In brief: It turns out that human beings are complex and able to have multiple feelings simultaneously and that getting well at long last is a mixed bag. Today, I’m getting real about letting yourself feel a sad when you need it despite what the entire world says about how that’ll derail you into a self-blame spiral.
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In my last entry I talked about finally feeling capable. For the first time since high school, I look at my to-do list and my deadlines and my 80-hour nanny shift every week and through the exhaustion still feel a bit like this:
That’s not because I’m like soooooo awesome or suddenly endowed with super powers or even that my day-to-day life is so rockin’ I’m positive I could do anything. I don’t have manic feelings (I’m an academic-level expert on that thanks to a misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder in my 20’s). I am definitely tired, which should weigh me down a bit because biology works that way. I admit to pushing my body with all-nighters (like the one during which I am currently writing) as part of a concerted plan for achieving actual autonomy where I stand not just on my own feet, but on ground that doesn’t resemble quicksand.
So it isn’t some outlandish TOP OF THE WORLD thing I have happening right now. I’m simply high on an endorphin and confidence level from being able to do what needs to get done.
One would think I’d feel just ducky all the time. My decades-long quest to get here certainly left me wholly unprepared for an unwelcome discovery: I do not feel entirely great and sometimes I cry without warning.
This basic competency I’m suddenly experiencing is something my early academic success convinced me would be a piece of cake for the duration of my life. I’m not really sure I ever thought about it quite that way; I would have told you that I could “tackle anything” or “handle that no problem” or “make it work.” I mean, I was toting home four+ hours of homework a night from honors classes before I was a teenager; the difficulty level of the work didn’t scare me any more than the volume at which it was assigned.
I’d also always managed to achieve. Graduating with a 4.3/4.0 while working 20 hours a week and conducting a marching band that started in July and took three nights plus every Saturday until November was no small accomplishment. Toss in being super active in my church — twice on Sunday plus some weeknights — and my schedule was ridiculously long years before I decided to double major in biology and chemistry on my way to veterinary school.
Burning out my sophomore year of college didn’t really surprise me. It was disappointing, but when you work at that break neck pace (plus living at home was no picnic, so additional life stress you think will NEVER END when you’re a teenager), hitting a wall was understandable. The problem was that I didn’t recover. Nothing worked. I couldn’t get over the wall. Or around it. I even tried breaking through the damn thing (on my own, of course, like a typical over-achiever).
Now that I have an ADHD diagnosis thanks to a doctor friend who went through something similar (her “burn out” was first year of med school), I get what happened. I am absolutely at a disability level with this disorder — the most severe echelon according to my doctor. If you missed my post about the diagnosis, she actually said this sentence: “I don’t know how you’ve been functioning up to this point.” (“Not very well,” I said. Always be honest with your doctors.)
That statement was pretty amazing coming from a doctor. A relief, really. Finally, it was clear that it wasn’t something I’d done or anything wrong with my drive or ambition or worth. I wasn’t lazy. I have a medical condition.
It suddenly became amazing that I’d managed to keep my shit mostly together for as long as I did without the resources to access treatment or a safety net of any kind. I’d walked a tightrope for most of my life and started out with someone shaking the damn thing constantly. Staying on it — even if I did spend a fair amount of time clinging to the high wire with my arms and legs wrapped tightly around it — seemed like quite an accomplishment. Talk about a perspective shift.
Currently, I’m rounding the corner to the full dosage of my meds. I discovered the capability deal when I was at about half way there a month ago. I’d put together a solid, ambitious plan without regard for my comfort or the commitment required to realize it. And then looked at it. I hadn’t once thought about feasibility or scaled back my goals or needs through a “just in case” or “I might not be able to such-and-such” framework. That alone — the not overthinking and revamping before I’d barely begun to draw the picture — is really something for a person with my levels of ADHD, anxiety, and dysthymia (sort of a low-grade depression you don’t notice when you’re healthy, but is lurking around ready to flare like allergies or a bad knee).
When I was done, I considered exactly what I’d need, what it was going to take and just how many all-nighters were on the horizon to do it all in the time frame I wanted….
…and I felt a jolt of excitement.
Building the life you want from scratch (after climbing up to scratch first, of course) sounds kind of exciting in the abstract — especially when you toss in a cross country move that follows two long distance moves in two years. For me, though, typical trajectory would have been to be all psyched while creating the plan/idea and then to immediately picture the process of getting there which inevitably prompts ulcer-inducing anxiety and paralysis.
It isn’t fear that caused the anxiety. It was dread. Sustaining anything substantial had been a nightmare since that wall in college. My certainty that I was valuable and smart and motivated enough to do a thing would meet with some unexplained obstacle that would stick in my throat and spread through my limbs along a nauseatingly predictable path. The number of times it had happened pretty much ensured it would happen again — a pattern I couldn’t dismiss.
So when it didn’t happen, I was almost elated. I realized, I didn’t just know I could do something — I felt that I could.
I waited for the anxiety to creep in.
A month went by. I hit every deadline, kept up with every house/nanny duty, heard the word “yes” on important steps for long term goals, and even managed to sneak in a short camping trip for that self-care I’m always bugging other people to practice and never do myself.
I sat for a minute and checked again on that dark cloud over my shoulder. Still nothing.
Then the reason why now was different hit me: I was actually capable. I finally have the functionality to do the things that were always in my head, but were impossible while simultaneously fighting my brain chemistry every minute of the day.
It felt like a damn miracle.
Right you are, fairy godmother.
Not long after this exciting relief moment, my boyfriend and I were due for a “how you/we doin’ check in.”
Quick time out:
If you don’t do this in your relationships from the start, you should. Polyamorous folks have to do it because we commit to a level of communication almost no one else bothers with, but that should be standard. Imagine if you never had that “ugh” feeling that comes with needing to bring something up or sit someone down and you never heard the words “hey, can we talk?” followed by the burst of dread and unhealthy overthinking that happens no matter how self-confident you are.
Having a space in your relationship where that conversation happens regularly and naturally is essentially the best thing ever. When a space exists that encourages you to say what you want and need, almost nothing is a bombshell. Things are discussed more calmly and honestly and you waste so much less time when you aren’t trying to figure out what either or both of you want because you’re talking about it instead of imagining it.
You don’t have to be poly to benefit from good communication and MoreThanTwo.com has some amazing resources. I recommend Do ask for what you need & Don’t let problems sit under the “Dos and don’ts” tab for anyone. Also, seriously, get the book.
I realized at the check-in as he was telling me some things he needed that I had some unexplored insecurity I hadn’t worked out. My problem hit me like a cliche between the eyes: I didn’t feel like an adult around him.
He has a stable job he’s not crazy about but which affords him some decent security for now. He owns his condo. He has a sensible, paid off vehicle and gets to take vacations every year. He’s not a shopper and isn’t that into material shit, so he’d consider himself thrifty. But he’s able to have a solid social life and travel when he wants — and take me out the once a week we can usually make happen.
While I’ve never been a tally keeper in any relationship for emotional stuff or gifts or who does/spends/contributes what, I’m in a life situation I’m not particularly comfortable with and hadn’t realized caused me this degree of discomfort — or despair, really — because I’d basically just been working nonstop before I met him. If you want to know how you’re feeling, it helps to slow down for a minute. I knew and still know that this situation is temporary, but it’s a serious hole I started in medically and financially that isn’t going to be backfilled in a month or six months or (please let this just be me making sure I don’t fall apart if it happens) even a year.
I literally have no expendable income. I have to budget a cup of coffee or a smoothie date with a friend. So suggesting he and I do something together comes with the unspoken necessity that he is going to pay because I can’t. Every time. And we both know it. This is different than if he simply typically paid because it means that my suggesting we go see a baseball game is essentially asking him to buy me something. As that conscious thought formed I suddenly felt ill.
He was great about it, of course. He’s great about everything. (You can check out the first poly-centric writing I’ve done if you want more background: “True Story: Why I’m Almost Childfree By Choice” at The Frisky.) But that didn’t make it any less true than telling myself how this whole thing is temporary and not my fault because capitalism and medical issues makes it less true. I let go of the self-blame a few years ago when I realized how not stable everything is and how many people had masters degrees on their walls and Starbucks uniforms in their closets. Tackling the self-blame was a big step that may prevent paralysis, but I’ve discovered it doesn’t take away all the feelings.
Even knowing I didn’t cause this out of laziness or whatever doesn’t make my current situation less real: I am almost 36 and I live on what is essentially a converted porch. When I moved here I only had three walls. That lasted more than three months. I just unpacked my last suitcase because without a closet or shelves I have had to get creative. I never have the space to feel a way because I’m never alone. I’m not allowed guests. If the state pulled my food assistance I wouldn’t be eating. I work 130 hours a week on average and I have 70 square feet of living/working space to show for it.
I had feelings.
I still have feelings. I don’t feel like an adult sometimes. It isn’t an overwhelming constant feeling, but it happens. And it’s happening because I suddenly feel competent.
I am competent, but not autonomous. This shit is harder to digest than being unable to produce while knowing something was wrong or while starting the process of getting well. I had never imagined myself here; in my mind I was (and still sort of am) either unwell/barely competent or well/fully functional. No one warned me that being better while still having to clean up decades of mess was going to feel this way. Now that I feel well, not being on my own is hard. Harder than being unwell or being in the long, frustrating process of getting well. Listen. It is like way, Way, WAY harder.
It’s going to be fine. I know it is because I feel the difference and know that this rebuilding process will stick. But sometimes…for a minute…I have to let myself have the feeling.
We’re told those moments aren’t good and that letting yourself have them is unhealthy. Thank goodness my therapist is more enlightened than that. The feeling isn’t paralyzing because I can be sad and optimistic at the same time. I can also be motivated and exhausted at the same time. Right now I feel annoyed and grateful with a dash of “meh” because my neck is killing me and I can’t afford the distraction.
I can hold all those things in my head at once because I’m human. And acknowledging the sad when I have to turn down plans, pay an unexpected bill that sets back my goals, triple check my EBT card balance to grocery shop, and look up my checking account funds so my $3 copay goes through is JUST FINE TO DO.
Anyone who can’t understand nuance and the way complicated emotions interact is not someone you should go to for counsel or comfort. When you don’t acknowledge a feeling, you bury it and that shit will creep back up on you without asking your permission or checking your calendar to see if you have time for damage control.
Give yourself a minute or a moment or however long when you need it. I do and it’s keeping me on track. For a few minutes every day at some point I have the “I’m not an adult” flash. I see it, I acknowledge it, I set it aside. The more I’ve talked about it with my boyfriend and other supportive folks who don’t spout platitudes resembling a “Hang in there!” poster, the more in control of that feeling I’ve become.
Now, I see it coming, throw it some side eye, and watch it retreat to the background where it belongs until I can banish it. Every time I look at that feeling square in the face without crumbling I get stronger.
So the next time someone is annoyed that you feel a couple things at a time or tells you to get over something, give them a blank stare and realize they aren’t worth your time. And if no one around you gets it, you can always write to me or leave messages in my Twitter mentions where I PROMISE other people will weigh in with similar experiences and supportive words.
I have another post on the way this week. For now, I’ve gotta get back to a deadline before the sun comes up…
Note: If you have something you want to rant about, let people know, vent over, or add to the #GetWell2015 project and discussion, just email me: KatieSpeakMail@gmail.com. I won’t be able to cover everything that’s important because I’m writing from a personal perspective and I haven’t been through everything there is to go through. Pitch me or send me what you’ve got — it can be short or medium-lengthed and I probably am not going to ask for edits. I’d like to include some other voices because poverty, wellness, and stigma affect a massive range of people and experiences.
This post is an entry in my year-long project documenting all the messiness and inconvenience and stigma of trying to get well in our culture. You can subscribe, follow, and join in the journey at #GetWell2015 here and on Twitter.