is a long, arduous road with no end in sight, although it is not the idea of eventually reaching the destination, the promised-land of psychic wellbeing, which compels me to walk, but the idea that I am moving at all, that movement means growth, and that growth means change.

This is partly the reason for my fascination with ontology, or the beingness of things. To me, ontology is the quality of understanding the fact that things are. I do not ever believe I will stop being an anxious person. There are things I can do to mediate my anxiety, to learn to live with it, to rein it in and use it, to accept it as a part of my personality, but I do not believe it possible for me to excise it from my being. Anxiety is part of my ontology; it is part of the very fabric of my character. This I cannot deny. My life’s road has a few more bumps than yours may, but it is a navigable road nevertheless.  Yet, what fucks me up is realizing that other people are driving on smooth roads with no traffic, and that they are looking at my pothole-ridden road with disdain and pity. The former I cannot control. I can get envious, but that doesn’t help me to better navigate my road, so much as it makes me begin to pity myself for not having a smooth, freshly tarred road. The latter, however, is far more painful. Once I have accepted the fact that other people have it easier in this specific regard, I must come face to face with the kind of pitying hatred of those who get to sail along their freshly paved roads, those who look around and derive their power not from the idea that their road is itself well-paved (ontology) but that it is better paved than mine, or that mine is worse than theirs.

I had to learn to stop listening to other people, to stop deriving my own sense of worth from the opinions and approbation of others. This has been a truism in my life for many years; my father has been telling me this since I was at least five years old, when it was my only ambition to be friends with everyone. He would say “Xavier, not everyone is going to like you,” and as a child, I didn’t understand what it meant to be disliked by someone, to fail at making a friend. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized with bitterness and difficulty how painful it is to be rejected by people, and each time it hasn’t gotten any easier. But this isn’t the crux of the issue. It is not the rejection itself which stings, but the self-rejection which follows; the acquiescence of their rejection into an evaluation of the self. “Of course she doesn’t like you, you’re too fat.” “Of course you didn’t get this grant, your ideas aren’t well founded.” “Of course he doesn’t want to be your roommate, you’re unbearable.” That I have self-deprecating tendencies is no surprise to anyone who knows me, but these behaviors, vastly internalized, are unhealthy for a number of reasons. The first is that it assumes I have some right to people’s time, affection or desire, which is not true. It assumes that I deserve a friend’s affection, or that deserve to be someone’s boyfriend. The second is that it prefaces my own self-consciousness as the sole reason for being rebuffed, when in reality there may be a variety of factors. Perhaps the friend does not want to ruin what is already a very balanced, beloved friendship, with the potential messiness of a romantic relationship. Perhaps the friend does not want to be roommates with you simply because he is trying to figure things out on his own, and has had a string of bad roommate situations in the past which makes me reticent, if unwilling, to try again so soon. Perhaps I didn’t get the grant because there were a lot of applicants and I was relatively low on the priority list. Yet, my mind automatically jumps to the conclusion that I am being punished for the very thing I hate the most about myself. This is unfair to the people involved, and it is unfair to myself. Thirdly, all of these situations in my life have nearly always been infused with a kind of compromising spirit; “that if I get this, things will get better, I just know it.” If we start dating, you’ll realize how great a guy I am and you’ll be so satisfied with me, because I’ll do anything you want and be exactly who you need me to be so long as you give me a chance. If you give me this grant, it’ll solidify my career because I’ll be able to go to X country and look at Y archive and write the dissertation which will turn into the book which catapults me into worldwide renown and it will be precisely because of this grant so long as you give me the chance. If you decide to be roommates with me, everything will be great and we’ll have such a great time and save so much money and with that money we can do all sorts of cool things and we’ll be the best of friends and everything will go swimmingly so long as you give me the chance. I find that I am often bargaining and leveraging my own self-worth based on potential accolades or landmarks I’ve arbitrarily set before me. I am often in situations when I have to convince people in four points why they should care about me or respect me or love me, and it is so incredibly draining to do this work, only to be rebuffed or rejected. And it’s not fair to myself, because it continues the process of prolonging the slow buildup of my self-esteem because it substitutes in some “major accolade” from which all of my self-esteem, years of emptiness, will be replenished.

In some point in February, and again in early May, I realized that I feel terribly inadequate. I discovered that the way I structure my life has led me to feel punishingly inadequate. Practices I used to derive a sense of worth only worked so long as I was doing something interesting or fun or exciting, and I wasn’t really doing any of those things during the semester. I felt like just another human being, not really a person, primarily because there wasn’t anything which individuated me, which made me distinct. What qualities I did have seemed suddenly boring or unmarketable or unentertaining; I generally lost all of my self-esteem and self-worth. Much of this is par for the course of being in graduate school, and I do wish I had taken time off to get to know myself better. I have had to figure out who I am as a person while also working nonstop towards my research or to supplement my income or to work on my schoolwork, which has meant that I have pushed off all of the work of unpacking my life to the summertime. Yet, this summer has been quite difficult primarily because of the caravan of emotional baggage I know have to now sort through. I am not complaining so much as I am trying to underline the work I have in front of me which is perhaps more useful and more necessary than the copious number of books I’ve put in front of me to make me feel like I’m doing something. I need to learn how to live in my skin, how to build a mental framework that not only centers itself on my character, but on my wellness and wellbeing.

I am trying to do this in ways which aren’t impulsive. I’m not just going to delete Instagram so I can redownload it again in four days. I’m not going to just say “You deserve this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” while I type in my credit card info into a website and buy things I neither need nor want. I’m not going to just go and buy some hair dye and feel “different” while slowly getting upset with myself at no one seeming to notice the minimal change in my hair color (because no one really looks at me anyways). I’m trying to think long-term; how can I set goals for myself that I can achieve and that aren’t so I can just feel good about myself for having gotten an award or a grant? How can I focus on my research? How can I begin to write the papers I want to write? How can I be happier? Notice how frequently I am using that first-person singular subject pronoun (I) and not the object pronoun (as in, “How can I get this person to care about me?”). I have known for months that I need to learn how to be selfish, but I’m not coming to grips with just how necessary it is for me.

I am not trying to fix myself. I cannot take the anxiety out of my body, because it is my body. I can’t morph myself into the unanxious, cool guy; I’ll always be the person with the tense body and the shifty eyes, but I can find some semblance of solace in knowing that this is who I am.

I am not trying to fix myself, but better understand how I can live and find contentment in what seems to be a “broken” body.

Image: “Ma Ndau,” Tsoku Maela

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