Eight years of therapy. So far.
I am surrounded by health professionals. Most recently, a chiropractor, a man from Russia whose wife works as his secretary. His belly is large and he touches me too much, in ways I find discomfiting. But my back is better than it was, and the pain is coming back only now, after two and a half weeks of not seeing him.
Before him, a nutritionist, with a thick Jersey accent. I think she has a NJ accent. I’m not quite sure, having not grown up in the United States. I could be entirely wrong. The first time I heard Welsh, I thought it was Hebrew. I don’t have a knack for languages, though I love listening to them. Focusing on my nutritionist’s accent is called deflection. I took enough psych courses in college. I know the terminology.
She was referred to me by my psychiatrist, a kind woman who is also an addiction medicine specialist, just like Dr. Drew, who used to be on Loveline, a show on KROQ that I loved, first because of Adam Carolla’s crass, non-PC humor, and then because of Dr. Drew’s sage advice. This happened before Dr. Drew became another celebrity doctor to the stars on TV.
The psychiatrist was referred to me by my therapist, another woman, one who is sweet, who knows me, who is perhaps too familiar with me to challenge me. But I stay with her because she has let me stay on the sliding scale student plan that I had when I started seeing her at the counseling center near my college.
A chain of referrals, all starting with one therapist who told me once that she wanted to hug me. She has a maternal instinct when it comes to me; I can tell, and it makes me uncomfortable. I have one mother, and I love her dearly. I need a therapist who is smarter than I am, who can cut through the sick logic I build in my head, who can convince me that I can and will get better.
I don’t know what getting better means. Sorrow seems normal to me.
I find meaning and pleasure in others’ desire of my body and my body of work. It gives me joy to hear the words “I love you” from a lover’s lips. I find peace in the post-coital shivers of my lovers’ backs, as my fingers caress them and they nuzzle up against me. There is a confidence that comes over me before, too, in the true desertion from my own body and my melding with the one beside, on top, in front, behind me.
There is solace and sobriety in being drunk on occasion, in losing myself to the laughter of others or the pounding of music in a warehouse or club. Feeling my body move in a way I always wanted it to, having this beast of burden obey me, it is a gift of wonder.
Both the languages I grew up with—English and Hebrew, one a polyglot and the other an ancient thing renewed—are beautiful, and my tongue and throat and teeth work together to switch between them seamlessly. One of the greatest gifts I received from my parents, this fluency. There is a delicious quality to words, put on paper or spoken out loud. Writing is an unexpected skill, one that I grew into by accident, finding out only later that it had been lurking in the corners of my psyche for longer than I remember myself, just like my progressive viewpoints that led me to tell my parents—in an anecdote I have no memory of—that when I get older I will keep my last name if I get married. If I get married to a man or a woman, I’d said. I played with words at my youngest, saying that I wanted to be a dishwasher—the machine—when I wanted to grow up. I said I couldn’t cope, but I could skate. I couldn’t do either, but pre-pre-pubescent wordplay makes up for the fact that it took me so long to learn how to read.
People like me and most of my friends used to be labeled as freaks, mentally ill, curable. They still are, in many cases. But being a woman and appreciating women’s bodies is not a mental illness. The anxiety of watching the girl you are in love with settle down with a man or give her phone number to someone else at a club—this is mental illness. The gnawing sensation that takes over my stomach and throat and groin and the tips of my fingers and the jiggling of my legs—this is mental illness. Being unable to fall out of love with them is something that makes me loveable to some, distasteful to others. The uncontrollable fear that locks me into place in front of a screen, clicking on candies and switching them around in the mind-numbing way that keeps me focused on something else, something other—this is mental illness. The fact that the fear has no basis in fact, in truth, in real consequences—this is mental illness.
My psychiatrist calls me an empathopath. (She takes credit for the term. Contact me if you want to cite it. She means it.) I make excuses for and understand the people who shit on me. D. was still in love with his ex-girlfriend, when we met; D. fucked half the campus; but D. didn’t fuck me, as much as I wanted him to, as much as I asked him to come over to mine that night at the bar, and as angry as he got, telling me that if the situation were reversed, if I’d been the man and he the woman, my actions would have constituted as sexual harassment. He was right. He’d already told me he wanted to be friends. “Friends with benefits?” I’d texted, and he, back, “Just friends, I think.” I wanted to be friends too, but I also wanted to recapture the complete silence of my ever-screaming mind, a silence he had caused in our first encounter. And he’d written, “I think.” Maybe he wasn’t sure. Later, once he’d forgiven me, he told me that I was one of the few people he thought he could trust, but he changed his mind almost at once, whether from disgust with my face and body or discomfort with the edge we could approach together. He unfriended me on Facebook, and I am not surprised: he was tired of seeing me around. Was tired of being reminded of a person who had let him down. What I wanted shouldn’t have mattered. He was in pain, and I made it worse. But after all, it was he who climbed on top of me on the roof and kissed me.
A. lied about moving back to Louisiana because he didn’t want to go back on what he’d said. Maybe he thought he’d told me too much already, with the abortion and the sex in the chapel and his affiliation with his fraternity. Whatever the truth is, he’s right not to want me. Like the other A., the more important A., he doesn’t need a crazy girl hanging around him, liking him, wanting him. Neither of them, the A.s, need my support, my attempt at salvation, my empathy. They have moved beyond me to greener, better, pastures.
As for the rest, they all had their reasons, and good ones, too. M., the second of his name, will realize this too, I am sure, but the lease is signed until next November. My cat prefers him. I resent her for it. We’ll have to make it work.
My obsession with those I’ve loved and lost—this is mental illness.
The lucky thing about my personal brand of anxiety/depression/eating disorder is that it makes me extremely hardworking. A workaholic, in fact. A pessimist too. My brother taught me when I was young that pessimism is the best way to be, and I took it to heart: if something bad happens, you’re right, so you’re happy; if something good happens, you’re wrong, but you’re still happy. I am not so hell-bent on being right that I’ll give up feeling good because of being wrong.
This kind of attitude, though, brings about the inevitable silver lining. Even while the cloud is stormy—whether it is regarding my future with A., S., R., M., or the possibility of becoming a published novelist—there is a part of me that believes that I can do it, live it, be it. There is a part of me that thinks that everything will pay off. All the hard work, the endless hours staring at screens in boredom, the falling asleep on books I have to review because for years I have read extensively before going to sleep and my body has a Pavlovian response by this point, all of it is worth it. The stress, the heart-beating anxiety, the dark days of exhaustion and thoughts of suicide as the most selfish thing I could do—worth it.
And this, this belief that it is worth it, I tamp down too. It is too frightening to believe in the impossible, too overwhelmingly positive. Living in the logic of a depressive is more comfortable. Safer. My skin is thicker there, so that every rejection or bit of bad news feels like the pinprick of an acupuncturist’s needle rather than the severe—but oh, so good—deep scratches left on my belly and so-called love handles and back fat.
Elephant skin, I guess, because I am highly functioning. I am determined to be better so that I can prove to myself that it’s impossible. This is depression logic.
On November 6th, 2006, my father died. This is the excuse for so many of my troubles. My daddy issues (whatever those are), my anorexia (though my father had a pot-belly), my inability to eat certain foods (my dad tried to put me through exposure therapy), my depression (“She grew up half-orphaned, she took care of him while he was sick, she watched him die, anyone would be depressed after that, wouldn’t they?”).
But I have inherited my father’s will to be Beckettian, to “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” And so I apply, and get rejected. I work as a freelancer, and don’t get paid as often as I should. I started a podcast through sheer will and have kept it running for over eight months now. I am a reader for two magazines that cannot pay me. I am a staunch supporter of artists, their art, their reality. I work hard for the one real boss I have. I continue to apply my skills to every possible place. My list of publications is apparently considered impressive. I acknowledge all this, but I continue to try again, because I always feel like I am failing again, and only occasionally better. The number of form rejection letters I receive proves that I am not failing better, but only the same amount. The fact that, without noticing, I stopped being a recovering anorexic, that I fell off the wagon so to speak, speaks for itself too.
But I make money, I survive, and I am lucky to have what I have. I am privileged to be able to lean on others for support when needed, and every time I remember that privilege I feel guilty. Unworthy. I don’t deserve to have what I have. I don’t deserve to be as lucky and as I am. That I am miserable either with or without success strengthens this point.
This too is depression logic.
Truths are scary things. I wear mine both on my sleeve and behind a mask. They are there for the seeing if you care to take a look. But they hide in plain sight if you’re unwilling to take the risk.
The secret to this duality is that I know that most people don’t want to see. My mask is confident, on its way to or already achieving some sort of success that is impossible to measure. It is a mask of well-being, of mental health that acknowledges its lack while making it seem like an easy thing to handle.
Even those who look behind the mask, who dare, who desire, will only find the outer shell of a mind teeming with hateful, baleful, disgusting, angry, hurt, aggressive, tragic, inexpressible, repressed, and painful thoughts and feelings. No one believes me that they are there, not quite, even when they claim they do.
That I think that no one understands, that what goes on inside my head is unique—this too is mental illness, but it is the ugliest, most despicable form that it takes, and the one that I would lobotomize if I were able to. If it worked that way.
My cocktail of pills tell me that it doesn’t work this way.
I would rather keep my eating disorder, the way I think about food relentlessly during the day to the point of exhaustion; I would rather keep my father dead than have him alive and breathing beside me; I would rather shake with anxiety when an ex finally cannot handle my intensity; I would rather all these things if being happy means losing my ability to write, my ability to care, my ability to empathize. And now, now that I am trying a new treatment, one that leaves me reeling with a foreign balloon of giddiness inside of me, now I am beginning to get scared. Because what if I lose the things that make me who I am, that make people both appreciate and run from me? What if I stay feeling truly okay? What if it means I won’t be able to write? What if it makes me more selfish? I am already selfish, contemplating these things, writing about myself, betraying my secrets to a world that surely doesn’t care—do I mean these words, though? Or am I simply used to them?
My inability to accept feeling good: this too is mental illness.