Please forgive my long silence (all three of you who regularly follow my writing and care to hear from me. The rest of y’all — meh). I have a whole slew of half posts that I wrote and never published because I grew to hate them as I wrote them, and then by extension, hate myself. It’s interesting because I have gotten very good at following the curve of self-loathing in my painting (you start and you hate it. And then with each new brush stroke you hate it more and more until you start to hate yourself so deeply that you think perhaps you should crawl back into the oblivion that you crawled out of and then BAM! Something goes right. The painting starts to look like deliberate art instead of vomit on canvas and a rush of relief and pride shoots through your bloodstream. You decide that maybe you’d enjoy going on to live another day after all because you might just be brilliant). But as it turns out, I haven’t adjusted to channeling and overcoming that kind of hatred in my writing yet. For whatever reason, it’s a different kind of cathartic roller coaster for me — one where I can’t ever seem to get to the satisfying bit at the end of the ride; instead, I just fall off at the rockiest moments of self-loathing in the middle.
So I never finish anything.
But today, today I think I finally shall. I mean, who can leave a half written post with a zinger of a title like that? And also this has been weighing on me.
Before I explain the night I had last night and the contemplation that resulted, allow me to give some back story:
I don’t smoke. I’ve shared one cigarette in my whole life and I didn’t even inhale (at the time I was drunk enough to not want to be left in the bar alone while my friends went on a smoke break, but not drunk enough to actually breathe it in). But last night, last night I needed to do something wicked. I don’t particularly know why, but I did. I have recently given up my go-to vices (eating junk food or drinking). I didn’t want to break my diet, but I had to do something. I had made such grand plans to be productive on my day off, but here it was 9:45 pm and I had gotten out of bed exactly twice (to pee and eat).
I was so aware all day of what I needed to do, I just couldn’t make myself do it. Any of it. Not even start a load of laundry (despite the fact that I have officially run out of clean underwear and that has always been the hard and fast line to make me start a load). My room is a disaster zone. Every time my fiance comes over I apologize for the mess. He’s such a tidy person and I’m a barely functioning person and I’m legitimately embarrassed about it. Every week I say I’m going to clean it on my day off. And every week my room goes uncleaned. My errands go undone. The only reason I have food to eat is because my fiance holds me accountable to shopping and meal prepping with him on the weekends. I’m not really thriving and that bothers me.
So there I was at 9:45pm having done nothing and needing to do something. Something destructive. Something outside the realm of what I normally do. Something to jolt me back to life. So I decided to buy a pack of cigarettes. Was that healthy coping? No. I’m aware. But it’s what I did. I’m not even good at being bad though; before leaving for the gas station around the corner I looked up NC smoking laws and dug out a copy of my lease to double check the complex smoking rules to make sure I was still operating within the confines of organized society. Some rebel I am.
Once I had purchased the pack I sat in my car thinking about where to smoke. I didn’t want to do it on my porch because I knew a lot of people would have their windows open for the nice weather and I didn’t want to disturb them. Against my better judgement, I lit one up in my car.
“Sorry girl” I whispered to Valerie as I rolled down the windows and started to drive. I just needed to be in motion. I needed to be alone and not worried about anyone else. I cranked up the radio and settled deep into self analysis as the smoke swirled around my head.
Why had this been something I felt compelled to do? Why couldn’t I just make myself function without some dramatic and edgy display? Why couldn’t I care about how guilty I felt for doing nothing and use that to get something done?
I started to think about my history with mental illness as I puffed my way through the pack — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 cigarettes, one right after another. I thought about how I have never really struggled with depression because debilitating social anxiety has always been my largest and most urgent cross to bear. I was anxious to the point that I would cry if I had to ask a stranger for directions, or I’d get sweaty and tongue tied if I had to make small talk with the grocery store cashier (thank the good lord for self checkout!) and don’t even get me started on how uncomfortable it made me to express my personal preferences over even the tiniest things. It was the kind of anxiety that drove me to perform, to do everything in my power to please people. Even when I was overwhelmed and buried in work to do, so long as I had deadlines to meet, I would meet them.
Meeting a friend for breakfast? It didn’t matter that I had had a panic attack all night and only two hours of sleep. I said I would be there, so I would be there.
Had a paper due? I would do everything in my power to write a paper that was above reproach even at the expense of personal relationships or free time. You guys, I never even skipped a class until junior year of college and it was because my mom had surgery and my professor said he would count me as absent even if I did come to class because I needed to go see her. I was always so afraid of being the cause of disappointment that that fear would drive me to excellence (and also a lot of misery). I used to have to sleep with a finger between my teeth because I would clench them so hard at night that my jaw hurt all the time. I would wake up if I bit my own finger too hard and practice relaxing my jaw in order to help with the pain.
These days, I largely consider myself someone who has recovered from anxiety. After LOTS of therapy and support groups and self-confidence meditation and fighting to control the lie that I wasn’t good enough, I really did get better. Do I sometimes pretend I’m someone else to get me through uncomfortable conversations? Yes. Her name is Regina and she’s loud and ballsy and not afraid to ask a Walmart employee where the chocolate covered pretzels are. I slip in and out of her persona so seamlessly now that sometimes it feels like Sierra is not afraid to ask where the chocolate covered pretzels are and that’s nice. But the point is, I function. I’ve learned to be okay with disappointing people — even authority figures– if it’s in my best interest (one of the reasons dropping out of grad school was such an incredible emotional VICTORY for me).
I thought I was better, so what was this overwhelming sense of apathy that I couldn’t seem to move past? It’s like hitting a brick wall every single day. I get up and go to work, I come home and lay in bed. On my day off, I go to bed. On the weekends — bed. Sometimes I just lay there scrolling on social media and looking through posts I’m not that interested in because I don’t feel at liberty to relax and watch tv or read or do something I enjoy. I need to get up. I need to be productive. But I don’t. Not to shower, not to clean, not to run errands, sometimes not even to eat. Why?
It occurred to me (I think on cigarette 4?) that maybe I had always sort of struggled with this but that anxiety had been a much louder voice in my head. My need to perform outranked my crippling desire to do nothing. For the first time in a long time, I’m not busy. I don’t have outwardly imposed deadlines, and suddenly I’m drowning in the big feeling of nothingness.
“Am I depressed?” I asked myself. The rain-chilled wind whipped through my hair and carried away the smoke as a sped along to 1 of the 6 places that I know how to get to without my maps on (that list is: Michael’s, the university I no longer attend, work, my fiance’s house, the library, and Cookout). I chose cookout. My throat was scratchy and I needed water. I felt weird about just getting a cup of water though so I ordered some hush puppies to smell (because that’s the phase of my diet that I’m in right now).
As I pulled away I sipped the water and took another drag — letting the smell of smoke mingle with the smell of warm greasy hush puppies in my car. I thought about how I liked the smell of cigarette smoke (I think I got used to it while I was in Spain and now it reminds me of being there), even though I don’t much care for the taste or general mouth feel. I thought about how I have always been careful about claiming mental illness. It took a doctor’s diagnosis and being bedridden for a couple of weeks with the physical effects of anxiety in high school (aggressive hand tremor, numbness and tingling in my hands feet and face, insomnia, lack of appetite, difficulty breathing, and difficulty focusing or remembering) before I acknowledged that it was a problem for me. I didn’t want to say I had anxiety because I didn’t want to presume my problem was as bad as other people’s. Was that true now? Was I dismissing depression as laziness? Or was I hyping up laziness and calling it depression to excuse the fact that I had gone another day without addressing the mess that is my closet?
I wasn’t sure. I turned up the radio even louder. It was tuned to a Christian music station and I just let the music wash over me and mingle with the other sensations — the smells of smoke and fast food and the feeling of tiny cold raindrops stinging my left arm and cheek. I felt a stirring in the bottom of my stomach when an old favorite came on — I hadn’t heard it in years, but I love to worship to it. The sound of it caused movement in a part of my spirit that has felt so numb and lifeless lately. It didn’t overcome the crushing lethargy, but it did remind me that sometimes I feel energy and joy and determination and no time more than when I am in the presence of my King (side note: this is not me claiming that the cure to depression is just listening to 106.9 the light. I would never presume to suggest something so invalidating of someone else’s struggles. I understand that mental illness is more complex and often due to a chemical imbalance, so it needs more treatment than a sing-along with Chris Tomlin in the car).
But I was reminded that this isn’t the first time that I’ve wrestled with my identity in the face of overwhelming mental illness. As a recovering anxiety addict, walking with Christ through my darkest days was an integral part of my recovery. Even on days when I didn’t feel like it was helping or days when I was frustrated that I wasn’t seeing results. On the days where I would relapse and have a panic attack and on the days when I couldn’t imagine it ever getting better. Those were the days that His presence was the most crucial.
I realized that my heart hasn’t been in my relationship with God recently. The blanket of numbness of my life has been affecting that too. I have been lukewarm in my attempts to nourish my closeness to Him and I didn’t want that to be true anymore. I sang my heart out the rest of the way home.
But, as is human nature, as soon as I got into my apartment in the quiet, I spiraled again. I fell asleep that way– in a dark ugly place. However, there is redemption with a new day! This morning I took a shower to wash off the smell of stale smoke. I threw the rest of the pack of cigarettes into the trashcan. I drove to meet a friend for Bible study and then I listened to worship music the whole way to work. I was ready to try to face this day differently than I had the day before.
I don’t imagine everything will all get better at once, but I do know the next step to overcoming this hurdle for me is re-learning to lean into God with everything that I’ve got. EVEN when I don’t feel like it. Even when it doesn’t feel like He’s leaning back. The rest will come in His timing.
Until next time,