Massive wall of water, suspended. Narrow space of dry ground, an alley through the sea. I am standing on a ladder in the sand, leaning against the liquid wall. I am frantically laying tiles on the water, one little square at a time, trying to hold it up, reinforce it. I am madly laying the tiles, covering up just a few feet of this massive surface that stretches on for miles. Suddenly, I stop. There is no need for me to cover the water, to build a wall against a wall. God has already parted the sea.
This recent dream pretty much sums up the pickle I’ve been in lately. I am feeling immeasurably better since my last post. I have reoriented myself internally and, though I am just as busy, I am far less stressed out.
I realized that I have been suffering from a severe case of trying too hard. Indeed, trying too hard seems to be at the root of much of my longstanding anxiety. I have a habit of constantly trying: trying to be polite; trying to be good; trying to be perfect. I try at everything. I try hard in school, work, relationships, life. I try hard in my spiritual practice. I try hard, very hard, to relax (what an oxymoron!).
There is a hilarious irony underlying all this, in as much as trying actually undermines both being and doing. This stressed out, effortful trying is an expression of basic fear. It communicates a fundamental lack of trust in the world and in oneself. Far from improving one’s performance or helping one to meet goals, trying diverts energy, corrodes calm, and goes against the flow of life. All in all, trying makes action inferior, cramped, inhibited, uninspired, and it is incompatible with wellbeing.
So I have stopped trying. I am not trying to be a good student, counselor, partner, friend or employee; I am not trying to be healthy, happy, or perfect; I am not trying to relax, be present or meditate.
Quitting trying feels like a great big trust fall in which I am both the one falling and the one catching myself. I feel I am just sitting back and watching the actions of the mysterious intelligence I call myself. With no effort whatsoever, I do all the things I need to do, know all that I need to know, and more than that. Words just come out of my mouth spontaneously, and they’re often very appropriate words; I walk out of my house and directly to my workplace, somehow knowing the way. It’s amazing. And it really underscores just how little good trying does me. It seems I can completely stop trying and, far from my fears of my life crumbling into a twisted mess of pain, the only immediate consequence is that I feel a lot better.
I am still doing. I go about my day; I attend to the tasks that greet me. When tension and anxiety arise I remind myself: I am not trying. I am not trying to do an excellent perfect job at this or that, so if I screw up, if it doesn’t turn out right somehow, what’s the big deal? At the same time, I am not trying to be a super present spiritual person, so if I am worried and preoccupied, who cares? I’m not trying to do or be anything in particular–so whatever I’m doing and being is fine.
I am struggling right now in my other transition–adulthood. I am feeling really overwhelmed. I’ve been stressed out for a while, but I seem to have hit some kind of new threshold. The combination of grad school classes, counseling clients, intensive supervision, my job, joining the board of a professional organization, looking for an internship for next semester with time running out, and, you know, life, trying to be a good partner, son and brother, and all the little tasks that demand doing daily: dogs, chores, shopping, appointments, bills, prescriptions, phone calls… Holy shit, how the hell do people do this?!
Writing it out, at least, I can see why I feel overwhelmed. I really have a lot going on right now. The counseling & supervision is such a challenge in itself. It’s very exciting and rewarding, and I can see growth and change in myself and my clients. But wow, it pushes me so hard, I don’t have that much energy for the zillion other things going on.
I keep getting waves of anxiety, feeling like an imposter. What the hell am I doing? Who am I kidding? I’m terrified.
On the one hand, I feel like, what a joke that I am supposed to be helping others with their mental health–I’m a fucking mess! On the other hand, the nature of the work inspires me to be good to myself, to not work myself too hard, because to make myself miserable helping others be well is just absurd (not to mention impossible).
It is so damn bizarre. I’m like, ok, one minute I’m scrambling to finish a paper; then I’m in a meeting for work; then I’m coaxing someone into a signing a piece of paper promising not to kill themselves; then I’m having dinner with my partner; then I’m giving a presentation on how to help undergraduates write essays; then I’m doing dishes; then I’m listening to someone talk about being raped; then I’m watching a video of myself listening to someone talk about being raped, as another person pauses the video every few minutes to ask, “What were you feeling at this moment?”; then I’m cold-calling agencies and pleading with them to let me work for them for free; then I’m trying to get somewhere on time; then I’m sitting in tiny room with a sobbing man; then I am stopping a moment to smell the first lilacs; and a voice comes through my headphones, saying,
One generation goes, and another generation comes; but the earth remains forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hurries to its place where it rises. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north. It turns around continually as it goes, and the wind returns again to its courses. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness beyond uttering. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is that which shall be; and that which has been done is that which shall be done: and there is nothing new under the sun.
Alma and I keep joking that we are babies pretending to be adults. Funny cuz it’s true. I am in over my head.
You still haven’t started that paper. You forgot to send that email again. What’s wrong with you? You haven’t done the dishes in a week. When are you going to write your aunt back? I can’t believe you said that stupid thing at work today. You better call the dog in. Are you ever going to start that paper?
So goes the monologue that so often takes over my mind, and that’s on the good days. I’ve posted before about my experience with anxiety and obsessive thinking. I recently stumbled upon a strange method for getting a little distance form it. I named it Simon.
I got this odd notion from an episode of On Being (one of my favorite podcasts) with pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. She explained,
I named my depression Frances because it was like a really bad roommate who would never leave. And at the time when I really suffered from depression, it was when Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love had their child named Frances Bean, and so I named my — at the time they named their child, I named my depression Frances.
But I always pictured her more like Courtney Love, kind of emaciated in a vintage nightgown with like smeared lipstick and a gin bottle and a cigarette. Like that was Courtney. I mean, that was Frances, my depression. And like at first, she was kind of interesting to hang out with, but then she just never moved out.
Something just clicked when I heard this. Of course! All this time I’ve been observing my thoughts, knowing myself as the awareness, not the thinking/thinker. But it’s damn hard to remember when the dust-devil swirls in. What better way to disidentify from my obsessive thinking than to give it a name?
So I named it Simon. I picture him vividly: a skinny, scrawny boy of 18 or 19, with messy black hair and wire-frame glasses. I feel like he’s my younger cousin or something, and for some reason, I’m expected to live with him. Simon is the kind of roommate who leaves his dirty socks on the floor and eats the leftovers you were saving. Simon has strong opinions on matters on which he is utterly uninformed. Simon believes everything will go wrong and he wants me to know it.
Naming Simon has sparked something of a revolution in my mind. That evening, all my anxious thoughts were suddenly in sharp relief, obvious in their absurdity and complete uselessness. Shut the fuck up, Simon, I though to myself over and over. In the few weeks since this happened, my anxiety has plummeted. Best of all, whenever it rears its ugly head, it is easily shot down. I wouldn’t put up with this crap from a roommate; there’s no need to put up with it from myself, either.
No more Simon Says.
Last month, I visited my doctor and asked her for a prescription for amitriptyline. I took this medication for several years, from the time I was about 16 to age 21, to help me cope with depression, anxiety and migraines. Three years ago, delighted with the way testosterone had improved my mood, I stopped taking it.
I’m still not sure exactly why. I was doing much better–but what made me think I didn’t need it anymore? Maybe I just didn’t want to take two medications. More than that, I didn’t want to be someone who had to take two medications.
Testosterone has improved my quality of life tremendously. But after three years, I had to admit that my anxiety had reared its ugly head again. I got sick of being debilitated by spirals of worries, irrational and bottomless. I got sick of feeling like shit when nothing was wrong.
I realized I had two entirely separate conditions: I am transgender, and I am prone to depression and anxiety. To be more specific, I have obsessive compulsive disorder, in my own semi-educated opinion. These conditions certainly interact with one another, but they are basically separate. A lot of people in my family have the same depression and anxiety problems, but not a one is trans.
It’s amazing how difficult it is to admit you could benefit from mood-altering medication. I am a staunch supporter of mental health treatment–I’m becoming a counselor, for goodness sake–but I felt a major twinge of shame at asking for help.
There’s the idea that having a mental health condition makes you crazy, sick, inferior, or broken. There’s the idea that if you’re functioning and surviving, you shouldn’t seek treatment just to make your life a bit better.
Life is precious. We get one shot. There is truly no good reason not to get the most we can from it–to be our fullest and healthiest selves, to be as alive and awake as possible. For some people, medication is one important tool for making contact with reality.
I am so glad I bit the bullet and asked for the prescription. I still have obsessive thoughts, but they are fewer, and it is much easier to recognize them for what they are. My default mood, when nothing is especially right and nothing is especially wrong, has gone from agitation and uneasiness to quiet contentment. I look forward to starting the day in the morning, and I look forward to coming home at night.
At this point, I couldn’t care less about needing a couple of medications to be healthy. The thought seems preposterous now, and more than a little ungrateful, given my overall good health. I am just so glad I have them.