Being the Wet Blanket

Feminists are often accused of having no sense of humor, of having a stick up their asses, or of being curmudgeons. And I’m going to be honest: many times I feel like I am the wet blanket. I can’t enjoy many of the movies and TV shows that I used to because I notice how screwed up they are, I feel uncomfortable around many people because of the ways in which they joke or the words that they throw around, and I often have to tell people that they really aren’t as witty and charming as they thought they were, they are in fact just being oppressive assholes. It’s not fun to have to take on this role. It’s not fun to have to “ruin” people’s fun. I often find myself feeling guilty or wondering if I’m oversensitive or too delicate in my sensibilities. But there are some good reasons to continue being the wet blanket, and perhaps these reasons can keep you going through the times you feel like everyone hates you for speaking up.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember in “wet blanket” situations is that you are not in fact ruining anyone’s fun. Their fun has already been ruined by the fact that it’s come at the expense of someone else. If you were to walk up to a bully punching a smaller child and stop them from hurting that child, you wouldn’t feel guilty for ruining their fun: you would know that their fun was inappropriate to begin with. You are doing the same thing when you call someone out for sexism, racism, or other oppressive behaviors. Those behaviors just as actively hurt people as the bully physically beating someone. They hurt people through the violent norms they enforce, through rape culture, through the wage gap, through hate crimes…these are realities that are linked to the jokes and the casual conversations we have.

Many people also accuse feminists of being incapable of having fun, not just of ruining the fun of others. I’d like to propose a thought experiment to explore this claim. Let’s imagine we live in a society in which brutal torture was normal. It was even considered fun. People publicly tortured others to get kicks, and it was often viewed as a show: going out to the torture. Say you were an individual living in this society and you couldn’t bring yourself to enjoy any of this. You go out to the torture and you look at your friends and say “this is wrong! We’re hurting people!” They respond by asking why you can’t have any fun. Looking at a society like this, we would recognize that the person who is unhappy is actually perceiving the situation more accurately and with more empathy than the other individuals involved, and that most likely they could have fun if it were in a non-harmful way.

Now obviously this is hyperbolic. But as I mentioned before, many of the things that people view as fun, joking, or entertainment do in fact contribute directly to the harm of others. Perceiving this connection and being upset by it is not an indication that one has no sense of fun: rather it’s an indication that one has an active sense of empathy and a clear perception of the situation. I would bet that if you asked most feminists whether there things in life they enjoyed they would say yes. They’re just probably not the things you enjoy. I myself for example deeply enjoy My Little Pony, chocolate, swimming, and taiko drumming just to name a few. But I attempt to find things to like that don’t hurt others. Being upset by bad behavior is not an indication that you’re incapable of enjoying things. It’s an indication that there’s something wrong with the things people are asking you to enjoy.

People who are labelled as “wet blankets” are often those who perceive something that others don’t. As an example, we have some people at my work that want to do and try everything. We need our resident wet blanket to say “stop. Let’s think about what will happen if we do this”. In many cases this is about practicality, however it can also be about ethics and empathy. I want to be the person who asks others to stop and consider the implications of their actions because that person is the one who keeps our world running and functional. That person is necessary and improves things in the long term. They don’t necessarily want to stop what you’re doing, but they do want you to think it out first and make improvements to it. I have no problem with you writing that song, but I think it would be a much better song if it didn’t promote rape culture and I’ll tell you that.

But more than anything, when you feel you’re making a big deal out of nothing, remember that your emotions are valid. If you are upset or hurt by something, that is valid. And it is also valid to ask people to stop doing things that hurt or upset you, even if they don’t understand why. Particularly when you  know that others are hurt by something, you can feel confident that your discomfort is not out of line or irrational: it is necessary.

So yes, I will happily take the label of wet blanket if it means that I am making people more aware of their actions and the implications of their actions, if it means that I’m ending “fun” that is harmful and cruel, if it means that I’m standing up for my own needs and the needs of others. If that’s being a wet blanket and ruining your fun, then you’re doing fun the wrong way.

My Friends

There are people in my life who challenge me. They make me aware of the things that I once thought and that still creep into my mind. I look at them and I see the lies float past and my only defense is to remind myself “this person is my friend. They are wonderful. I love them. Every person I think these thoughts of is a friend, wonderful, loved. Each person I think these thoughts of has the rich individual experience that I do.” These people teach me about the inner lives of difference.

 

I have a friend who’s severely overweight. I don’t see him often, and in my mind he loses weight. I bring him closer to what I view as normal, closer to everyone else I know. The other day a picture of him popped up on Facebook and I felt a flash-flood of disgust before the shame set in. This is my friend. How dare I change his body to fit my expectations? How dare I ask myself who he is to be Other? How dare I feel disgust at him, someone who feels and thinks and exists in all the complex ways that I do? How dare I reduce him to his body, to the intimate ways that he feels the world and fills the spaces around him, ignoring how his neurons fill that body and his mind is so intimately tied with its senses and he is his body?

 

This is one of my challenges.

 

I have a friend who is trans*. Most days I don’t think about his sexuality or his gender. Most days it doesn’t matter because he is my wonderful, sweet, perfect friend. But every now and then I find myself wondering, my mind probing at what he’s like, asking what his name used to be (I’M SO SORRY), and I know I’ve crossed the line when I remember that his body and what his body looks like is so much less than the whole of him. It is such a miniscule piece, one that is so unimportant to our relationship that I can’t fathom why I would wonder about it. He is so much more. His stories, his perspective, his experience: they transcend my questions about his genitalia (and let’s be honest, I really shouldn’t have those questions anyway).

 

This is one of my challenges.

 

There are so many of these people, people who are complex and interesting, people who are my token people. I wish they were not my token people. I wish I knew more of them (this is not helped by the fact that I am antisocial). I wish I could understand their lives in a deeper way, and my challenge is that I have only one and I must fight against making them a token in my life. They challenge me every time I recognize them as more  than an idea, more than their weight or their gender or their sex or their race. I know that they are more than that, and my training in this world has left me incapable of separating them from it. And so they challenge me.

 

I want to tell myself their stories. I want to be honest with myself when I see others like them and remind myself that they see the world each day through their own eyes, that they struggle and love and feel, that they wonder and feel hurt and imagine how I see them. I want to see them with full lives, with full minds, with full thoughts. And so my friends challenge me, and I thank them. They remind me that behind each pair of eyes, each face that I don’t understand, there are worlds I cannot imagine.

How I got Through My Bad Day: A Chain Analysis

I was planning on writing today about recognizing your achievements when your each a goal (especially for those who are competitive and highly driven), but it’s been a bad day. I woke up to a super triggery comment, read a few articles I should have avoided, and my mood plummeted from there. Add in a lack of sleep, and the soreness from working out for the first time in nearly a year, and you’ve got a recipe for a bad day.

 

So instead of talking about what I was going to talk about, I’d like to talk about chain analyses and applying skills to stop a bad day before it happens. Sometimes it can be hard to notice when you’re on the path to a meltdown. You might know that you’re having a bad day, but you don’t quite know why or you don’t know what you can change. I’m going to try to go through a chain analysis of my own day to give you all a conception of what it might be like to think about what’s making you anxious, unhappy, depressed, or stressed out, and then go through the steps that I could have taken (and may still take) at different points during the day so I don’t engage in any target behaviors (this is DBT speak for doing Bad Things like restricting, purging, drinking, self-harm, suicidal ideation etc.).

 

I’m going to start by talking about emotional vulnerability. I’m surprised this isn’t something that we talk about more often because it’s intensely important when you’re having a bad day or are on the verge of letting your mental illness take over. Emotional vulnerabilities are those factors that make you more prone to feeling extreme emotions. The most basic forms of emotional vulnerability are things like lack of sleep, lack of food, lack of exercise, use of drugs or alcohol, etc. These things make us sensitive and keep us from regulating our emotions well. Right now, I haven’t eaten since last night, I didn’t get enough sleep last night, and I have been working out more than I’m used to, leaving my body tired and sore. I’ve also been dealing with some headaches and bad tension through my shoulders and neck that are really fairly painful. These things are making me far more emotionally vulnerable.

 

However in addition to these very obvious forms of emotional vulnerability there are other things: are you stressed out and busy? What’s going on in the back of your head that’s stressing you out? Are you having relationship troubles? Are you unemployed? What other things are hanging over you that surround the events of the individual day or event that you’re trying to understand? For me, this includes a number of things. I recently changed jobs and I’m not good with transitions. I had some new information about my family that was Big and Important and Scary dropped on me this weekend. A number of my friends have been having relationship troubles recently and I’ve been worried and anxious for them. I also haven’t been keeping up on my blogging so I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and busy. Each of these things adds to that cloud of vulnerability that’s surrounding me today.

 

These are helpful concepts because if you start to notice vulnerabilities you can try to head them off. I’m going to go get something tasty and filling very soon, not let myself work out today, and try to get to bed early. Sometimes you can’t fix the vulnerabilities, or you get triggered or upset before you notice them. When you’re doing a chain analysis, the next step is to figure out what some of the precipitating events were. These can help you notice or avoid these kinds of events in the future, or if you’re in the moment, figure out why they bothered you and how to process/deal with the emotions you’re having right now.

 

So today the precipitating events were a few things. The most noticeable of them was getting a comment on a blog post about veganism that said “having an eating disorder is no justification for forcibly impregnating cows and keeping pigs locked up in tiny pens etc. etc.” The topic of veganism is an intense trigger for me. I was writing about this in the post, and this person chose to ignore that and tell me that I was wrong and bad for trying to take care of my own health needs. I felt disrespected, and I felt as if another person was confirming to me that I am not worth the food that I put in my mouth.

 

In addition to this, I saw another blog post defending “Blurred Lines” that made me throw up a little bit in my mouth. So I could see that the precipitating events to having my mood spiral out of control were that I felt people were challenging my values and my self-worth. So now I have a good understanding of what the problem is. I’ve had this difficulty a number of times before and so I’ve learned some techniques to help with it. One of them is that I try not to click on links that I know will upset me, and so usually I can head it off at the pass, but sometimes one gets by me or my morbid curiosity gets the better of me, and I can’t exactly not get the comments that are emailed directly to my inbox. Whatever your precipitating event is, it’s good to understand what it did to you and why so you can either avoid it in the future or figure out how to best tailor your response.

 

So my response was to reevaluate my values. Check the facts. Remind myself why I do the things that I do. Remind myself why I felt that Blurred Lines was offensive. And then I tried to radically accept that some people have different values from mine. I did some self-soothing, because I felt attacked and raw and afraid (especially when someone said the line in “Blurred Lines” that goes “you know you want it” is not rapey, cause damn is that triggering and not ok at all). This consisted of seeing my boyfriend for lunch and drinking a chocolate shake. I tried some distraction by playing Lumosity and by focusing on work. But I also did some self-care by allowing myself to tackle the simplest tasks at work first so that I wouldn’t get overwhelmed. Because I had figured out all of the ways I was riled up, I could address each of them. Now that I’ve calmed down some I’m willing to look again at these emotions, understand what provoked them, and understand how my use of skills actually worked quite well.

 

If you do engage in a target behavior, your chain analysis might include ideas of what you could have done differently. That’s why I find them incredibly helpful. They give me a framework with which to reflect on my experience without ruminating and becoming overwhelmed. You can even draw it out all nice and pretty like with bubbles and arrows and things. If you want to really break it down you can delineate your reaction into thoughts, emotions, actions, and bodily reactions (so did you clench your hands etc.). This chain analysis method helped me head off the nasties before they got too nasty, but I’d love to hear other suggestions in comments. Tea, hot bath, nap, delicious food, mindfulness, self-soothing…whatever helps you!

Living Up to Expectations

Human beings take on the traits that are ascribed to them, or at least they often do. In studies about minorities and oppressed groups, people did worse on tests after being reminded about negative stereotypes of them. Sometimes we hear of studies like this and don’t really see how they apply to our lives, so I want to give some anecdotal evidence from my own life of this phenomenon. It’s amazing how powerful our perceptions of ourselves can be.

 

A few weeks ago my office all took the Strengths Finders test. You answer a bunch of questions and it tells you what your innate talents are, where you can excel the most. I got input, learning, intellection, competition, and achievement. Basically the first three mean that I really really love to think and learn lots and lots oh my god, and the second two mean that I’m ridiculously driven. Now I already basically knew these things, however in the last few weeks, I’ve noticed myself making choices that conform to these skills more and more, and doing so while thinking of the labels.

 

As an example, today I chose to go to academia.edu for the first time and look up some papers that I found interesting to expand my knowledge base, as well as to prep for some writing I wanted to do. Now I had decided long ago that I wanted to do this writing, and so I may have gotten around to taking this step eventually, but I literally went through the thought process of “I need to feed my intellectual brain. I should look up research”. I specifically volunteered for a project at work that involved research even though I’m not particularly interested in relational databases because I realized I could be more knowledgeable about something.

 

In addition, I’ve also noticed that I’m giving myself more and more permission to be competitive. I’m noticing that when I do well at something, I say to myself “Yeah, I’m competitive and I just won something! VICTORY IS MINE!” I’ve also found myself choosing not to engage in things that will absolutely completely definitely lead to me losing because I know my competitive side will be incredibly unhappy. Finally, I’ve been paying more attention to my conceptions of fairness, and labeling things as “unfair” when I feel that I’m on an unequal playing field with someone so that I can those things in a less competitive light. All of this because of a label for something that I already knew I was.

 

It’s incredibly interesting to see how I’m reinterpreting a variety of my actions in light of this new label, and how I’m working to mold myself closer to these things, owning them as opposed to seeing them as negatives or weaknesses. It’s interesting to think of how differently I might have acted had some of my other strengths been at the forefront of my mind the day I took the test. I’m sure there are other ways that I have molded my behavior to fit these expectations that are less conscious, but I found this an interesting and insightful example of some commonly known psychology in action.

Sex is Disgusting

I have recently been obsessed with disgust. Weird? Yes, but so am I. Disgust is an emotion that we don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about and understanding. Very few people question where disgust comes from or why it exists. I’ve been doing a lot of reading around these topics, and in this reading I stumbled on a question that grabbed me: can something be sexy without an element of disgust?

I’m sure a lot of you at first glimpse will say “duh yes, I love my partner and find them very sexy and am not disgusted by them in the slightest”. But I think to get at the heart of this question we have to get at the roots of what disgust is: most current theories suggest that disgust is a reaction to things that remind us that we are animal and thus mortal. Obviously we have disgust towards things that might contaminate us: bodily fluids and the like (generally termed primary disgust), but most other things that cause us to feel disgust are things that remind us we’re fallible: gore, destruction of our bodily envelope, or things that make us feel someone is acting in an inhuman or bestial manner. For more on this theory of disgust, check out Paul Rozin or Martha Nussbaum. I’m not going to spend much time here arguing that this is the appropriate theory of disgust so if you want to hear more about it do some reading on your own (there are a good number of studies supporting it).

Behind this theory of disgust is the idea that we as human beings are afraid of our own mortality and that we cannot live every day with the full knowledge and awareness of our mortality. Realizing we are like animals (particularly animals that we see as fallible) reminds us that we are mortal. Reminders of birth also remind us of death. These things place us squarely in front of our own mortality, and so we try to shy away from them so that we don’t have to be confronted with them. One way that we as human beings often deal with our own mortality and animal nature is by creating a group that elicits disgust (e.g. Jews in Nazi Germany) and imbuing them with all the qualities of animals and ourselves that we find unacceptable. We then use them as a buffer zone between ourselves and our mortality. They are people who are not quite human but not quite animal: they are less than we are, and if we keep ourselves pure from them, then we are safe from the contamination of things that remind us of our animal nature.

Sex reminds us that we have bodies. Sex reminds us that our bodies are not all the way in our control, and is associated with the life and death cycle. So sex is disgusting on some level. It is inherently an animal act: it is something that we do that could contaminate us and that reminds us in an immediate way that we create life and we die and we are mortal. Don’t tell me it’s not disgusting. You know when you’re all finished and out of the moment you look around and you’re all sweaty and sticky you feel a little eensy bit grossed out. And if disgust is the feeling we get when we’re reminded that we’re animals, you sure as HELL feel a little disgusted after sex.

Does this mean that everything associated with sex has some disgust associated with it? Can the fact that sex and disgust might be inherently linked tell us something about negative attitudes towards sex? Let’s explore further dear readers.

As a caveat, I have exactly 0 evidence for most of what I’m going to talk about next. This is primarily theoretical and is more an explanation of possible connections between ideas, emotions, and behaviors than a proposition of a fully fleshed out theory. I would love to hear reactions and feedback.

I suspect that in order for something to turn us on, it has to remind us that we have a body. While there are probably some people out there who get turned on exclusively by intellectual things (I won’t deny that I may or may not have masturbated while reading philosophy before), the moment you start to get turned on you have an immediate reminder of your body, your bodily fluids, and your animal nature. Your desires start to take over. It is an incredibly animalistic place to be. For something to be sexy, it has to be something that will give your body a reaction (I’m talking sexy in the very literal sexual sense, not “a sexy car”). Sexy is always and inherently related to your body, whether you’re turned on by a touch or a word or a thought or an idea.

If disgust is what we have made it out to be, this means that in all sexiness there is an element of disgust. I’m not sure if others have experienced this, but I often find myself shying away from the loss of control that comes with getting turned on, with the way my body pulls me to be present when I feel it reacting. When that first blush of “mmm, sexy” hits, I turn my mind away from it. That moving away or pushing away is the basic disgust reaction. It’s the desire to avoid contamination. Even if you do not have a moment of pulling away, you are still being reminded of your body. There is likely still some element of your brain that wants to remain “pure” and unaffected by the animal body.

Now this may not be true for people who are more at home with their mortality and their animal nature. I’m not sure if these people exist or not, but I will add that if you feel no worry about death or about being out of control or contaminated, then there is probably no element of disgust in sexiness for you. But for those of us who feel disgust, I suspect that there has to be some element of that revulsion with yourself and your body in order for something to be sexy. Likely it’s not a major element or you would shy away too hard, but some purely intellectual part of yourself that wants to be immortal is not down with the down and dirty.

However I would argue that disgust heightens sexiness for many people. Disgust is an extremely powerful reaction. It viscerally reminds you of your body. It can elicit physical reactions, like vomit or the hair standing up on your arms or the back of your neck. When it is paired with a desire to move towards the object of disgust, you can have an extremely powerful feeling. This is something that people interested in kink often play with.

Interestingly, disgust is a learned reaction. Small children are willing to touch or play with primary objects of disgust (feces, vomit, etc). Only after time do they learn to feel the deep revulsion towards these things (theorists suggest that there is still a biological component though, much like with language). In their youth they seem quite interested in and fascinated by them (children playing in mud, anyone? Bugs?). Perhaps this fascination comes back in our sexuality when we can go back to the innocence of being young and unaware of our own mortality. Perhaps the sexiest thing is intentionally embracing and forgetting mortality all at once. It seems that we do have a draw towards things that are “disgusting” and when we recognize this and move back towards a youthful point of view, we might have a stronger pull towards them.

But more often than not we cannot forget all the fears of our lives. They peek in here and there. Many of us try to sterilize sex: we turn off the lights so we can’t see each others’ bodies, we trim and clean ourselves so that we don’t smell or look animal, we try to keep the act controlled or only about intimacy and love. But no matter what, at the end of the day, sex reminds us that we’re animals. This is frightening for many people.

And here is where we find the connection to the taboo and to misogyny. For much of human history, women were deemed disgusting. Disgust is a reaction that asks us to distance ourselves from the object of disgust, to cast it out. However men’s sexuality and women’s sexiness makes this impossible. The proliferation of the species is a constant reminder to men that they will die and that they will not be in control. Sex is one area in which you are always and ever reminded that you are not in control of your body. And so perhaps turning the other into the object of disgust allows men to distance themselves from the disgust or contamination they might feel towards themselves in the sex act. Misogyny may in part stem from the fear that men feel towards their animal nature (I am in no way saying women don’t feel this too. I suspect the brute strength of men allowed them to enforce their disgust a bit better than women though. Also being the penetrative partner tends to make others think of you as disgusting. See: homosexuality).

Perhaps this is where much sexualized violence stems from: it is an attempt for some people to distance themselves from the sexuality that disgusts them. We tend to kill or hurt the things that disgust us. That is the most control we can have over them, and the most distance we can put between them and ourselves. When we combine violence with our sexuality, we may be able to fool ourselves into taking the disgust out of the act by putting all of it onto the other person and only feeling the power and anger of the violence. Foisting the disgust of being human onto someone else protects you, particularly if your disgust is only for women, because it makes you different from the mortal, the animalistic, and the disgusting. But female sexuality and the boners it causes in the menfolks are a constant reminder to men that they cannot control their bodies and that even if they try to foist the disgust of sexuality onto women, some of it remains in them.

In addition, this may be where some of the fear of sexuality and the desire for purity comes from. Sex and death have long been associated in many cultures (The French word for orgasm means “little death”), and it’s fairly clear that the desire for sexual purity seems to come with a fear. But a fear of what? Some people might suggest God’s judgment, but I suspect that the disgust that comes with sex is the larger motivation. Many people think that sex is nothing to be disgusted by, but if we break down what elicits disgust, it may actually be an appropriate reaction. Perhaps this is why purity culture is still so strong. Sex is a reminder that we are not Godly or perfect, in control, immortal, or clean. For those people who dream of being this way (which tends to be the religious), sex is the ultimate reminder that they cannot be purely spiritual beings without bodies that will die. It is the ultimate fear: it reminds us of the oblivion after

However simply because something elicits disgust does not mean we should legislate against it or judge it morally. We cannot avoid reminders of our mortality forever, and simply because something “grosses us out” doesn’t mean it’s actually bad or wrong. Disgust is not an appropriate emotion on which to base moral judgment. Martha Nussbaum argues quite persuasively in her book Hiding From Humanity that disgust does not tell us whether an action has harmed another person, it simply tells us something about our fear of death or about how we perceive something as animalistic. If we take a rational approach to morality, we should look at what harms others, and disgusting things do not harm others (I am excluding things like nuisance laws here in which you inflict something disgusting on another person or primary disgust that is aimed at something which might actually contaminate you or bear disease). Just because something may elicit disgust does not mean it’s bad or wrong. We are all free to do as many potentially disgusting things as we want, and perhaps it’s time to start embracing some of the disgusting things we do: we’re human, we will die, and we need to accept that.

In other realms we’re willing to temporarily suspend disgust. We sometimes play in the mud like little kids and we get great joy out of it. Why is sex any different?

So perhaps sex is disgusting. Perhaps it’s disgusting to be sexy. And maybe, just maybe, that shouldn’t be a negative judgment of sex.

Telling the Truth About Shit

There’s something that I’ve noticed a lot lately, particularly around graduation and friends who are graduating. Oftentimes when we talk about college we hear things like “it’s the best years of your life”. But Miri’s post about her college experience got me thinking: for a lot of us it isn’t. Unfortunately when we try to say this, people often tell us all the good things that happened, try to brighten us up, or censor our experiences in some other way. This is in no way appropriate, but it is so common that it needs to be addressed.

There is a tendency in our culture to not accept negative experiences. We either want to problem solve, or look for a silver lining, or spin our negative experiences in some way. Many people say things like “you can always choose your attitude” or “you grew from the experience”. We want to convince ourselves that we haven’t wasted our time, money, or energy. And other people don’t like hearing someone in pain or unhappy, so they try to reframe a bad experience to fix the negative feelings. This is particularly true around things that are culturally viewed as “good”, or simply high-investment, like college.

Unfortunately, I think this means that we as a culture often ask individuals to quash their individual experiences and almost lie to themselves about what they truly felt if their experiences don’t fit the cultural narrative. It is highly important to be able to say what hurt you and that you are hurt. This helps you process it. This allows you to then move on from whatever fear, loneliness, sadness, or anger you were holding. If you can never openly say what hurt you without someone chiming in and saying “But what about the silver lining” your feelings get invalidated repeatedly. You’ve been told that you can’t actually know what you’re feeling because there must be a positive to your situation.

This can lead to lots of personal confusion about identity and emotions, it can mean you don’t trust yourself fully, and it means that the experience will likely to continue to hurt you. We as a society need to learn to be comfortable with some radical acceptance: some things suck. They happen and they suck. There is nothing that makes them better or ok or worth it. They just suck. Sometimes you need to talk about them and recognize that they suck, accept that they happened, and then move on as best you can. It takes radical acceptance to not question someone else’s experience.

So I want to own up to something publicly that I’m not sure I’ve ever really said in so many words before: I hated college. College was incredibly bad for my mental health. College was where my eating disorder, anxiety, and depression flowered and took over my life. I had very few friends through most of college, and lived through an emotionally abusive relationship. I did not enjoy my academics. There were positive elements, but they were absolutely not enough to make up for the intense amounts of pain I went through. That happened. I left early because I hated it so much.

But even saying that isn’t enough. It’s not enough for me to own up to a watered down version of what happened. It might sound like I’m being overdramatic, but I want to be clear about how bad the experience was for me and that when people tell me it was worth it or great or that they’re proud of me they have no idea what they’re talking about, and they’re on some level telling me that the shit I went through was good and worth it.

It started nearly immediately after moving to college. My freshman year of college I probably halved the amount of food I ate from the year before. I never ate two days in a row. I can count the number of times I ate that January on one hand. That spring I was so miserable that I literally began bawling because my brother was a half an hour late to pick me up and bring me home for break. I could not stand to be on campus one minute longer than necessary. I had friends, but I felt distant from them. They didn’t share things with me. The passive aggressive nature of the campus and covert racism and sexism made me highly uncomfortable. I was bored with my academics. I finished my first year eager to go elsewhere.

The summer after my first year I was on campus taking a class and working. For most of that time I ate approximately once a week. I was exhausted, lonely. I would drag myself through class and work, and then desperately try to find someone to talk to because the alternative was sitting alone in my room for the next five hours. My work was monotonous, dull, and required no thought. I was intensely depressed. I began to realize that the friends I had made over the year ignored me all summer and had no interest in my life or my difficulties. Coming into my second year, I started to feel as if they ignored my needs and struggles completely, and placed themselves above everything else. I was beyond lonely.

My second year I cut for the first time. I was deeply ashamed. I was living with three girls who ignored my repeated requests to turn off the lights earlier, and I spent a whole semester deprived of sleep, uncomfortable in my own space, hiding in study rooms and common rooms. I cried often, sometimes in public, running to a bathroom to try to hide it. At this point I felt I had no friends, no one to talk to, no one to trust. I went through my days in a pattern that felt exactly the same every day, and while I was learning I didn’t feel engaged. Every morning it was a struggle to get out of bed because I knew the day would replicate the previous one exactly. I was spending hours of every day thinking about food, fighting with myself about eating, poking at my body and hating it. I kept trying to force myself to exercise more and more but I was tired all day every day.

Throughout the summer after my second year, my self harm got worse. I experienced bad relationship troubles. By the fall of my final year I had broken up with someone I cared greatly about and spent the better part of a month nearly suicidal and going through each day just wondering when I could get back to my room to cut again. It was all I lived for, and it wasn’t much. The only reason I did not kill myself then was because I kept wondering who would find my body, and I felt too guilty to do that to anyone. One night, a friend of mine broke into my room and stole my razors. I was terrified when I found out because I didn’t know who it was. I spent the next hour searching my house for something sharp and ended up sitting in the corner of my bed crying, rocking back and forth until at least 3 in the morning because I was afraid someone might come into my room.

Following this I entered into a relationship in which I was pressured for sex, emotionally manipulated, guilted, and shamed. I had begun to find the glimmers of a few friendships after my previous breakup, but my new boyfriend cut me off from everyone and demanded all my time and attention. He began to hurt himself and blame me. He pinned his whole life on me and made it my responsibility. I collapsed under the pressure.

Through all of this I felt that I was not doing enough academically, despite graduating with honors, that I should be keeping up more extracurriculars, working out more, and volunteering more. I was in a constant state of self-hatred for not living up to my own expectations. I was bored out of my mind with most of the academics. There were classes here and there that engaged me, discussions or professors that were wonderful and kind, but overall I found myself disengaging with class because I felt condescended to with the material. Boredom is a huge trigger for me. It makes me anxious, worried that I’m doing something wrong, worried that I am not accomplishing. Nearly all of college I was bored with my classes and frustrated with my classmates.

After I graduated I chose to pursue a second degree at another institution because I didn’t know what else to do. The loneliness of being at a big school led to some of my worst self harm to date as well as the beginning of purging and bad exercise addiction. I would go days without speaking to anyone. I spent most nights crying. More than anything I just wanted to stop, but I couldn’t bring myself to drop out because that would have made me a failure.

College was horrible for me. I was lonely, guilty, self-hating, and judgmental.

I have been bitter about college since I graduated. I have envied the experiences of those who had a positive experience. And I have tried so many times to see what I got out of it. I have thought about what I learned, the good relationships with professors, the books I read, the sports I did. But none of that makes up for what I went through, and all it does is ask me to forget or spin the pain that I felt.

Today I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to learn and grow from the experience. I want to validate to myself and in front of others that it was bad and it was not my fault. It has made me who I am, and all I can do from this position is simply try to move forward with the tools that I’ve got, but one of the tools I have is honesty and I honestly want to say that the best lesson I can learn is to never put myself in a similar position again.

I want the people around me to acknowledge how bad it was. I want to be able to own the hurt so that I can move on and I don’t want to continue having to smile to people and lie about my college experience because people don’t want to hear you say that you were miserable. I’m tired of feeling pressured to put a smile on my face because college has to be a positive growth experience. I have done this for years. Every time a friend or relative asked me how college was I lied through my teeth because it was expected. I’m done with those expectations because they have made me bitter and they have asked me to keep carrying this pain all alone.

I’m done with that. I hated college. I wish I had done it differently. I can’t, I survived and now I will move the fuck on.

I’m a Duck

It’s been a rough few weeks for me. I’ve had a lot of stress happening, and some close friends have had bad things happen to them, and I’ve been left feeling like the best I can do on any given day is make it to work, sit my butt in the chair, and not cry. I have a lot of friends who have been trying to help, giving me advice, telling me what works for them. Unfortunately, these tend to be people who are not suffering from mental illness or who have never suffered from mental illness. And so I’ve spent a lot of this week staring people’s privilege in the face while they tell me I should just “be more social” or “stop watching TV”, and I have to explain how that’s not possible for me right now.

People don’t understand why I can’t make certain changes in my life. That makes sense. I don’t look sick or injured. I am not mentally incapable in any way, and sometimes I can get a great deal done in a short period of time. I sleep enough, I don’t have an excess of things going on. What is it about my life that makes it so impossible for me to adjust my priorities and work on things like socializing or reading more often or cutting TV out of my life or exercising?

The difference between your life and mine is made up of spoons. For you, getting out of bed, eating your breakfast, and going to work might not take much out of you. For me, it’s a difficult process that requires a lot of high level thinking and a lot of emotional regulation skills. The best metaphor that I know of is that my dad once described me as a duck: people watching me on the surface of a lake might think that I’m placidly swimming along without putting much effort in, but if you look just below the surface I’m paddling my little heart out. That’s what having a mental illness is. Now you might ask what am I doing under the surface just to get out of bed and make it to work in the morning. Well, I’m fighting my own brain.

Let’s just take today as an example. Last night I had a meltdown about socializing, which means that today I woke up tired. I spent a good ten minutes convincing myself that yes, I did have to go to work today and face people again (typically it takes me ten minutes between waking up and getting to work, so that’s a lot of time for me). I then spent the next ten minutes trying to decide whether to buy coffee now or later. To you this is no big deal. To me, this is an important choice. Coffee is an appetite suppressant. If I drink my coffee first thing in the morning, I’m more likely to get hungry for lunch. Drinking coffee first thing in the morning rather than later is a conscious choice to try to set myself up to eat. However leaving my office to go get coffee halfway through the day can be an important act of self care. I spend half my morning trying to decide whether I want to prioritize eating or breaking up the boredom and anxiety of my day.

After I get to work, I look at my to-do list. I have about enough actual work to last me an hour, then the rest of my day is spent killing time. Boredom triggers anxiety for me. Huge anxiety. I try to think of as many possible things to distract myself as I can, and then I write them down. Now I have to decide how to start my day. Generally if I go until 10:00 without accomplishing any work, I begin to wallow in self-judgment, however if I usually don’t have much energy first thing in the morning and if I finish all my work first thing I fall back into boredom by the end of the day (see: anxiety). Over and over I renumber the things on my list to try to find the perfect combination of real work and social media work to keep myself engaged and not feeling like a failure.

Currently, my phone has a single message. I know who it’s from. I can see the little red light blinking at me. It’s from someone who doesn’t speak English, who’s called me repeatedly. I tried to send him to intake where they have interpreters, but thus far I haven’t been able to get him the help he needs. I’m afraid to listen to the message and be reminded that I couldn’t help this person, so instead every time I glance over at my phone I have a flashing red reminder of it. This means more mindfulness and emotion regulation work to keep my anxiety and self-hatred in check.

After I finally get my list in order and start doing work, I have a hard time concentrating on one thing because I always think I should be completing everything at once. Periodically my work will devolve into rabid clicking between tabs, typing two words before jumping to something else. When this happens I have to take five minutes to close my eyes and breathe slowly, reminding myself of one-mindfulness. Finally I make it to writing this blog. Some of you might say this is a waste of my time or that I could be spending the time saving my energy for something more beneficial later today. The reason I’m choosing to do this is because it’s a distraction, and when I don’t distract at work I start to get extremely anxious (see again, boredom). Anxiety takes more energy, and leaves me potentially incapable of staying at work for the rest of the day. In the back of my mind there’s the ever present knowledge that my to-do list is not long enough for eight hours. I am always playing out little arguments with that fear, trying to keep myself in the here and now.

It’s now about 1 PM and I haven’t eaten lunch yet. I’ve been thinking about lunch since I got to work though. I’ve imagined what I could eat, how long it would take. I know that eating is a nice break from staring at the computer for me, and that it leaves me feeling a little bit refreshed. However it also leaves me with a lot of judgments and depression about myself that distract me and require a good deal of work to leave behind. Thinking about food is stressful, so the past five hours have been rough, thinking of how good it would taste before immediately jumping to the fat on my stomach or my thighs and the jeans that I didn’t fit into this morning. Back and forth, back and forth I go, my brain constantly ping-ponging between the arguments for and against food. By the time I actually get around to eating I’m almost out of the ability to manage stress, and so eating leaves me very vulnerable. Simply making it to the end of my work day might take all the rest of my energy.

But I also have therapy today, and as anyone who’s been to therapy knows that’s emotionally draining. So by the time I get to the end of the day I will be fairly worn out. I’m planning to cook dinner, because one of my goals is to be able to cook instead of eating out so that I can afford to feed myself in the future. This has also been a balancing act of anxiety about money and anxiety about food. I have to go to the grocery store, which at times has left me bawling in the fetal position, so I’m already steeling myself against that experience. This all will take a great deal of my emotional energy because food makes me worried and afraid, and I will need to use a lot of calming strategies to deal with it. Every one of these stressors not only takes up some of my attention and my energy, but then asks me to engage a complementary skill or coping strategy so that I can make it through the day, keep my job, and not have a melt down.

Add in to all of this that if I don’t eat, I’ll be dizzy and tired by the time I leave work, and the fact that I spend all day at my office freezing cold and trying to warm myself up, and it leaves me fairly exhausted by the end of my day. If I were to go out and try to socialize, it would be all I could do to smile and nod. I have no energy left to read instead of watching TV because my eyes would fall out of focus and I’d read the same paragraph over and over and over. I have spent all day reviewing the DBT skills options and trying desperately to engage skills that I’m still learning and which are incredibly difficult for me. This is a light day for me. Every day of my life I spend constantly calculating how much I can handle and how to manage my emotions.

Some people might say that we always get to choose how we act or what our attitude is, however the fact that I have to deal with all this anxiety is not a choice of mine. I can make choices about how to react to it, and about how to use the small amounts of energy I have. I can make choices about where to spend my time and focus when I have the energy to calm myself. And yes, I do get some choice about what to do with my spare time. However I don’t get to make a choice about the fact that my brain is nearly always screaming at me with something it wants to take up my full attention. I’m left with a very limited number of choices: listen and freak out. Engage skills. Or stuff it all down and pretend it’s not there. I don’t really get to prioritize other things over these because these are always immediate, strong emotions that demand attention. Survival is always my priority.

With all this going on just below the surface simply to keep myself a functioning member of society, is it any surprise that it sounds ridiculous to me to suggest that I should just change my lifestyle up, or face my social fears? Is it any surprise that I simply CAN’T strike up more conversations or spend a lot of time emotionally prepping myself for social encounters? Is it any surprise that I’m hurt and upset when people suggest these things because they invalidate all of the work that I’m doing and then tell me that I should take responsibility for being lonely and frustrated with my life?

I realize that for the most part all of this work is invisible, and so no one means ill when they suggest things to me. But from the perspective of anyone with an invisible illness, you all need to know that it hurts when you say that.

It’s hard enough to validate myself and the work that I’m doing as it is. Society is hardly patting me on the back for giving myself permission to take a nap last night instead of calling my loan company. I already feel useless and incompetent at many things because I don’t have the energy to figure them out right now and because the work that I am doing hardly looks like work (right now my to do list includes things like “cook”,  “Hot bath”, “make it to the end of the work day”, and “eat lunch”. I feel like I should probably just add “breathe” on there with how basic most of this stuff is). Being reminded that I have so much more I could be doing, or that I supposedly have the ability to change my situation if I just tried hard enough feels horrible. It makes me feel like everything is my fault, and it tells me that if I want to have a better life I should just change.

Remember that having extra energy or the choice of how to prioritize things in your life is a privilege. Survival is my priority and it has to be right now. Whenever it looks like someone isn’t doing very much but is worn down and complaining, contemplate how much they might be doing under the surface.