Revelations; or The Way Forward

It has been a tremendously long time since I have updated this blog.

To cut straight to the point, several significant experiences have happened over the past two years:

  1. I worked in an under resourced school with students (children) who carried immense traumas. Reader, you will be not be surprised to learn that my priority for the year I worked with my students was to ensure their social and emotional well-being.
  2. The children I am closest to in my life went through experiences somewhat similar to what I experienced growing up. It brought to the absolute forefront for my mother and myself the realities of how we coped and what we must do differently.
  3. My brother and I came to loggerheads, somewhat, and I told my mother the truth about my experiences growing up.

On that last point–after another troubling familial visit, I spoke with my therapist about the persistence of the ways in which my brother and I trigger each other when we are face to face. In the midst of our conversation, I made an offhand comment about how there was no need to involve my mother in it because she knew none of it.

My therapist balked. She had not realized that I had not told my mother about my brother’s violence. Realizing I had not told either my brother nor my mother about my perceptions of my childhood, we came to agree that–like many abuse survivors–I carried a fear of not being believed. It was a surprising realization on many levels, not the least that it was a symptom I had always been aware of, but never conscientious of when it came to myself. I have told so many people about my upbringing, but not those who could potentially argue against it.

Fast forward a couple days, and I find myself lashing out at my mother as she defends my brother over something banal. I walk away after realizing that this is my resentment resurfacing. I am irritated that she finds him to be perfect but incapable of hearing hard truths–that he is to be coddled. After a moment’s reflection, I realize that while my mother coddles my brother–I do as well. That is what happens each time I bend over backwards trying to mask how much fear he inspires in me and how carefully I comport my body and watch my words in his presence. It sinks in how I have been unfair to my mother. She was not the person who inflicted violence in our homes. It was my father and my brother. I felt that to remove that blame from her–it was time to tell her.

Telling my mother about the abuse was the best thing I have done for our relationship. I say this knowing that opening up about abuse to involved parties is not always the safest option–is not always the best choice for one to make. I have developed in a multitude of ways these past two years–since my past several entries. Working in an emotionally taxing job where students and co-workers are leaning on you for support can make you a much stronger and much more confident person, but there are more ways for you to develop a sense of security and foster a community of support. Only you can know if and when you are ready to disclose or take steps towards healing. I encourage seeking out resources on restorative justice for mediation in this process.

As for my story–I returned to my mother’s room and sat on her bed while she browsed the Internet on her computer. She could tell that I had something on my mind, and when I struggled to find my voice, she told me to use whatever words I could to begin. I told her in a sentence or two that my brother had mistreated me growing up and that that was why I had been so anxious–and remained so in his presence alone. That was all I could muster before bursting into tears. I was inconsolable in a way that I have never been before. My entire body was shaking. My mother immediately rushed to get me a glass of water, gave me a hug, said “Okay! Let me tell you what was happening to him,” and sat in front of me.

She took me through the peaks and valleys of trauma my brother (and my mother and I) experienced, but in doing so, she was able to give me a sense of what his behavior looked like on the outside. She recognized certain patterns in him, and–indeed–the way he would lash out at me, particularly pronounced to her when I was younger. It coincided with the way my father acted in our lives. My father was neglectful towards my brother at best, but when I was born he completely ignored him. Not only that, but he was physically abusive to my mother as well. It likely did not happen in front of my brother, but he was a smart kid, and being sent out of the apartment before an explosion was probably context enough for him to imagine what was happening behind the closed door.

I can not emphasize enough how healing it was to be believed immediately. She had not known the details, but what I told her made complete sense. My mother had done what she could to keep my brother from hurting me. I do believe that. But she worked 10-12 hour days and he was tasked with watching over me at home. I, in turn, while manifesting probably a myriad of red flags, also worshiped the ground he walked on. At the time, she probably presumed that as long as I appeared somewhat happy, there was no need to intervene. There was no way for her to know what to do. Telling her not only gave me the support I always wanted from my mother, but it gave my mother a more complete understanding of our family.

She told me: “You both were surrounded by love growing up, but you were both neglected. I can admit that.”

My relationship with my mother has transformed. No longer are we set off by each other. Things she says and my behaviors no longer cause us to travel down negative cycles that culminate in us saying devastating things to each other.

And with that, I now feel it opportune to shift my focus away from myself. I want to now think more systemically. I have potentially exciting upcoming news that will help me conduct analysis of the way an approach to the mental health of youth–particularly youth in structures vastly different from those found in the United States–is handled. Keep an eye out!


On perspective.

I think an important part of this project–for me–is not to publish retractions, but to document changes in perspective as time goes on. As I begun this, I imagined each post to be a stand alone examination of myself at any given moment; an analysis of how my history shaped me and my relationships and my understandings of them.

It has turned into a cathartic outlet–the catharsis borne from intellectualizing trauma triggers so that when I see red, I reason my way into forcing it to make sense.

This is not to say that what I’ve written is false–but that it is not an accurate portrait of my mother in all her nuances and motivations. It is how she is perceived by me, a person who is very frequently triggered by her–and I say this confidently–unintentional button-pushing.

Like my relationship with my brother, my mother and I often fall into cycles of triggering each other. It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand what trauma triggers look like with our family. And they look like what I’ve written. But that does not mean my analysis is entirely sound. What I perceive as malice is determined by my body and mind which find negative judgements of my being highly accessible.

I also do not want to be overly generous or euphemistic–my mother has said things so biting in front of several friends on separate occasions that has caused them to express concern.

Yes, my mother says things I find to be unhealthy for both of us. But she has never withheld money in any serious way, locked me up, kicked me out on the street. If she truly had a grand master plan to control me, she would be tugging at the many strings she has at her disposal, but she does not. In her own way, she thinks she is doing what is best, and I perceive it as her trying to manipulate me. But even if she is trying to manipulate me, she is not doing a very committed job. She has avenues that she explicitly chooses not to go down. I have returned her money to her, refused to eat, refused to use any resources that have a calculable cost in a deluded attempt to gain some sort of control over my life, and she has never asked that of me or held it over me–quite the opposite, they are such spectacular and troubling forms of resistance that it has led to compromises, and so we have to ask, who is manipulating whom? Is it right for me to retaliate with my own warped impositions of control? (Rhetorical–moral evaluations have no place on this blog).

How do we stop? How do we both stop seeing red? Time, perhaps. That’s what my therapist said.

Being family members with so much baggage and unspoken tension amplifies the most trivial things. It’s an oxymoron, but the trivial is important. But we have such a short time on this earth, I want to make an earnest effort to ensure it doesn’t drive us. I have already lost my uncle. I have a friend going through a terrible loss right now.

When I spoke up about having a traumatizing high school experience, on top of a traumatizing childhood, I talked about how so much of what I did up until that point was dictated by the insecure 15 year-old who hated herself so deeply. So much of what I examine in this blog goes back even further than that–to the traumatized eight year-old, the traumatized three year-old. I don’t want to humor my traumatized inner-child’s desire for justice she’ll never get or understand if it stands in the way of me being with and there for the people who are here now. I respect that child, I feel for that child, I am compassionate towards that child, but I can’t let her be in the forefront anymore. She needs to take a seat because I can manage for her. It will work out better for us all and everyone we love.

“I picked up a pen. I wrote my own deliverance.”: Hamilton, and aspiring to write oneself out of trauma.

It has been a while since I updated this blog for several reasons. Life has been tumultuous, and until perhaps a month ago, relatively good. It’s taken a nosedive, and I have committed to reflecting on it.

I have been really into Hamilton: An American Musical these days. It’s a wonderful piece of art, that captures the frenzy and desperation of writers well. In many ways it has been inspiring, but that inspiration hits a wall almost immediately when its confronted by my anxiety.

I ask myself the standard questions: Will anything be good enough? Will I put myself out there and be laughed away? And then those questions morph into ones that are like claws sunk into my skin—questions that, when prodded at, cause pain and bleeding. Who do I think I am, to write and impose my writing onto others? Who am I kidding? Who am I to question my innate worthlessness?

My mind answers itself—these thoughts tear more and more out of me—The world will hate you. Stay quiet, and you’ll live another day. If you put yourself out there, they will all turn against you. They will tear you apart—your words of weakness, your fat body, your shuddering voice. The world is filled with people who expect the best and shame those who can’t give it but have the audacity to try anyway.

That is not true. It isn’t. The world is filled with complex people with complex tastes. It is filled with gentle people, uncynical observers, and supportive friends.

But that self-affirmation is never enough. If I can’t carve out a path to instant satisfaction, then I see no escape from the purgatorial state of being.

I recently watched Lin-Manuel Miranda’s commencement speech to Weseleyan University.

It was beautiful. He used “My Shot” and “Wait For It” from Hamilton before Hamilton became what it is now to conceptualize the notion that there are two approaches to life—one of pursuing life relentlessly, and another of biding one’s time and waiting for it. He concluded by speaking on how these sometimes work in concert. He also spoke of two internal clocks we have—one for the present, that ticks rapidly and causes us to rush, and the larger one measuring our time on Earth. There are those of us, he says, who are frightened of that latter one, desperate to leave our mark while there is time left. There are others who are blessed with the ability to ignore it.

But there are still others. There are others like me, who hear that clock and are imbued with a deep-seated panic-inducing desire to smash that clock to smithereens. I think of that clock often. As a child, my life was mapped out ahead of me in terms of my life up until I got married, and then some sort of disconnected vegetative state afterwards, so I was always in a panic about life ending.

Now marriage is off the table, but that clock is still there, and nothing will satisfy the need to adjust my body to it.

In “My Shot”, Hamilton says: “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.” This motivates him to live his life to the fullest, accomplish as much as possible. When I first heard that line, I had to pause the song and sit with it. I too imagine death so much it feels more like a memory, but it does not motivate me. It is merely a part of me.

In “Wait For It”, Burr says: “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints; it takes and it takes and it takes, and we keep living anyway. We rise and we fall and we make our mistakes. And if there’s a reason I’m still alive when everyone who loves me has died, then I’m willing to wait for it.” But what if we are not only waiting for it, but darting after it only to stop at the edge and fall to our knees instead of to our deaths, before turning around and trudging the long, familiar path back to rest?

One of the later songs in Hamilton is “Hurricane”. Without giving too much away, Hamilton is ruminating over his life after making a disastrous mistake. He has spent his entire life fighting to survive and honing his skill as a writer to accrue success. Writing has gotten him out of poverty, has gotten him his career, his relationships—his wife, and he is determined to write himself out of the hole he’s fallen into… and it turns out to be the decidedly wrong decision.

I’m captivated by “Hurricane”, so much so that I thought to write Lin a letter discussing it. How did he manage to capture a brilliant, but traumatized, individual so perfectly? Hamilton, who was either abandoned by or in other ways lost his family as a child never learned to trust others. In this case, having conversations with those impacted—privately, taking responsibility and trusting the response of those who loved him would have gotten him out of his predicament. Instead, he confesses his sins to the world, relying on his own words and nothing else. As a side note, while I haven’t been able to go into it here, it is also telling how willing Hamilton is to die for his cause–going so far as to tell Washington he’s “more than ready to die”. He had fantasies of dying like a martyr in his younger years–how much was that the recklessness of youth and how much did the trauma of his life inform that impulse?

My own traumas affect me differently. I also switched caregivers often as a child, but instead of developing obsessive self-reliance, I was raised being told I was dependent and in need of constant monitoring. Now, when I write for reasons other than myself, I seek out affirmation desperately. Tell me my writing is good so that I can take the next step. Tell me I am not wasting your time, the world’s time, anyone’s time but mine because my time is worthless and can not end soon enough. Tell me my voice is helping you because fuck what it does for me.

It is coming to a head now. It has taken years for me to get to this place, but it’s times like these where my mother says that I need to enter “practical life”—a nonsensical, useless turn of phrase. The thought of and desperation for Hamilton tickets has gotten me out of my bed and onto the streets looking for any job—finally a tangible goal that is motivating me in healthy ways, and my mother instead spits back that even if I raise the money I am not deserving of going. In front of my friends, she belittles my interest, my labor, in an attempt to sever my ties to them and reorient all my dependency back to her. When I avoid her or challenge her, she gets defensive, gets offensive, cries and blames me for blaming her for what? For causing me pain? Who else am I to blame? Myself for feeling pain when she continues the same binding language my brother once used? That she used? When she denied the validity of anything? When she denied the validity of any choice I made on my own?

It is moving that Lin gets choked up every time he mentions how hard his parents worked for him to be able to do what he wanted. My mother works hard too. My mother worked endlessly everyday. The tragedy is that I can say my thanks and act as grateful as possible, but the emotional abuse has superceded all her hard work. The self-hatred she has sunk into me through razor sharp words closes off any meaningful sense of gratitude. Thank you for your sacrifice, but now we have both lived lives we hated.

That is simply what trauma does. It warps worldviews and ways of being into arbiters of destruction—in the case of our family, self-destruction.

My cousin once pointed out that my mother saves her cruelty for those she is closest with. She has strung up me, my brother, and nephews and nieces she is closest to because it is her subconscious way of both validating herself and destroying herself. She sees herself in the people whose lives she throws her love, hard work, and sacrifice into and it is that part of herself that she devastates when she can’t fashion it into the version she wants. Our bodies are collateral damage.

She has not been the only source of pain this past month. Troubling thoughts of my uncle, changes in my health, self-inflicted isolation, and desperate self-injury sessions have plagued this month. The honest truth is that I was able to handle it all until my mother and I clashed. There is so much baggage, we cut each other so deeply, that afterwards, any progress is wiped out and I’m dragged back to the starting point by my hair.

I was laying in it. I was succumbing to it. I was ticking off on my fingers all the reasons why I deserved no place in this world. And then I managed to stop. I instead decided that this was my duty. That instead of succumbing to it, I had to stand in it—I had to be an analyst. Like Hamilton and his writing, I have relied on my skills, my ability to analyze things around me and understand people’s motivations to get me out of self-loathing that was far, far worse than anything I have experienced in years. My self-loathing before I entered college was so great that I could not see outside of it. Ever. My writings from that time see no rationalization for those ways of thinking; they are merely seen as truth. Now I unpack the nuance, the histories, the contradictions in evaluations and judgments. Now I make sure to loosen the hold the tendrils of my own traumatic childhood have when they infiltrate my day-to-day life.

But like Hamilton, I have also used this skill at the wrong time and for the wrong purpose. I was an intelligent child. I thought through everything. I had to, because I was in such tense political situations as a child—such secrecy, such confusion, such violence—both emotional and physical. But because of it, I never learned to let things go. I never learned to not take things to heart. When you are a child and you keep switching hands, you subconsciously ask yourself: Why am I not staying in one place? Why is this other person caring for me now? Who am I supposed to trust? When the claws dig in deeper over time, the questions become: Why does no one want me? What have I done to cause people to leave me so often? When your environment becomes heavily surveilled, heavily critiqued, the mind answers itself—you are not good enough; see how everything about you is constantly challenged? No wonder no one wanted you. No one wants you now. You are worthless. You should die.

My mother is sitting on my shoulder
She shreds her lungs to yell: be bolder
You are nothing; act older.
I told her:
I gave more to the earth than you choose to see.
She chortles:
No, you merely gave away my blood for free.

My mother is sitting on my shoulder.
She drains the ink from my pens, empties my plastic folders.
She undresses me in the winter to ensure the nights are colder.
I implore:
Admit you will never let me be.
She whimpers:
It’s my eyes, my mind, my legacy.

My mother is sitting on my shoulder.
She coughs noxious scoffs at every heart and soul brother.
Cold as steel, metal boxes smother.
I offer:
Let others heal that which is wounded by history.
She snickers:
As if there is anyone who could love you aside from me.

Living in the Gray: Situating Abuse in its Context

My therapist and I often talk about living in the gray areas in life. I struggle with my family’s black-and-white approaches to morality, in part because it seems hypocritical for there to be no recognition of their wrongdoings. Unhealthily, perhaps, I too sometimes take this stance as I ascribe total negative moral evaluations to myself whenever I fuck up. But I revel in the nuances of human existence and find comfort in uncovering layers of reasoning behind people’s actions.

Before this summer, I had a very black-and-white approach to abuse. Sympathetic media portrayals of even mildly, unwillingly emotionally abusive characters was enough for me to feel enraged. Fast forward to me coming to terms with the fact that I was raised in an abusive environment and everything was turned on its head.

I find it more comforting to think of the abuse as glorified bullying, but the power dynamics, chronic nature, and lasting effects make me struggle to feel comfortable calling it only that. In part, because I think part of the struggle of coming to terms with this is recognizing the fact that I still love very dearly the people who happened to be abusive. They were not abusive 24/7; they were not only defined abusers–they were also loving and self-sacrificing caregivers.

It’s important to situate that one person in particular in their context. They were responding to the trauma of a family coming to terms with a very sensational and terrifying experience. They had traumas in their childhood before I was even born. They were having to navigate cutting seemingly dangerous people out of their lives, and somehow making up for the void left by even the most absent of fathers. But they were young, scared, and felt responsible for caring for me. This doesn’t make their abusive behavior acceptable, and doesn’t make it my fault, but it does shed light on the fact that they didn’t even realize how abusive it was.

My family had physically lost me at one point, and now that I was back, they were desperate to keep me from being physically/figuratively/spiritually lost again. That’s why they enacted such stringent surveillance. That’s why they shamed and discouraged me from all sorts of uncertain or morally ambiguous pursuits. In an attempt to keep me happy and safe they demeaned and demoralized me into being a depressed and anxious child. Perhaps their behaviors would have rolled off my shoulders had I grown up secure. If, at a young age, I had been able to trust and be trusted. But all of us were vulnerable subjects—all of us were traumatized; so their behavior spiraled into abuse and I internalized all of the negativity readily, already primed to feeling unworthy given the lack of consistency in my care growing up.

As a child I reproduced this type of bullying behavior to a friend because I felt powerless in my familial relationships and thus enacted power dynamics the only way I knew how to someone who was only nominally less powerful than me (she was younger). Coming to this realization was very painful, and at some point I was unsure of whether I could live with it. I am terrified of having children because I worry about the self-perpetuating nature of trauma and how that would affect the children I’d raise. But realizing that I had already done damage to someone years ago still made me sick to my stomach.

I decided to contact this friend. She had called me out on our childhood dynamic a few years ago, and ever since then I carried that guilt with me. I apologized, but internally assumed it better if I just stay out of her life for good. Perhaps selfishly—it was because I couldn’t bear to spend time with someone I had hurt. I called her up a few weeks ago, and we chatted for a while. She talked about law school and we talked about college, and then she had to go so we hung up. There never seemed a point where it felt appropriate to bring up what I wanted to say to her. So after we hung up, I quickly sent her a text.

She sent this response:
“______, do not feel guilty for actions as a child. You did not have a sense of right and wrong at the time. I [forgave] you through my friendship over the years. It did not really affect me significantly, mainly just in the moment, but I don’t remember much anyway. I’m not perfect myself and have acted in demeaning ways as an adult. Just be the humble person you are and you will be fine.”

It made me cry. There was such genuine forgiveness in her message. It felt like a burden lifted. And I wish I could also be that forgiving, but it’s difficult. At this point, I’m on very surface-level speaking terms with my brother. I don’t speak with my father. And I avoid my mother, terrified of what she’s going to say next.

These days, I have been having a particularly hard time being generous with my family because they are so desperate to marry me off and so calloused in their evaluations of my character. I brought this up to my therapist this weekend because I had had such a horrible and damaging week because of it.

At first she was stumped. I appreciated her empathy. She told me she could viscerally feel the sensation of being stuck that I had been trying to navigate, and for a few minutes it seemed like we weren’t going to be able to get through the issue in any productive way in that session.

Then she told me to prepare myself going into interactions with my mother. I think one thing that I realized is that my mother has an almost childlike giddiness at the thought of getting me married. It’s so naïve. A woman who has been through two painful marriages is convinced that marrying me off will be the end all? It didn’t make sense. But my mother always felt responsible for not having kept me safe, even when that feeling was unfounded. Now, by doing this the “right way”, she’s convinced she’ll be absolved of her guilt. All of this is subconscious, of course. So talking through this with my therapist, she suggested that I look at this as how my mother is coping with this 20-year trauma.

It has nothing to do with me as a person. I’m absorbing her stress and her expectations, but she’s fabricating a version of myself that does not exist. That’s why I’m getting so sick. I can’t consolidate this fictional version of me with all of vastly different characteristics with who I am and yet I’m being told they’re the same person with the same end goals. But my mother doesn’t know how to get to know me; to get me married, because getting to know someone who’s so vastly different from herself is painful for her. It makes it seem as if I am unlike her on purpose—as a slight to her, as if I existed as her polar opposite to spite her and insult her caregiving.

It’s patronizing. I have to coddle the caregivers in my life. To be true to myself, I have to fucking lie through my teeth to them. It’s understandable if I can’t accept it yet, particularly when there’s so much painful stimuli from them. But I need to be generous with my family, like I’m generous with others. They deserve it. They have been through so much. It’s hard to let it go because I’m the body these practices are acted on, but they can not see their context. To see it would require them to dig up traumas they have adapted coping mechanisms for. It’s my responsibility to navigate these relationships while not absorbing the stress of misplaces and falsely constructed expectations.

The Depression Archetype: Self-harm, and an Attempt at Engaging with Depression While at One’s Lowest

I feel somewhat unprepared to write this blog entry, and almost considered not writing it altogether, but really, writing this entry after this past week gets to the crux of what I wanted to do with this project. Please forgive me, as thoughts will surely be scattered and the writing weak.

I had a difficult week. For the most part, I think I have been coping better than I expected these past few months. I have been angry and resentful, but these are understandable responses to reconciling histories of abuse after the fact. This week had me ticking off every depression symptom you will hear in a commercial for Zoloft.

A little background to this week—my family is looking to get me married. I am 23 years-old, very insecure, very rebellious, and overweight. Ever since I was a child, I avoided learning anything that could be described as even remotely domestic. However, my family is well-loved, my brother is highly regarded in the community, and I have a pleasant personality and a good education. Regardless, my mother and I are both insecure about the process in different ways and it just becomes a beast fraught with irrationality. I fear judgment from the people asking about me, and my mother can’t articulate my good qualities being so clouded by my shortcomings.

My mother has become obsessed with marrying me off, and compounding that with her already dismissive parenting has made life at home emotionally volatile. My mother alternates rapidly between cutting down any of my genuine interests and emphasizing how desperately she wants to refashion me in her image. She oscillates between a cruel, dismissive attitude about things I find value in and an almost naïve giddiness over the prospect of finding a guy.

It’s difficult to give words to because it does cut deep. I am 23 years old. I am not about to completely change everything about myself—and even if I tried, it would take at least a few months, if not years to develop habits contrary to how I live now.

And it saddens me to admit that up until this past month, that was exactly what I planned to do. I have lived a life full of anxiety, self-loathing, and fear. At the same time, I have explored my interests, challenged myself intellectually, and befriended some amazing people. These are not things I can abandon readily. I used to think I had to. I used to think that this life was finite and at some point, I would have to suppress all of my interests because they weren’t good—I was not good—and succumb to a life of docility. But tracing the toxic behaviors in my family (and in myself) has humanized these people who so often looked down at the things I found value in. Iconoclasm is sometimes good.

However, it is certainly a process—and a painful one. And it is sickening to have to hear how flawed one is over and over again and how they must change every fundamental aspect of their personality.

I went to see one of my favorite bands the other day, and as I was getting ready and exiting the house I had to hear how worthless my interest in music was, how shameful it was, how “good girls” don’t engage in those spaces. “When are you going to stop?” As if it was something that diminished my value in some human marketplace.

I can look at that and recognize rationally that there is no moral judgment that could possible be attached to seeing live shows or playing music. But the reality is that I grew up hearing that. I was hit and shamed over it when I was a kid. It can be the most meaningless drivel in the world, but I take it to heart. I believe it, even if I don’t act on it.  And from the time and place she’s coming from—yeah, it’s scandalous. She can’t see the anachronism in her thought process.

And there is the practical aspect of it—it doesn’t “look good” in my community if girls go to shows. I can’t start talking to a guy with the intention of getting married and openly discuss this important part of my life. It’s symbolic of a larger problem. I have a political life, a social and cultural life that are more radical than what my community allows. There’s the risk any person I’m matched with will resent it, tell his mother who will then report it to community leaders and get me in trouble with religious leaders (at least symbolically in trouble). That information could find its way to my brother whose judgement is even more scathing than my mother’s. That risk is probably immensely slim, and the consequences close to nothing, but that fear has been with me for years.

My mother can be exceptionally cruel. It’s something I hate admitting because, of course, I love her to death and she has been through hell in her life; it has understandably shaped her into who she is. To call back to a previous post—we are both vulnerable subjects. Her cruelty, which in other circumstances could perhaps easily be shrugged off, is very precise and cutting in our context.

So being at home has been difficult. I had mostly confined myself to my room. My mom can’t comprehend the impact her words have on me. When this particular permutation of it started in early September, it was so painful. She had sat me down, told me she’d spoken to some women but they admitted to not being interested because I wasn’t slim enough. And she told me all of this with such condescension. As if I was not aware that I was overweight. That I wasn’t aware that a woman with a very thin son would perhaps not be interested in a girl like me.

My mother is very prideful. I cried, asked her to please not talk about it anymore, that I was happy for the first time in a long time and that this was bringing me down, but she persisted because she’s a type-A fixer who genuinely has solved countless problems and thus thinks that she can talk out every issue to a resolution, but when it doesn’t work she lashes out. Her responses got more and more aggressive and verbally abusive, permeated with a discourse of it being her right and her duty as a mother. I ended up self-harming right then. It was such an instantaneous thing. She was swearing at me, I hurt myself, and then we were both stunned and my face was bleeding.

That certainly ended the conversation, and unfortunately, that has been my go-to at least twice before. To stop her from completely demoralizing me, I perform some spectacular self-harm and scare the shit out of both of us. I do not judge self-harming. I learned that from my therapist. She talked about how if it was something I relied on to cope, then we could acknowledge it as that and if it was something I wanted to change, we could work on it. However, in these instances, it’s different from the coping kind. This is immediate. What I imagine seeing red feels like, except the act turns inward. And because there is absolutely no time to think, it can be dangerous.

Now that I think about it, these acts of self-harm have always arisen after (or during) altercations with my mother. This was seemingly harmless (although it made things feel worse at the time because my nose is one of the few things I’m happy with about my body—now there’s a puffy scar across the bridge. C’est la vie…), but in middle school I remember stopping myself from doing far more violent things to myself—my arms jutting out right before I could slam my head into our ceramic sink comes to mind.

Anyway, this was all about a month ago, and our dynamic is far less hostile but the content of our exchanges is very much the same. I avoid her, she speaks about some potential husband loud enough for me to make it out vaguely. I started knitting (as a coping mechanism, ironically), she became overcome with excitement over me becoming domesticated.

It took its toll this week. I’m still coming to terms with the abuse in my past, so to hear someone who may have my best interest at heart but is expressing it in borderline abusive ways was not something I could handle. I used all the coping mechanisms I had—writing, guitar, knitting, music, but I mostly just wept while I did all of those things and then got increasingly frustrated that they weren’t working. I ended up sleeping most of the time. In spite of myself, I refused to eat for a couple days, worked out, and celebrated when I lost weight. I withdrew from commitments, ignored friends, and just cried it out.

And on some level it worked. I put it out there that I was struggling and people responded. I gave my body and mind the time it needed to process damaging information, relied on others, and now feel good and have taken a lot of steps to getting myself out of this situation. For one, I’ve started applying for jobs again. Distance will probably be the most effective way to avoid falling into this slump again, so first I need to work on financial independence.

I suppose the best way for me to think about this is in how this experience was enabling. It is easy to focus on the negatives of having those days where I couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t stop crying for long enough to go see friends. But once that passed, it was the memory of that feeling that drove me to bite the bullet and submit applications. A determination to not slump to that again, bolstered by the support and love of people who genuinely don’t want me to change, helped me overcome the otherwise stagnating fear of rejection that prevents me from applying to jobs. This is definitely different from before. The last time I was in this bad a slump, I became unrecognizable to myself—dispassionate and removed about everything. This time, I forced myself to put it out there in public ways—writing on tumblr, telling friends I wasn’t well—it’s not easy when shame is such a part of your nature, but it worked. And I’m glad that I was able to articulate even a sliver of what my scattered mind wants to get across in this post.

To close, I just want to mention that there was a lot of chance that played into me getting out of this slump. For example, I happened across this very poignant question to Mariella Frostrup (“I find it hard to cope with my critical mother”) which resonated very strongly and appeased my “hysterical need to be understood” (there’s my of Montreal reference for the post 😉 ).

Pathologization as Isolation: The Politicization of Mental Health Discourse

The New York Times published the article titled ‘Effectiveness of Talk Therapy Is Overstated, a Study Says’ last Wednesday.

I see my therapist bi-weekly—although since I began coming to terms with my history of abuse, it has become weekly. Oftentimes, I vent in therapy, and my therapist offers tactics to cope. On occasion, I do become aware of our element. I catch her focusing on something I worry she’s focusing on because it’s something she can handle, not what I am perhaps most struggling with. My eyes glaze over and I ignore her advice until I’m capable of speaking up again. Sometimes I ask her how her other patients respond. What does she expect when she welcomes us with a “How are you?” The kneejerk? An honest response? (She says it depends). We have these unnerving moments where I become the observer and she becomes the subject, unbeknownst to her.

This is not to say I find therapy unhelpful—I find it profoundly helpful. I am someone who often feels burdensome to other people; I find it comforting to know I have someone I can vent to every week and not also involve in other matters of my life. She is someone who answered a distress call from me and talked me down from a moment of crisis after my uncle passed and I found myself alone and unable to cope at home. She provides me with strategies, coping mechanisms, affirmation that I need to hear, even if I don’t follow through on them.

But this article points to something concretely that I am hoping to unpack through this blogging project. My interest is in involving myself in challenging mainstream mental health discourse—an interest inspired by pieces like Plan C’s ‘We Are All Very Anxious’ and ethnographic pieces like Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling.

There is something significantly isolating about therapy and medication. In many ways, these are not treatments but band-aids slapped on gaping wounds torn into us by the systems we are born into. Problems are rooted in histories both personal and communal. They are shaped by structures and systems that atomize individuals, dehumanize them and their labor, categorize and assign values to bodies based on race and gender, and strip the earth of its own health. Evolutionary psychologists stress the importance of natural landscapes, communal existence, touching! but luxury which places hierarchies and status over these evolved needs makes for a stressful society; my aunt who has a history of depression recalls feeling uneasy during a trip in Dubai where the landscapes—running water and all—were artificial constructions to make the capitalist bastion of a resort feel more appealing than it could ever possibly be.

The pieces I mention above are significant because they challenge and speak to the struggles of the depressed and anxious body. We feel incapacitated, unmotivated to live life—but how can we use that feeling of incapacitation to challenge the systems that make us feel this way? It’s not easy—it’s much easier to lay in bed, trust me, I know. This is not to suggest that one should not try treatment to find relief—this is me saying that what we can also do is politicize our anxiety and our depression. If we know that our problems are not individualized; that trusted treatments are not and can not be the end all and final relief, we can instead ask what interventions need to be made into economic, political, social, and cultural systems that will fundamentally ease anxiety.

Capitalism and mental health are irreconcilable to me. Capitalism’s need for perpetual growth in a world of finite resources is the modern permutation of dehumanization for exploit that existed in its colonial ancestor. The pharmaceutical industrial complex and a plethora of other businesses rely on the compartmentalization of mental health categories. A systemic approach to mental health would fundamentally disrupt the existing balance of power, so how can we possibly expect mainstream mental health discourse to be adequate without interventions by the affected themselves?

That is what I like most about Depression: A Public Feeling—it is part memoir, part ethnographic study. The author is part of what she is examining; she is putting interventions into structures that are directly affecting her, and she is doing so while also using therapy and medication. You can occupy these different spaces and still think and engage critically with them.

These are thoughts I have had for a long time and this is the extent to which I have been able to articulate them. However, I am happy that I have it written as an introduction for myself so that I can begin to build on it. I will conclude with a booklist I hope to get through to make these next steps:

Panic Diaries: A Genealogy of Panic Disorder by Jackie Orr
Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant
The Promise of Happiness by Sara Ahmed
Democratic Insecurities: Violence, Trauma, and Intervention in Haiti by Erica James

And finally, of course, this wouldn’t be this blog if I didn’t reference of Montreal. One of the most affirming moments of my life was when I saw Kevin Barnes being interviewed at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Kevin talked about both his and Bowie’s relationship with mental health and how they use songwriting as a form of informal therapy. It was inspiring and exciting to hear Kevin (who also has a complex relationship with mental health, having navigated a variety of medications throughout his life) talk about engaging with mental health-related struggles for art and added layers onto the—primarily academic—understanding I was developing. It provided evidence for how these conditions that are so often emphasized as needing “treatment” are actually conditions that can be used and worked through by actual engagement with them.

edit: George Monbiot’s article on neoliberalism and inner turmoil is a good read.

Stilted Creation: The Internalized Panopticon and the Self-Perpetuation of Silence

It took me a long time to begin this blog. There was a point in my life where I did write without filter and for my friends, but when people stopped reading, I stopped writing in that capacity. That’s when I most began to rely on journaling. Looking back on those journals has been a recent endeavor, and it has been surprisingly fruitful. I can analyze myself with the understanding and distance I have now. But aside from that—those journals were spaces of creation that I have since abandoned in many ways.

I still journal, but infrequently, and reservedly.

I found it fascinating how I wrote with such freedom in those days. There will be pages of me writing about the pain and shame, and then almost immediately, it will become something different—without jotting down a date or indicating any other sort of emotional shift, I’ll be dissecting lyrics, gleefully raving about an impressive classmate while every now and then commenting on a bit of music. I can imagine my 17 year-old self on the bus with her iPod playing, allowing her diary to absorb the product of competing strains of thought vying for attention. (Incidentally–George Saunders’ “Victory Lap” is an excellent piece that I think so closely manages to capture the true mayhem of inner monologues).

At some point, a paranoia set in. That fear of surveillance came back and I was certain even my journal’s writing would come back to haunt me, be used as evidence in some impending shame tribunal. Luckily, I had begun forming circles of support having started somewhat anew at university, and thus relied less on writing anyway. But even as I vented my anxieties to friends, I occupied spaces with the proverbial look over the shoulder.

It began with being convinced my journals would be read, escalated into thinking that that person who I’ve come to realize was abusive could read my mind (and s/he had a disarming way of making it seem like s/he could), until it did become me being terrified of being overheard in any public space. But to what end? In many ways, it didn’t necessarily prevent me from doing what I set my mind to. I still went to shows, hung out with my guy friends at night, read, watched and listened to whatever I wanted. I just did it fearfully.

Where a fear of surveillance did make a difference was in creation. Consumption is one thing—it can be done in private, it can be hidden, and if one were to seek it out, they would need to know where and how to look. Creation is somewhat different. Creation requires the creator to put herself out there, put her work out there, and if necessary, put her name to it. And that fear was only one of a myriad of all-consuming fears. There was the fear of failure, hardwired into me since I so miserably disappointed everyone in high school and they made sure to tell me as much. There was a fear of accountability, where I imagined myself being called center-stage to justify my politics to unsympathetic ears.

So I look at my journals today, and there are sometimes periods of unbounded creation. But for the most part, there is an insecurity permeated through even this wholly private space—a clear restraint, projects begun and abandoned when they required too much of an emotional commitment. I began writing as if someone was reading, as if someone was judging the narrative I was forming, criticizing my writing style, word choice, analysis.

Even now as I write this, my heart aches with my reliance on clichés—knowing that I speak to the problems of not engaging the writing-as-process ethos of a writer. This incapacitating self-awareness is useless if not used to better one’s writing. It does not have an effect insomuch as pushing me to create new conceits; instead, it simply makes me go, “This is all you are capable of.”

And is that not the goal of Bentham’s Panopticon that Michel Foucault speaks of in Discipline & Punish–the prison so structured that prisoners could never be certain whether or not they were being watched from the all-seeing panoptic structure and thus behaved as if they were always being watched? Isn’t that what Edward Snowden says is the greatest problem in NSA spying? That it alters human behavior by instilling the fear of being surveilled? In my case—I know I am not being watched and yet have altered my behavior somewhat as if I am. I wish I could extend this further to create a systemic critique, but if I am honest, I will say this fear is rooted almost entirely in the abusive aspects of my upbringing. It most certainly was exacerbated by the panoptic nature of the surveillance arm of my religious community and the institutional racism in post 9/11 politics, but those structures would not have had as strong an impact were I not a vulnerable subject to begin with.

But that is where this blog comes in, and I am excited by that. This blog challenges me to engage with that fear and call it out for what it is, and in that process something is created and interventions begin to be made.

I will end this with some of the people and pieces of art that have stuck with me these past few weeks and pushed me to begin this project in the first place.

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah features a character named Ifemelu who starts a blog. Adiche’s writing is beautiful, whereas Ifemelu’s has the imperfections of someone venturing into the foray and developing her craft. This juxtaposition and the beauty and value in both types of writing placates somewhat my own inhibitions about my writing.
  • of Montreal’s Clayton Rychlik asked me if I wrote songs in such a genuine manner that for a moment, I believed I could.
  • of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes rejects the idea that all songs on records need to be hits, and discusses the value in creating ugly art. There’s a broader context and a deeper examination of the psyche that such artistic endeavors can speak to, which I think can be said for weaker vs. stronger written pieces as well.
  • I told my therapist about my fear of writing about things I was not an expert in. She said that an examination of my life and my traumas was something I was an expert in. And she’s right–what would give someone else more credibility about this?
  • Anaïs Nin’s diaries are inspiring examples of how powerful an art form journal writing can be.
  • And, of course, best friend who pushed me to start blogging to begin with.