It has been long and difficult, the hell of the last two years. Like many people, I feel that my emotional and mental wellbeing has been stressed and tested, constantly, with each of the twists and turns of this nightmare decade (though I hope the nightmare does not actually last the whole decade).
Nonetheless I have been surviving. I chose to do so without therapy because it was not very accessible to me, and for a myriad of other reasons. But I still wanted to help myself, if I could. Perhaps amusingly, I was most frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t even find a book on how to therapize myself. “Self help” was not a genre that could actually help me help myself. The closest I got was probably Lori Gottlieb’s book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.
If given the right tools, I thought, if just pointed in roughly the right direction, surely I could think my way out of this. Probably not all the way to thriving, but I could at least think my way through surviving, through not collapsing in on myself.
A number of concepts did help me. For the time that I was in despair about the world’s big problems — COVID, climate change, inequality and structural discrimination — I turned to revolutionary optimism. It is an optimism that is not naive, but stems from knowing change only occurs when we believe it can. So we must believe. It’s an odd comfort, but a comfort nonetheless. Of course it was more than two sentences that brought me through it, but I’ll leave you to look for more. Reading Debt: The First 5000 Years, and then writing about it, was part of this, too.
I clung to the advice a therapist at MIT gave me a while back, trying to resolve the physical aspect as best I could. Eat fruits and vegetables, wake up and get some sunlight, try to move a little bit, even just walking. Try to be around other people in a passive sense, like at a coffee shop (in COVID times, I have my roommates or my workplace and for the two months of acceptable Boston weather, outdoor spaces). A SAD lamp seemed to help somewhat. I tried to maintain a somewhat regular sleep schedule, to eat enough fruits and vegetables. I tried to exercise more rigorously when I had the mental fortitude to do so.
My most difficult problem is largely related to self worth. I tried as hard as I could to question my negative thoughts, and to stop cycles of ruminating on all my flaws and inadequacies and failures. I still have bad days, and I cannot say I am always successful. Sometimes I would be set off by something and just sink, for a while, back down to a barely functional state.
Sometimes you just have to turn it off and then on again, go to sleep and wake up to a new day. Usually that fixes it, at least temporarily.
I try to interrupt myself, and now it’s become a habit, one that I hear almost like a voice in my head.
Sometimes my thoughts would get dark, like, if what I aim for is the least harm to other humans, wouldn’t it be best if I, with the place I occupy in carbon producing infrastructure, with the risk of infection that I could be to others, with all the other contras of a modern human living in the US, were to vanish?
No, it interrupts, the tragedy of all these things is precisely the tremendous loss of human life, and the potential thereof. So, unless it directly and significantly improves the situation for others, on a purely logical front, how is the loss of your life a net benefit? Furthermore, would that not benefit the white supremacist patriarchal infrastructure you precisely seek to dismantle with your voice and being?
Or as DJ Khaled might say, THEY DON’T WANT US TO WIN!!!!
I don’t always feel better, just disgruntled at having been thwarted. But at least the cycle of rumination has been thwarted too.
Over time, I got better at interrupting myself. There was a time during the pandemic when I would have bad weeks. But bad days is a significant improvement.
I tried to do this with body issues too, when instead of even coherent thoughts my brain just chooses a barrage of negative words when some event (stepping on a scale, shopping for jeans) triggers an emotional response.
But this too is interrupted — don’t you believe that every person, regardless of their size, is capable of the same intelligence, creativity, talent? don’t you believe that size is not necessarily a measure of health? isn’t the reason for some of the things you worry about, a decrease in physical activity for example, the pandemic, and because you tried to do the right thing by staying home?
Worst of all is when I talked to some folks about applying to graduate school, just to explore the idea. I was plunged back into some of the moments at MIT when my self worth had been absolutely cratered. The process of considering my grades and asking for recommendation laters flashed before my eyes, and the idea of measuring myself with those things again felt terrifying (even though I know I shouldn’t). Thanks to a very chaotic first job, two years after graduating I felt like I was just recovering from undergrad. Now it’s four years, and my second dance with a mild depression has a different trigger, the same trigger everyone else’s seems to have. It’s more functional than whatever I had at MIT, more mild — or maybe the stakes are just lower.
So I continue to cope.
The problem with this strategy is that it gets me to neutral, but not beyond that. There were times I felt that life was like a river, teeming with life, flowing around me, and I, a rock in that river, would remain there for decades, just waiting to erode into sediment. Bit by bit losing particles of myself to sand, bit by bit worn smooth, dissolving into nothing over eons of sameness.
On good days I wrote down some affirmations:
It is the self-worth I seem to still struggle with now, and this is not new. Even during the times when I would not say I was generally depressed — in my personal case it always has an external trigger, like MIT or COVID, in my unfortunate case the triggers are years-long environments instead of singular events— I still struggled with self-esteem, self-worth, and personal body image. It’s not the same as humility or modesty, if anything seeing yourself on the lowest rung makes it hard to celebrate others’ accomplishments. It is not an abundant mindset.
It is hard to ever feel that I am enough of anything, having lived a childhood being told directly or indirectly that I was not enough of a race or ethnicity to belong. Achievements sometimes don’t even feel like achievements. I struggle to celebrate myself, I always feel that I fall short. It is #6 above that I struggle with the most: I am more than my work and my accomplishments. There are times I feel like I am eroding, disappearing; and there are other times I want to disappear, but not so much in a negative way; I mean to just fade into the background, to simply let go of expectations for myself and expectations from others, to be myself a spectre, to be able to just be.
In fact I don’t even desire to be “more than” the things that I do — I would still be using them to measure myself, if I am “more”. Perhaps just “other than”. I am something other than these things I do.
Something human and soft and alive.