It comes around every year, so I’ll probably repost this every year.
Original post was a Facebook Note from July 16th, 2013.
Tish’a b’Av Thoughts 2013
Tish’a b’Av is not a day of action. There are no extensive Judaic rituals like a seder to conduct or a bundle of plants to wave around or a rickety booth to construct in your backyard.
It’s not a day of prayer, either. There are a few specific prayers, the kinot, that are particular to Tish’a b’Av, but there are nowhere near as many things to say as there are on Yom Kippur, and no one is expected to spend the entire day in the synagogue with a prayerbook.
It’s not a day of atonement. We’re not asking for forgiveness and absolution and a fresh start.
The only way I can think to sum up this day is that it’s a day of, “Just be wrong. Just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong and get used to it.”*
It’s a day of wallowing. You’re ideally not supposed to do anything that will distract you from that, at least for the first half of the day. You’re not supposed to eat, you’re not supposed to watch TV, you’re not supposed to read, I’m not supposed to be writing this. You’re not even supposed to study Torah until after chatzot (midday).
It’s a day of mourning, and a day of regret, and a day of guilt. Very Jewish.
I have never been any good at feeling the things I am supposed to feel. I’m pretty good at doing the things I’m supposed to do, because I can usually come up with my own reasons to do them. But I’m bad at believing what I’m supposed to believe, and feeling what I’m supposed to feel.
Supposedly, God does not command your feelings. I remember in school when we got up to the “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God” verse in the shema, and the teacher raised the question, “How can God command anyone to love him?”
I don’t remember what answer she gave, which means that I must have found it completely unsatisfying, because I remember satisfying answers while unsatisfying ones evaporate from my memory, leaving the questions stronger than ever. (She probably said something like, “Doing all the commandments will lead to love of God, so it’s not a separate commandment, just a natural result” and no, that is not how it works.)
But the fact that this is a question means there’s the idea that God doesn’t command our feelings, only our actions.
But aside from what God technically commands, it’s undeniable that the Jewish calendar has demands on your feelings. Be happy on these days! Be sad on these days! Be introspective! Be celebratory! Be depressed! Be grateful! We have holidays for all of them, sometimes well spread out, sometimes smushed together like a bad mood swing.
Some people have the mental discipline to direct their thoughts and feelings toward all of these at the right times of year, and are able to take advantage of this varied spectrum of emotional experience. Me? Nope. I tend to get bitter and cynical when faced with “BE HAPPY NOW” and feel upbeat when everyone around me starts doing the sad thing.
I’m an emotional contrarian. I’m bad at feelings.
And I’m especially bad at guilt.
Because the fact is that I am a bad Jew, a Jew who doesn’t believe properly, who doesn’t care enough about Jewish things, doesn’t have enough tolerance for people who don’t think like me, and if there is a Messiah, I may very well be one of those people who is preventing him from coming, because I am just not good enough for that, and am bringing the rest of you down with me and my unworthiness. Because we Jews are all a team, and my failure somehow radiates out to impact all of us.
And I could feel guilty about that. I could let it own me, let it crush me, let it weigh on me every minute of every day.
It used to. It used to be this constant horrible presence in my life, berating me, hammering me, until I reached a point where I realized, “Yo, guilt! It’s either you, or me.” And I chose me, and over time, I uprooted and cast out every last shred of guilt I could find.
Guilt is not something I have been able to find a balance for. In order to function, I need it gone. Completely. I understand that guilt in moderation is a healthy thing, ensures that you’re not a sociopath, but I can’t handle it, so I’ve walled it out. I can recognize my mistakes, I can think to myself, “I shouldn’t have done that,” or, “That was wrong,” and I usually do my best to apologize and make it up to the person I’ve wronged, but I can’t feel bad about it anymore, not for more than a second or two, with very rare exceptions. I don’t have any real, sincere regrets. About anything.
I have tremendous respect for people who have a capacity for guilt. I respect people who can feel their mistakes, people who have deep regrets, and live with them every day without letting them take over. Guilt destroys me, and I am frankly too afraid to let any of it back in, because I know what it does to me.
So even on this day of guilt, for better or worse, I sit behind my walls and refuse to feel my wrongness.
*President Josiah Bartlet, The West Wing
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I posted this on Facebook last week, but forgot to post it here. So here it is; sorry for the delay!
Lesser known fact: I’ve been writing characters with PTSD since before I knew what PTSD was.
I’ve just always had one or two characters running around in my novels (which I started writing in 5th grade) with some disastrous tragic past, who are now navigating a world where this is mostly not relevant to their everyday life, but just because it’s not relevant doesn’t mean it’s not always there, capable of snapping to the forefront if they see something, smell something, hear something, taste something. This just seemed to me like a perfectly logical way for a mind to cope with unthinkable amounts of stress and trauma while remaining functional that I had no idea that it was a diagnosable condition, and that some people don’t understand or even believe in things like triggers.
Of course, once I was a worldly 8th or 9th grader, I at some point learned of the existence of PTSD and did some research in the hope of writing my PTSD-afflicted characters in more authentic and realistic ways. But pretty much everything I found aligned just fine with the ways I was already writing the characters, based on the logic of how I perceived a person’s psyche would react to their sorts of situations. I had essentially deduced PTSD and some of the various manifestations of it: triggers, flashbacks, emotional outbursts, self-imposed isolation, frustration and self-loathing at the betrayal of one’s own body and mind, insomnia, insecurity over being perceived as weak because of it, undercurrents of anxiety at being unsure when/how bad the next attack could be, health issues outside of attacks (like high blood pressure), and coping mechanisms.
Lots and lots of coping mechanisms.
I personally did not begin to have anxiety issues until the past few years, and the outright panic attacks didn’t start until a couple of years ago. (I actually have a Facebook note — and post here — about when the first one happened and why, because of course I do.)
I usually don’t think about my own life in terms of coping mechanisms, because I don’t have PTSD/a diagnosed condition, and my anxiety attacks are usually so sporadic that I almost totally forget about them in between. This is not super great, because then when they hit me, every time, it feels like they’ve just come out of nowhere and that I don’t have the tools to deal with them, because I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to deal with them on a day-to-day basis.
But after last week’s spate of repeated attacks with barely any respite between them, I couldn’t afford not to develop some tools for myself. Or at least to hone the ones that have lain dormant in the back of my brain. I mean, I think I do use these all the time, but unconsciously, automatically, and I think I need to start employing them in a more deliberate, methodical way, instead of just relying on my brain to kick in with them when I need it to, because clearly my brain is tired of being taken for granted and would appreciate a little jump start (#carjoke).
Years of writing PTSD-riddled characters has left me with a wealth of underutilized coping mechanisms just hanging around back there. I haven’t technically written any fiction in over a year, but over the past decade and a half, I’ve spent countless hours inside the heads of these characters, a headspace where coping mechanisms are second-nature; I’m sure they won’t mind if I borrow a few.
So the idea behind the rest of this post is to compile some kind of list and explanations of various coping mechanisms that I’ve been using since my last panic attack. (It’s been a week and a half, for those keeping score at home; it’s been a fantastic week and a half, actually.) The list is by no means definitive or comprehensive, and of course not every technique is right for every situation. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of flexibility here. Stress and anxiety are many-headed and adaptable monsters, and trying to counter with exclusively the same move over and over again is rarely going to stay effective. You have to set your phaser to a rotating frequency (#StarTrekjoke).
Again, a technical term I only learned about wayyyyy after I’d been utilizing it for years. Basically, the way I cope with my fears is to bulldoze right through them.
I remember during my gap year in Israel before college, one of my classmates had one of those bags with so-called inspirational phrases slathered all over it, but the only phrase I remember was: “Do one thing a day that scares you.” And I started doing that, maybe not once a day, but once in a while, and I learned to think in terms of what scares me, which at that point in time was a lot of things. Like, talking to that teacher. Or approaching that classmate. Or asking that family if they could host me for a meal. Or going into the Chabad house to see what it was like. Scary stuff. Or at least, scary until you’ve done it once or twice. Then it’s easy.
I gradually graduated from tiny little fears to bigger and bigger ones. Distilled thought process: “This scares me. Why does it scare me? Do the reasons include ‘likely to cause bodily harm, financial disaster, or extensive emotional damage’? No? Then DO IT.”
Afraid to tell that really cute guy he’s cute? TELL HIM. Afraid to write that really personal essay? WRITE IT. Afraid to post it online? POST IT. Afraid to tell that guy you really want to date that you really want to date him? TELL HIM. Afraid to let those people see you without makeup? LET THEM. Afraid to perform at that Open Mic? PERFORM AT IT. Afraid to go to that party where you might not know anyone? GO TO IT. Afraid to start a conversation with a stranger on a train? START IT. Afraid to hang out with that person from the internet that you barely know? HANG OUT WITH THEM. Afraid to travel alone and go hostel hopping for two weeks? DO IT. Afraid to let your new boyfriend see your vulnerabilities? LET HIM. Afraid to say hi to Kevin Bacon when you practically bump into him on the street? SAY HI TO KEVIN BACON; IT’S FRIKKING KEVIN BACON.
All of these things — the more you do them, the less scary they become. At least for me. (Kevin Bacon is super nice, tbh.) I can’t tell you that the fear always goes away entirely, because in certain areas, it definitely does not. But if you know you’ve faced a fear in the past and lived, it’s easier to face it again in the present.
People I know have at times referred to me as “fearless.” That is categorically false, of course. I just have a compulsive need to face my fears, conquer them, beat them into submission. Sometimes this is a bad strategy and results in me damaging my mental health by forcing myself into situations that I ought to have walked away from rather than trying to beat. As I’ve noted in the past, a tactical retreat is not cowardice. But it runs counter to my need not to be controlled by my fears, so sometimes I err on the side of recklessness.
But essentially what I’m saying here is that when that horrible empty feeling and subsequent panic attacks made me afraid to go back to work, I instinctively felt that the only viable path open to me was to GO BACK TO WORK.
Identification and Verbal Acknowledgement
One of my greatest talents is my ability to wordify my thoughts. Sometimes this is easier than other times, because honestly sometimes I don’t have thoughts; I just have feelings. Sometimes a feeling will put the whammy on me in the span of a split second — between one bite of my meal and another, I can go from ravenously hungry to losing my appetite completely. It happened a lot last week. I would feel fine and then BAM. The cliched description of it is “that sinking feeling” in your gut, but it’s really more like “that sudden sheer drop off the Cliffs of Insanity feeling” (#PrincessBrideJoke) (#whyamihashtaggingallmyreferences #idontknow #cantstopwontstop)
And because that kind of dramatic loss of appetite and sheer drop feeling is often a precursor to an anxiety attack for me, my immediate reaction when I’m caught unawares is, “Oh god oh god it’s happening again oh god I don’t know what to do what do I do what do I do whatdoIdoWHATDOIDO????” And of course a thought process like THAT is just magnifying the unknowns in the situation, rather than focusing on what I do know. Known quantities are inherently more calming than unknowns. In the opening of the most recent Hunger Games movie, the heroine Katniss Everdeen is shown rocking back and forth, whispering, “Start with what you know. My name is Katniss Everdeen. I survived the Hunger Games,” etc. This is not just handy exposition but a very real way of coping with PTSD, from which Katniss most certainly suffers.
I’ve found it helpful to verbally identify the known factors as specifically as possible. I’ve obviously done this a lot through my writing, but writing is for when I have a chance to sit down and compose eloquent paragraphs of thoughts after having had some time to reflect and ponder and ruminate, which is not the case most of the time. In the moment, my thoughts are scrambled and fragmented, and I need to grasp at all the straws and pull as many of them together as I can. And it helps to whisper it to myself, to say it aloud. For instance:
“I just lost my appetite. I don’t know exactly why. I’m feeling anxious. I’m feeling anxious because I lost my appetite and I don’t know why. And my throat is closing up and it’s getting harder to breathe and swallowing is making me nauseous and I don’t know if I’m going to throw up. But feeling anxious made me lose my appetite in the first place. So all this other stuff is definitely adding to the anxiety, but I’m anxious about something else too.”
And then I have to be honest with myself about what is scaring me at the moment. It may surprise you to hear me say this, but honesty is hard. But I have to be brutally honest with myself; I can’t pretend to be better than my fears, no matter how much I wish I were, because I can never deal with them if I can’t admit them, and my gut knows when I’m lying (and often when other people are lying) and has a violent aversion to it.
“I’m anxious because I don’t feel happy. I don’t know if this job is right for me. Imagining a future of doing this feels suddenly suffocating and I don’t know what I want anymore. And I’m afraid that means that one of my exes was right, that this isn’t for me, and I really really don’t want him to have been right. And I’m afraid that maybe that other friend of mine was right and that the reason I’m unhappy is because I think I’m better than this. And I don’t want to think like that; I don’t want to be that person. I’m afraid that the only jobs that will satisfy me are the really mentally challenging and exhausting and impossible ones, and I’m afraid that I’m scared to try them because I’m afraid to fail. And I’m afraid that succeeding still might not make me happy.”
Admitting that I was unhappy was a hard thing to do, which clearly meant that it was a major key. (Back to exposure therapy: often the more difficult something is, the more you need to face it.) Same thing with acknowledging that walking away might be my best choice, and to forgive myself for it if it was.
“It’s okay to walk away from this. I have a college degree, I have a wide support system, I have money in the bank, I have no debt, I have plenty of time, I have options.”
And what unexpectedly helped me a lot was when I calculated how much I would earn at this job, at this rate of pay and the number of hours I’m willing to work, and it turned out to be only around 11 or 12 thousand dollars a year (post tax), which is clearly not a sustainable rate of pay to cover NYC rent, insurance, cell phone bills, food, potential car payments, retirement funds, etc, and that hammered home for me how very very temporary this is, and how there’s no need to envision a suffocating future when this is obviously not going to be it. So for my first day back at work this week, whenever that chokey sinking feeling started to hit, my mantra was:
“I’m unhappy right now, but that’s okay because this is not forever. I can leave anytime I want.”
(That’s how I tend to get through synagogue services, by the way, by reassuring myself that I can leave whenever I want. And sometimes I do. So far, I haven’t come close to leaving my job early, but knowing that I can makes everything so much easier.)
And that chokey sinking feeling has all but gone away as my mind has begun to internalize how transitory this job is. A fun detour is much more enjoyable than a necessary stepping stone. And maybe eventually I’ll come to enjoy it enough that it will change from a detour back into a stepping stone and I’ll rise through the ranks of this profession. But that’s not something I need to know right now.
Don’t be afraid to fall on your support system — hard. It’s tough to reach out to people. It’s tough to admit that you need help. But if you have a support system, if you have good friends, if you have family who you’re on decent terms with — utilize them. Talk to them. Open up about what you’re going through, even if you’re still struggling to put it all together to make sense of whatever it is you’re feeling.
For me, a lot of people were asking “HOW IS WORK??” and I couldn’t tell them; I just didn’t know how. There was too much and it was too confusing to explain in conversation. But I told most of them, it’s complicated, I have a lot of thoughts, I need to write a post to figure it all out. And anyone who knows me even a little understands that. And once I got that post up, I could send it to any of my friends who asked, and then they’d have a reference point and we could move forward from there into commiseration, support, brainstorming, etc.
It’s just hard to explain it from scratch every single time, but I wanted to be able to seek support; I didn’t want to isolate myself and sink further and further into the quagmire in my own head, because that would just suck and compound the problem.
If telling people scares you, you know what I’m gonna say: DO IT. EXPOSURE THERAPY, KIDDO. If the friends you tell freak out and reject you, they weren’t your friends. GET NEW FRIENDS.
Also: It’s good to get outside perspectives, but you don’t have to listen to everyone’s advice. Some friends are better at being supportive than others. You probably have a sense of which of your friends are best at that, and it’s probably best to seek the bulk of your support from them. You probably also know some people who are well meaning but frequently give terrible advice, or advice that simply doesn’t apply to you, and it’s fine to ignore those people and not ask for their opinions. And some people who are just plain awful and toxic and you should avoid them at these times at all costs. And some people are wild cards; you don’t know how they’ll react — they might give great advice, or they might have no frakking clue and say all the wrong things, so they probably shouldn’t be your first line of defense. But people can surprise you and sometimes great support can come from places you least expect if you take a chance on it. (Parents are often wild cards, I think. But I was in bad enough shape last week that I actually reached out to them, and it worked out.)
Lastly, cast a wide net for support. Don’t dump everything on one or two people. They can be the best people ever, but you can have the strongest trampoline ever and if the Hulk drops out of the sky in stiletto heels and lands on it at full combat drop speed, it’s gonna puncture.
Spread the weight around if you can. Talk to a core group of people you trust rather than just a couple of individuals. Don’t be so exclusive that the other person feels like they’re your sole source of support and that if they drop the ball, whatever happens to you will be their responsibility. It’ll be better for you and it will be better for them if you have multiple support beams and layers in your trampoline.
When I’m in the midst of a full-on attack, the previous things on this list are not necessarily going to help me. When my body just flat-out decides to rebel with almost no warning, I can’t just think myself out of it; that’s not how it works. I have to find ways to distract myself so that my body can have the time it needs to reboot itself, or at least calm its systems or metabolic rate or whatever it is that’s going haywire.
(By the way, you might not always be able to tell that I’ve had an attack or am fending off another one just by looking at me; I’m pretty good at hiding it when that’s happening, if I want to. Unless I am puking. That’s hard to hide. But like, this picture was taken less than an hour after I threw up and probably at least 12 hours before I was physically able to eat again:
So yeah. Just thought I’d mention that.)
I need things to pull me out of my own head when I’m in a bad place, otherwise my thoughts will just burrow further into my brain and spiral down, down, down. I need to find things that stimulate my senses, but without triggering me further — for example, a strong smell is more likely to make me throw up than distract me, but a radio broadcast of a baseball game will form a protective cushion around my brain and stop me from spiralling.
It sometimes helps to leave the lights on at night because in the dark it’s just me and my thoughts. It sometimes helps to walk around outside and look at everything and distract myself with motion and sound. It sometimes helps to stay as still as possible and focus on my breathing. It sometimes helps to watch TV; it sometimes helps to read. It sometimes helps to talk to other people; it sometimes helps to be away from everything and just sleep. It’s extremely variable, and I have to pay attention to my body’s reactions and see what’s working at that moment and what isn’t.
This is very similar to the next item on my list, which is…
Positive Triggers (Soothers) (Not to be confused with a particular type of allomancer from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy)
I don’t have a lot of these, unfortunately. Finding them means being on the lookout, paying extremely close attention to anything that calms me, even in the most microscopic ways. I doubt I’ll ever find something that positively triggers me as dramatically as anything that can negatively trigger me, but little pieces of calm in a storm have their uses too.
For example, a kid I babysit for recently gave me yet another Livestrong bracelet. It’s multicolored, and one of the colors is what my brain dubs cyan, because I know obscure colors like that. It’s a kind of pastel turquoise, I guess. And I noticed that for the split second that my eyes glanced over that cyan patch of silicon, sandwiched between the yellow and the fusia on the band, I felt just the tiniest bit calmer, more relaxed. Apparently very small doses of cyan is soothing to me. Large doses seem to lose their impact, but tiny ones, well, they seem to help. It’s the only bracelet I wear at work now, so that in the constant dusty grey of the repair shop I can glance at it for a second for a miniscule pick-me-up.
Other things that soothe me: Petting my giant stuffed tiger or cuddling with it. Being in my own bed. Taking off a layer (or more) of my clothes so that my skin can breathe better. Wrapping myself in a blanket or a towel. Entering the mind of a character during a scene I’ve been writing in my head that constitutes a particularly serene moment for him/her. Writing a post about coping mechanisms.
I started putting this in the Soothers section but I’m not sure it really fits there so I gave it its own subheader.
See, I think this second week at work made me realize yet again that the crux of what makes life interesting and worthwhile to me are people and their stories. Let’s face it, the main thing I got out of automotive school was not knowledge of cars. Sure, I got that too, but that feels like small potatoes compared to the vast canvas of human experience that I got a chance to see and learn about by being in that environment.
I think that my first week on the job, I was so intent on being a good little worker that I was all business all the time, just going from task to task to task, so that by the end of each day, I had a lot of tasks accomplished, but no stories to tell. And to me that felt like a worthless existence. I mean, I can tell you how I changed oil, but that’s an instruction manual, that’s not a story.
This second week, I chilled out a little, didn’t focus so intently on the work to the exclusion of all else, largely because I was working on telling myself that this is not where I’m going to end up, that this is temporary, that my entire life and future does not hinge on my success at this job, so it’s okay to relax a little. I actually sat down and ate my lunch, for example, instead of just skipping it or devouring it in five seconds and heading back to work. I took things slower, I observed more. I paid more attention to the dynamics of the shop and the workers.
I think that because I slowed down and was also less new, the guys in shop started feeling more comfortable chitchatting with me, asking me questions, but mostly giving me their opinions on how things work around here. Everyone has an opinion on everyone else and their style of work, and they’re all willing to tell me about it, not knowing that everyone they’re talking about has been talking to me about them. This guy thinks everyone else is incompetent and phony. That guy thinks the other techs have no finesse and take no pride in their work. This guy thinks one of the bosses is incredibly patient and has never seen him raise his voice in all the years they’ve worked together. That guy tells me that two of the techs constantly bitch and moan about the smell of the paint fumes from the body shop section, but that they’ve miraculously stopped complaining since I’ve been around, because “they don’t want to seem like a lady in front of a lady.” (Oh, casual misogyny, you make the best stories.)
I think my mind is happiest when I am occupied with day to day work, but at the same time piecing together another canvas that no one knows I’m working on. I wouldn’t want that canvas to be my primary focus; I wouldn’t want to approach it like that was my job, like I’m a journalist, asking questions, interviewing, investigating. I’d hate that. I like learning by osmosis, in bits and pieces, not through the things that people want to tell me, but by the things I figure out from experience and observation.
That’s what makes life feel worthwhile to me by the end of the day.
There was actually another subheader on this list, but holy hell this is long so I’m gonna cut it short. If you read all the way to the end, I’m very impressed and I appreciate it a ton. I hope you got something out of it.
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“Find your passion,” they say. “Everyone’s good at something,” they say.
It’s such a fallacy, you know? Just look at it. How on earth would they know if everyone is good at something? Human beings are a random mishmash of genetic traits, and it’s perfectly possible for someone to get the short end of every stick and be good at absolutely nothing. (Not that it would ever be anyone’s business to say to a person, “You are good at absolutely nothing” — it’s nobody’s place to make that judgment call on any individual, but that doesn’t mean that the existence of such an individual is flat-out impossible.)
And even if you’re good at stuff, even if you’re gifted, who’s to say you’re gifted in areas that bring you fulfillment? And who’s to say that everyone has an automatic Fulfillment Button that they just have to find and press? Maybe this person does, and that person doesn’t. There is absolutely no evidence to support it as a universal truth. It just sounds seductively nice.
I happen to be good at many things. But I am not a passionate person when it comes to my interests. I reach a saturation point, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. Museums, for instance — I have warned every guy I’ve dated never to take me to a museum just to look at stuff, because I will get so bored, so fast. My saturation point with “looking at stuff on walls and in glass cases” is super low. Guided tour of the museum, hearing people talk about that same stuff, having a conversation about it — saturation point is still there, but it’s higher.
But not necessarily because it interests me. I just like knowing stuff, just having knowledge, not to do anything useful with it; just to have it, mostly so that I can pull it out and seem somewhat intelligent and worldly, rather than the utterly boring person that I actually am. I don’t like having to work to collect this knowledge, I like having it handed to me in accessible formats, which for me include conversations, not articles or plaques on museum walls. See, if the subject matter actually interested me, I’m sure those last two mediums wouldn’t seem so godawful dull to me. But so little subject matter actually interests me. I get bored so easily.
I remember asking myself (and maybe my friends) in high school: “Do we like certain subjects because we’re good at them, or do we get good at certain subjects because we like them?” My conclusion all these years later is that it varies from person to person and subject to subject, and that for me personally, since I am good at almost everything, but I don’t like everything, a simple cause-effect relationship between aptitude and liking can’t be the only thing at play there. But I’ve never been able to figure out what makes me like things and what doesn’t.
I got a job at an auto repair shop and I’ve gone to work there for the past three days.
I’ve also had three panic attacks in the past three days, which is a first for me.
I wish I could say the job and the panic attacks are unconnected, but that is very much not the case. But it might not be for the reasons you’d expect.
The job is great. It’s exactly what I wanted. I get to take things apart, I get to put them back together, I get to use tools, I have guidance and supervision so there’s very little pressure, and all the other (male, of course) mechanics have been perfectly nice and supportive and helpful. And I enjoy being there, and I enjoy doing the work. It’s basically the perfect job — if you’d have told me any time in the past year or so that this is the kind of work I would be doing, ratcheting out bolts, changing oil, taking out hoses and fans and entire radiators to replace them, I would have said that was just about the best thing ever.
It’s everything I thought I wanted, but I don’t feel the way I thought I’d feel about it.
What I mean is, yes, I finish the work day feeling good, feeling like I accomplished something. And that lasts for about an hour.
Then the further I get from the work that I did, the worse I feel. The emptier I feel. The more dissatisfied. I look back on the day and try to feel like I was productive, and I can’t. I feel like I wasted my time, like I should have been doing something else, only I don’t know what. And I feel like I don’t want to go back.
I don’t know why I feel that way about it; I just know that I do.
And that’s when the anxiety/panic attacks hit, every day like clockwork, because it’s really jarring to get everything you thought you wanted and feel that unsatisfied with it. I’ve done plenty of jobs in the past that weren’t necessarily the most soul-nourishing or fulfilling things, but that was okay, because they were just interim placeholders — summer jobs, internships, freelance gigs — not something that I had worked toward and thought I really wanted. And I kind of feel like I’d prefer to go back to doing some sort of interim placeholder job that I know from the outset is unfulfilling, rather than doing something that I thought would be fulfilling but somehow isn’t.
I don’t really know what to do. I’ve been trying to reevaluate my options, because the anxiety attacks have been severe, physically debilitating. I’m talking throwing up, can’t sleep, can’t eat, throat muscles constricting so I can barely breathe, etc. Mental anxiety is unpleasant, but I can deal with it. Physical manifestations, though, I cannot. I’ve discovered a fairly decent new coping mechanism wherein I lie very still under the covers in my bed with my stuffed tiger and turn the game on on the radio so that the voices there make it impossible for me to hear my own thoughts. But that is clearly not a long term solution.
I’ve been pushing off trying therapy for a long time because it’s expensive, but my mom and I are finally looking at some options for me, and we’ll see how that goes.
I’ve been trying to look at the job itself and figure out what would make it more satisfying — is the problem that I rarely interact with any customers so I don’t feel the positive impact that my work is having? Is it because I haven’t gotten to use my own tools that much because everyone is letting me use their (much better and more versatile) tools? Is it because I’m told what to do rather than getting a chance to figure out the diagnosis for myself?
But I have a gut instinct that it’s not any of those things, really. That I could make an effort to have all those things be part of the job and still not be satisfied. It’s not the job; it’s me.
And I worry that I’m just wired without a Fulfillment Button, so no matter how much I look I won’t find it; that I can set goals and reach them and get everything I want, but maybe I’m just never going to be happy.
I know that plenty of people switch careers and career paths many times over the course of their lives, and that a lot of them have invested a heck of a lot more time and money than I have, so if that is what I end up doing, it doesn’t mean I failed, it doesn’t mean any of this was a mistake, or that I’m not special or a worthwhile human being just because this didn’t pan out. But starting over is never easy.
In one of the books (Mirror Dance) of my favorite sci-fi series (The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold), a major character suffers a traumatic injury and gets amnesia. Because Bujold is a brilliant writer and not a hack, this isn’t just some tropey plot device; it becomes a reflection on the nature of identity. During his attempts to reconstruct his identity, this character at one point feels like he’s doing it by process of elimination, trying to learn everything else in the universe in the hopes that whatever small, person-shaped hole is left at the end will be him. That’s what starting over feels like to me — daunting and lonely and a crap-ton of work.
And I know there are a lot of people who’ve supported me, emotionally and financially, throughout this whole endeavor, and I hate to let you down. But I also know that ultimately, it’s my life, and my opinion is what matters here, not yours.
So, for the people who’ve been asking, “HOW IS THE NEW JOB???” — the answer is: I don’t know. I’m going to give it a little more time; I know it’s only been three days and any job is an adjustment, none more so than the first one. But if this pattern/emotional loop of “good work day, seeping dissatisfaction, debilitating panic attack” persists, I may look elsewhere and begin my quarter-life crisis anew.
I think it’s pretty much a given that recognizing and identifying a pattern of thought is the first step toward gaining control over it, taking away its power. Not the only step, of course, but the first one, and therefore indispensable.
A pattern that I’ve recently recognized in myself is my suddenly strangely pervasive anxiety in the face of second impressions. Or third ones. Or fourth or fifth or sixth. But mostly second.
And not first. I am weirdly zen about first impressions, for the most part. The very first time I meet someone, I have no reason to respect their opinion — I don’t know them, they could be a total jerk for all I know, and I’m not in the business of caring about impressing total jerks or worrying about what they think of me. And even if they’re not a jerk, they’re still a stranger in whom I have no investment or relationship. So I have no reason to be anxious or care about making a good first impression.
But second impressions — sometimes they seem to scare the living crap out of me. Whether it’s meeting someone for the second time ever, or meeting someone in person after having “met” them already online and made my first impression that way, second impressions sometimes seem to push me to the edge of my last nerve.
Because if you don’t like me when you first meet me, fine, whatever, you get filed away in the “people I don’t need to waste my time on” folder. But if you like me when you first meet me, and then you stop liking me when you get to know me a little better, if I don’t live up to the high standard that my first impression set — that would suck. It would mean that while what’s on my surface is all fine and dandy, what’s underneath is rotten. And it is so much worse to be rotten underneath than to have a less-than-pristine surface.
It’s a combination of classic Imposter Syndrome and this little other nerve-fraying cocktail I like to call my “Shiny Thing Complex.” I’ve talked about this Shiny Thing Complex with a bunch of people, but I’ve never written out anything comprehensive, and I really think I should for my own sake and peace of mind. So I’m gonna talk it out here; I don’t really know where this is going. Bear with me.
You see, I am well aware that I have many shiny, flashy qualities that have wide appeal and catch people’s attention — funny, pretty, smart, honest, curvy, sarcastic, confident, insightful, emotionally supportive, with eye-catching style and unconventional career choices — and these qualities have and continue to hook people on a fairly regular basis.
But because they are so flashy and so shiny and so very much about what I can do for you and not about what I am, I feel like they will catch your attention very intensely but very briefly, before you move on to the next shiny thing. When these qualities are new and novel to you, you will think they are the bees knees, but once you get used to them, you’ll take them for granted and start wondering what else I have to offer, and I’ll have nothing left to pull out of my hat because I am all shine. Even my substance: my mind, my observations, my unusual interests — it all becomes shine because it’s all part of what makes me “cool.”
And I have so many conflicting feelings about this.
Allow me to bring Exhibits A and B from the Hall of Ex-Boyfriend Quotations:
“You are one of the coolest people I know. And I really wanted to believe that I could attract someone like you and keep you interested.”
~ One ex, spoken at the time of the breakup, when I ended things
“At the end of the day, I knew we weren’t right for each other, and I know I shouldn’t have said yes when you asked me out. But I – I just really, really wanted to be able to say that ‘that amazing girl, that super smart, hot, funny girl with the amazing notes and the hilarious facebook comments — that girl is my girlfriend.’ ”
~ another ex, spoken at the time of the breakup, when we came to the mutual decision to end things
My ex-boyfriends are gracious as hell, and it’s not my intention to use these quotes to condemn them. I just want to illustrate a point, which is: I am a trophy. An atypical, multidimensional trophy, perhaps, but a trophy nonetheless. And being a trophy is SO complicated, it really is.
On the one hand, I deeply understand the need for one’s partner to be the kind of person that you respect and admire and are so proud of that you want to show them off to the world like that (in fact, if I don’t feel that way about a guy I’m with, that’s a major red flag), but on the other hand, it makes me feel super shiny and flimsy and objectified as a prop whose value is determined by what I can do for your image and your self-esteem, with no intrinsic worth of my own.
And on yet a third hand, in some ways I like being capable of being that kind of prop. I know that being a pretty, smart, charismatic woman carries a power — of being able to make guys look good or feel good just by dint of associating with them or being seen with them. And I love being able to use that power for good; I loved making my boyfriends feel like hot stuff just by being with them. And when I’m single and have close male friends who are crystal clear about my boundaries, I like to use it to help them too, e.g. by spending time with them when they’re feeling down or their confidence is shot, or maybe dressing up or doing my makeup when I hang with them, or just by being generous and open with my compliments. Because for lots of straight males, getting attention from an awesome, attractive girl is its own unique brand of confidence-boosting, even when there’s zero chance of romance. I’m not sure why this works, but it does. And I really like being able to boost the confidence of my straight male friends when they’re feeling crappy. I like using my powers for good.
But then I wonder if I’m just feeding the Shiny Thing Complex by embracing it, and that maybe I’d be better off if for a while I just decided to constantly dress poorly and stop making jokes and keep quiet or be rude and obnoxious, and thus reject everything about me that makes me shiny.
But I highly doubt that’s the answer, because, well, that basically translates to “reject a whole bunch of things that make up most of my entire personality.” So…that makes no sense.
I guess what it boils down to, like everything else, is that I need to learn to own my shininess. I need to accept that these qualities are a huge part of me, and that just because they make me attractive, doesn’t mean they’re shallow. And that just because there are a few people who’ve expressed intense interest in me and then quickly moved on, doesn’t mean that they thought I was all shine (and even if they did, that doesn’t mean they were right). I need to keep remembering that most of the best guys who’ve expressed interest in me and gotten over it when I couldn’t date them have subsequently become my friends, not because they’re still clinging to the hope that things can work out between us, but rather because they value me as a person and not just a shiny thing. And I need to remember that just because my exes start dating really soon after having had their hearts broken by me doesn’t mean that their feelings for me weren’t real and that they just latched onto the next shiny thing that came along, because that’s not how it works.
And I need to accept that just because I am shiny, doesn’t mean that’s all there is to me. So I don’t have to be scared those times that I worry that I’m not shiny enough, because that’s not all I have going for me. I don’t have to be the prettiest girl in the room. I don’t have to be scared that in 10 years I’ll have lost what makes me appealing just because I probably won’t look as good as I do now. I don’t have to get nervous when I meet friends of a friend for the first time; I don’t have to worry that now that they’ve seen me shoulder to shoulder with their other friends, they’ll realize I don’t measure up. Because I will.
And I don’t have to be scared of hanging out with someone a second time, or a third time, or a fourth. Because no matter how much time they spend with me, they’re not going to find anything that rotten underneath. No one ever has. No one’s ever hung out with me, say, 5 times and then suddenly on the 6th realized that I am a complete waste of oxygen. It’s not going to happen.
The worst of me just isn’t that bad.
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I was already planning to post this today as my Throwback Thursday piece because it’s one of the few things I could remember having posted in a previous November (although it was written well before that, as explained below), and then today I found myself in a conversation where a friend was asking my advice regarding things “wow” related, and I was like, “Okay, DEFINITELY gotta post this piece today.” Not all of it applies in exactly the same way it used to, because it is a five-year-old piece and I’ve evolved as a human in the past 5 years, but the gist remains true.
Original post was a from November 29th 2012, but it’s a throwback to a throwback, to before Throwback Thursday even existed. Yes, back in the Stone Age.
* * *
Found this piece I wrote in [during] class in my first semester of college, three years ago [EDIT FROM THE FUTURE: that means 2009]. Been thinking a lot along these lines lately, for various reasons.
I worry about my emotional health. Not often, but when I do happen to think of it, it worries me. I have so many barriers between what I know and what I feel that I’m sure I must be part Vulcan.
For one thing, it is so hard for me to tell if I like something. I’ll see something, and my reactions are usually just . . . bland. It takes a lot to make me go “wow!” My sister will ask me to read something of hers and tell her what I think. Invariably, I’ll hand it back to her with a lackluster, “Yeah. Was good.” In my head, I’m saying, “It was okay.” Just “okay”? Why just “okay”? What makes something more than just okay? I have no idea. One of my English teachers had “wow factor” as an element on her grading rubric, and I could never understand that. None of my essays wowed me, but apparently they wowed her frequently.
This isn’t modesty or immodesty. This is just a confession regarding how incapable I am of judging things.
It’s worse when it comes to people. I can’t judge, so I can’t label. It’s incredibly frustrating. I’ll meet someone and we’ll part and I’ll have no idea what to make of him/her, but a friend of mine who meets the same person for the same amount of time will walk away having neatly categorized him/her in five different ways and will know exactly how to relate to this person in the future. I won’t even know if I like the person. The most I can usually know after meeting someone is whether or not they interest me. Yeah, how’s that for a great pickup line? “Hi, I think you’re . . . interesting.” Isn’t that what you say when someone cooks something you never want to eat again but you can’t be so impolite as to say so? All right, nix the “interesting.” How’s this: “You intrigue me.” Oh, worse: “You fascinate me.” See? Part Vulcan, no question.
There are of course a few things I have liked right off the bat, and these are things that I tend to grab tightly with both hands and refuse to let go of no matter what. A brilliantly worded sentence. A fresh, intelligent point of view. A color-coordinated outfit. Baseball. Movies. The subway. The Yankees. New York.
I can’t tell you why I love these things, just that I do. Maybe that’s just the way it is with me — that something either strikes a chord or it doesn’t.
I wish more things would strike chords, but you can’t hurry love.
Like my thinky thoughts? You can commission more of them via my GoFundMe campaign — http://www.gofundme.com/sm-automotive — or subscribe on the sidebar, and thanks for reading! You can also buy me tools from this Wishlist but really I just like money.
My date chuckles halfheartedly. “Well, at the very least, ever. But I meant more like, by the time you go to sleep tonight?”
I inhale shakily. Everything under my skin is still vibrating — not in the sexy-clichéd-romance-novel kind of way; in the stitched-together-ripping-apart kind of way. My stomach gives an ominous residual lurch. “I honestly don’t know.”
We’re sitting on a bench outside the Lincoln Center movie theater at dusk on a Sunday evening. The paths and other benches around the fountains and mini waterfalls are relatively deserted. It’s quiet, or maybe just quiet for New York City. My quiet barometers are probably not working terribly well, though.
I’m hesitant to call my reaction to the first ten or fifteen minutes of the indie drama “Fill the Void” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2219514/) a panic attack, not because I’m concerned about the stigma that might come with a loaded phrase like that, but because I don’t think the symptoms fit and I don’t want to belittle the severity of people’s actual panic attacks when my experience was probably a lot milder by comparison. No heart palpitations, no inability to breathe, no paralysis of thought, no actual panic or fear.
Just wave after wave of nausea sliming my insides, coating my throat, making it spasm. Shakes. Dizziness. Surges of heat under my skin that vanish, leaving me shivery.
It wasn’t pleasant, I’ll say that.
But if it had been a full-fledged panic attack, I don’t know that after rushing out of the movie, locking myself in a bathroom stall, crashing down on the toilet, trying not to hunch over lest I make the nausea worse, I would have been able to scoop up my phone and send a coherent, properly-spelled text to my very worried date:
“I think it’s a combination of physical and mental. That movie has a lot of emotional triggers for me, I didn’t realize – marriage, religion, claustrophobic/repressive culture . . . all hit me really hard.”
I should point out that we didn’t even get to the major plot development listed in the film’s summary: “A devout 18-year-old Israeli is pressured to marry the husband of her late sister” — my reaction was triggered solely from the film’s highly effective handful of setup scenes before the major crisis is even introduced.
I want to clarify that (a) every one of these scenes is brilliantly conceived and executed, and (b) they constitute my own personal horror show. I’m aware that the rest of the movie was probably a very good negation of the awfulness of these opening scenes, but we didn’t get that far. I should also clarify that I am not Hasidic, although my paternal grandfather was and some of my cousins are, and some of them are Yeshivish, which is also a very insular community with some fairly extreme marriage practices.
Sample scene: Young Hasidic girl in the supermarket with her mother. They’re both pretending to shop but really trying to get a look at the guy the girl has been betrothed to but never met. They can’t seem to find him, so they call someone, and are immediately told, “He’s in aisle 5.” (Or, “he’s in the produce section” – I don’t remember exactly.) They find him soon after and gawk from a distance. He looks singularly unimpressive: not particularly well-groomed or dressed, uninspired posture. Basically more or less like every other Hasidic male in the movie thus far. The girl does not seem bothered.
Two triggers in this scene: (1) The idea of marrying a total stranger, and (2) the fact that it’s not just one person presenting this as the norm but rather an entire network of people in this girl’s life (as evidenced by the phone call). I find these two things deeply, deeply horrific — tethering your entire life to someone you don’t know, and being told on all sides that this is the only option, and this is simply how it’s done, and having been kept naïve and sheltered enough not to question it.
I would love to say that this is foreign to me and I can’t imagine it ever happening to me or anyone else, but that would be a lie, for reasons brought out further in the next scene I’ll discuss, and because I know that dating before getting engaged in the circles I live in goes at a brisk pace. My Yeshivish cousins date for 2 or 3 weeks, generally, before the engagement. In my own, non-Yeshivish circles, 3 to 6 months is often fairly standard. Ten months to a year is an eternity, and very rare, unless the relationship began as high school sweethearts, in which case waiting longer was legally mandatory. Is 3 months enough time to get to know someone? Maybe. Maybe not. Everyone’s in such a rush to pair up for life that even I can’t help but feel the marriage pressure from the second I start dating someone new. I feel it much less when I’m not seeing anyone, and that’s an enormous incentive for me to never date. I’d much rather be single forever than get too involved with the wrong person just because of outside pressure. But obviously playing it safe because of pressure is just another way of letting yourself be pressured.
Sample scene: It’s the holiday of Purim, and at the Purim feast, the Rabbi is doling out charity money to those who ask. One man asks for money because, “My wife is mentally ill. I didn’t know that when I married her.” The rabbi gives him money, and when he protests that it’s not enough, he’s told whom to go to for more.
Triggers: (1) example of results of marrying a total stranger, (2) I have a Hasidic cousin who married a girl, had a child with her, and only then found out she was mentally ill because she stopped taking her medication. Her family had kept her condition under wraps, knowing full well that they were duping her husband. As far as I know, the custody battle is still going on, but nobody talks about it because it’s all so very scandalous and shameful and would force people to confront realities in their community that they don’t want to confront. (3) It’s all well and good that the man in the movie is receiving charity from the community to help him with this awful situation, but that’s a band-aid, and nothing is ever going to be said about the underlying cause: DON’T MARRY STRANGERS.
Sample scene: The girl’s pregnant sister talks briefly with her husband. Purim is the holiday of getting publicly wasted, and the sister immediately knows that her husband is drunk because he starts saying affectionate things to her. If he were sober, he’d never say a thing like, “I love you.” She says with a smile, “You’re drunk,” somehow manages convey an eye-roll without actually rolling her eyes, and walks away.
Trigger: THAT WHOLE THING. I have recently developed a personal, visceral fear of settling for a relationship where my partner is incapable of paying me a compliment. There are some people who, well, getting a compliment from them is like wrenching it out with pliers. I may have dated someone like that. I have also dated someone who is the exact opposite and I can’t imagine going back from that. But I have this way of listening to those voices in my head that say, “Come on, you can’t expect everyone to be so open about their thoughts and so willing to say nice things. People just aren’t conditioned that way. Especially men, sad as that is.” Just because they don’t say it doesn’t mean they don’t think it — if I got them drunk, maybe all that nice stuff would come pouring out. But maybe not. And I would hate to have a relationship like that.
I understand that when you’re a small minority group, you need to have an emphasis on marriage and children or else you’ll die off. But there has to be a better way.
I could easily have been born into that community. A little to the right on my family tree, and poof!
I wouldn’t have lasted. While I was watching, I felt like I was seeing a life that could have been mine, and I don’t think I would have survived it. I was the kind of kid who pitched a fit when my mom wanted all us kids to wear cute matching outfits. I can’t stand sameness. I can’t stand restrictions on my individuality. It makes me want to tear my skin off. I feel very sure that if I were indeed a part of that type of community, I would not have lived to be as old as I am now. I feel very sure that I’d have done something drastic to get out of it.