Tag Archives: struggle

Sanity (the burden gets lighter)

No one looks good covered in their own blood. The imagined streams of a positive and O negative poured freely in my mind’s eye. Arteries burst under the pressure of knife blades, of gardening tools, of particularly sharp sticks. And the blood was on my hands.

I spent a year completely convinced my destiny was to be a serial killer. I was simply delaying the inevitable. The thought of stabbing people burst unprovoked into my mind in the middle of television programs, walking down the street, in the shower. I didn’t want to stab anyone. I don’t want to harm anyone. Ever. Well, maybe not any more than one might with a barbed witticism. That is about the fullest extent of acceptable violence in my book. Yet bloody images of knives, gardening implements, and even protractors popped into my mind’s eye, again and again and again.

I pictured the bodies of loved ones on the floor, smeared in blood. I wondered if different blood types smelled different. I wondered how high blood would shoot from an artery as opposed to a vein. I wondered how long I’d be able to avoid knowing that. My mind twisted in loops, unable to think about other things from fear that my thoughts were in fact my destiny.

I started hitting myself in the face, totally unbidden. My hands would move before my mind could even recognize what was happening. I would be sitting quietly, anxiously dwelling over some email I hadn’t sent, some small failure, my current state of loserdom, and POW right in the kisser. Sometimes it was a punch. Sometimes it was a slap. I started to worry I’d give myself a black eye. My mind felt disconnected from my body. I felt trapped in a body that I couldn’t control.

I began to speak to myself, sentences that had no relation to what I had previously been thinking. They startled me. While completely innocuous in content, that I found myself blurting out sentences about cats or saying “I don’t like that” to myself randomly was almost as disconcerting as my violent actions towards myself. I’ve always loved talking, especially public speaking. That I had lost control of what I had to say scared me. My mind and my mouth were at bay. How long until I lost control entirely?

I was scared. I felt like there was some barrier in my mind that was just barely keeping some terrifying, violent me at bay. I couldn’t even keep myself from violence against myself; how long would it be before I started hurting others?

i kept pretendingI hid. Unemployed, terrified, I spent the days hiding from most of the world, unloading the dishwasher in my parents’ house, baking bread while blasting Kanye and Jhene Aiko, playing video games with my best friend, and building endless Lego towers with my little sister. These things distracted me enough to keep me going, but I still couldn’t get out from under the shadow of fear. In some ways it’s been good for me. I hadn’t gotten to spend this long with my family in a long time, and they needed someone to run carpool and fill the crockpot with magical mac and cheese. While I’ve utterly destroyed my savings, it’s been a wonderful opportunity to spend time with my siblings, who are the lights of my life, even when I’m feeling not so shiny myself.

I managed to find a number of other welcome brief respites during this period. I went to the largest pageant in the world for female impersonators (often called “drag queens”) where I performed as a backup dancer whilst dressed as a Disney princess. I learned how to glue rhinestones to things, which I adored because the thousands of tiny sparkly things kept my mind and hands so preoccupied. It is hard to kill someone with a rhinestone. I took trips to see friends during which I found a welcome distraction from my own mind, only to find myself lying in the dark of guest rooms or curled up on living room couches just feeling glad that somehow my love for these people wasn’t letting me give into these violent thoughts and shove whatever nearest sharp thing that was available into their fleshy bodies.

i was scared
I wanted it to just be a minor blip. Something that would go away. But that wasn’t it.

Nothing, no matter how fascinating or cheerful could mitigate or allay the thought that I was losing my mind. I could only stand to be around anyone for so long. One of the manifestations of my OCD is an extreme perfectionism. I don’t like anyone to perceive my weakness or see me as somehow flawed. All of this I counted as decidedly flawed. For all my pride, I’d rather appear the indulgent bum mooching off her parents than the out of her mind potential murderer. I cried constantly. In the shower as I tried to wash off the stain of bloody thoughts, my hair tangled into tree roots before my eyes, trapping me in tulgey woods of my own design as I sat on the cold tile floor, wracked with sobs.

I slept as much as possible, my favorite refuge from reality. I read the same book about a charming Jewish family in the early 20th century over and over and over again. I couldn’t manage an interest in any other book. The library, which had always been my sanctuary, became a hell, an endless sea of books I wished I could get my brain to read. I listened to the same albums and watched the same tv shows over and over. I sat very still and stared at walls. I felt incapable of productivity. Any attempt I made to write, to job hunt, to do anything, ended with me in a full blown panic attack, feeling like a waking nightmare. I was unable to move, unable to calm down, unable to escape. There was no waking up. There was only waiting. My heart pounded as I struggled to breathe. A heaviness overcame my body refusing to let me move. I felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. Everywhere I turned I felt I ran into a wall, and every offer of help anyone made made me all the more frustrated for my inability to successfully accomplish what they wanted of me, be it a job application or a hangout session or a phone call.

I wasn’t ok, and I didn’t know how to tell people exactly how not ok I was. Or rather, I didn’t want to tell anyone how not okay I was. I was scared. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to think I was crazy or dangerous, even as I considered myself crazy and dangerous. I didn’t want to scare anyone away any more than I already had by being a ball of mopey tears and general incompetence.

mental illnessThanks to a handy article online, I finally started to realize that most people aren’t anxious about everything all the time. It felt like a revelation. I’ve spent my entire life overwhelmed by things like kindergarten picnics with teddy bears (would my teddy bear get lost? What if I spilled juice on my teddy’s dress? What if my teddy got mad? What happens when teddies get angry? What if another kid took my teddy bear?) and missed questions on middle school social studies tests (early humans wove clothing out of plant fibers, -2 points). Failed social moments, rules broken, and people disappointed overwhelm and haunt me all too frequently. Most people don’t head to the grocery store, make a wrong turn, and become so overwhelmed by their own failure that they just drive home. Most people don’t beat their heads against walls when they do something naughty and get punished, which at one point was two-year-old me’s modus opperandi.

Slowly I started talking to people in my life about anxiety and depression. Some were helpful. Others were not. When someone tells you they think they’re dealing with a psychological issue, that isn’t license to spout the wonders yoga has done for your anxiety and maybe if they just tried that and then kept busy they’d be fine. It doesn’t mean that sharing about that one time you felt sad and you journaled it out so maybe they should do that is relevant or helpful. That’s like telling someone with two broken arms to play the violin. It doesn’t work. In spite of these sweet people’s good intentions, it was infuriating, and more than that, saddening to have people list things I should do and yet somehow could not. All it did was make me feel more like a failure that I couldn’t just kick this on my own somehow, especially since people who were close to me seemed convinced I should be able to do so. I’d always been a pull yourself up by the bootstraps and just get it done kind of gal, looking down on people who couldn’t seem to just pick themselves up and move on when life got them down. And now here I was, stuck, no bootstraps in sight. It was humbling and mortifying all at once.

aloneBut so many people rose to the occasion. I didn’t need to be told it was going to be okay; my brain couldn’t begin to process the idea of being ok, let alone accept it. To the many people who offered countless reassurances, who listened to me bemoan how I couldn’t stop crying or how I couldn’t seem to manage to get my life together, who just let me sit and be, who let me cancel plans because the thought of leaving the house made me too stressed to move, thank you. So often all I needed was someone to sit with me. To feel less alone in body, because in my mind I remained utterly alone, a crazed island unto myself.

My mother finally insisted I seek professional help. At that point, I was so overcome by social anxiety that I couldn’t even dial the phone myself. I would stare on it for hours on end, knowing help was at the other end, but afraid to admit the things I would have to in order to get help. She pressed the buttons and shoved the phone into my hands. And then there was the wait. Finally, four months after requesting an appointment, I got in to see a psychiatrist.

When she started asking me if I ever have thoughts about violence that don’t feel like me, I hesitantly said yes. When she said “that’s OCD,” I stared at her in shock. Then she asked the most important question: “do you want to hurt anyone?” I immediately replied “of course not!” What she said next changed everything. She said “then you won’t. That’s all there is to it.”

It felt like Christmas. No, better than Christmas. It was Valentine’s Day and every birthday party and confetti and the smell of really good frosting and the feel of holding a puppy and the view of the ocean from a sand dune in Maine and your favorite song coming on the radio and a sweater fresh out of the dryer all rolled into one.  I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been so happy in my entire life. My psychiatrist explained that my brain fixates on something I don’t want to happen ever. It’s like a hiccup in my mind. It just goes a little out of control, contrary to my desires, contrary to my actual self. These are called “ego dystonic thoughts.” I’m not dangerous. I’m not crazy. I’m just obsessive compulsive. It turns out people with what’s called harm OCD frequently have these thoughts because in fact we have such a strong moral compass that the idea of violating it plagues us. I’m not evil. I’m just extra super moral.

I sat in the car after that first appointment and wept. I was okay. I am okay. And from there on out, there was the possibility of getting better. I am not a failure. I am not lacking in some way. My brain is just wired differently, and I’m slowly but surely learning to navigate that and strengthen more positive, helpful neural pathways, and to dismiss the thoughts that don’t align with who I am.

What does align with who I am is that I can’t live my life without sharing this any longer. People need to know this can happen. I seemed really happy. I seemed highly functional. Part of my diagnosis involves my extreme perfectionism. I don’t like anyone knowing something is wrong with me. My OCD kept me from getting help for my OCD for far too long as I kept up a facade. It was easier to appear a between jobs mooch than sick out of my mind. We don’t know what lies under the surface of people’s exteriors. But we can offer opportunities for people to open up and make vulnerability feel ok.

Be with people. Be willing to hear. Be willing to speak. Forge real connections with people who will hold your hand even when you don’t understand what’s going on, even when you’re terrified, and for whom you would gladly do the same. These people will ground you, they will hold you, they will wait with you until you can begin to rescue yourself. We can’t save each other. We can’t fix each other. It robs us of our own agency and of the power that so often helps remedy the sense of helplessness mental illness causes.

constant fixingAnd honestly, I’ll never be “fixed.” “Fixed” suggests an end point. There’s not one. This is a part of my life, the same way I have a freckle between my fingers and a retainer for my crooked teeth. It’s a continuous stream of good days and bad days, of hard moments and easy ones, though at the moment, I’m fortunate that I’ve got techniques and medication to help keep the bad days at bay. I’m so lucky. I’m so happy.

And through all this, we can be together. We can listen for the little signals. We can avoid judgment passed off as advice and instead relish the power of presence, creating safe spaces for honesty. We can end the idea of “crazy” and switch to “different,” to “atypical,” and to “struggling.” We can stop alienating people who already find their own minds alienating them.

We can make it safe not only to be our genuine selves but to learn to love who we are, mental illness and treatments and symptoms and all. My OCD is a part of me. There’s a lot about it that’s hard, but it’s made me who I am. I love it for that. As I piece out what is illness driven, what is my genuine self, and what is a combination thereof, I increasingly find myself grateful for this experience.

If you know anyone this might help please feel free to pass this on. The more people read articles about mental illness, the more there’s a chance someone will realize that dissonance in their mind is atypical, but not at all abnormal. There’s more of a chance people will find hope and help.

If you’re just looking for someone to talk to about mental illness, if you have any questions at all, PLEASE do not hesitate to contact me. After so much time hiding all of this and resisting the urge to share, feeling embarrassed by what I’ve for too long considered to be a year and a half of failure, I am happy to speak to anyone about any of this.

I want to live in a world where mental health is something we can talk about openly, where it isn’t looked down upon or viewed as a failure or shortcoming. I firmly believe the only way to make that world happen is to act as if it’s already here. To that end, I promised myself that I would be open about my diagnosis, though it’s admittedly taken me a while to find the courage and the words. I’d rather look like a self-involved loon for this and hope that it helps one person than keep this to myself any longer. Or, in the words of J.D.:

I'm a dreamer

Be a dreamer. Use your words in pursuit of a better world. In words there is power. There is freedom. There is hope. Be unafraid to share your fear. The burden gets lighter. I promise.

Love and light,

AGP

One of Those Stories (bodies, mortality, and a spectacularly bad first date)

Sometimes it takes us a while to tell a story. This story has taken me a long while to be able to find the right words. Bear with me. This is a little longer than usual. I promise, it gets back to Tinder and dating (and an amazingly bad date at that), and to how complicated it can be to balance little moments such as in dating with major stressors.

That said, let’s do this.

Everyone spoke in weirdly calm voices. In retrospect, I have no idea if the calm was only incongruous with my own thoughts, or if they were putting in particular effort into keeping their voices calm. Two minutes into my lying on the paper covered table in one of those blue open in the front nightgowns and staring at a poster of kittens on the ceiling, my doctor felt the lumpy spot I had found in my breast a few weeks before. She and the nurse put on their smiling-trying-to-keep-someone-from-panicking faces. “We’ll get you an appointment for a mammogram for tomorrow right across the street. They’ll take good care of you.”

That 20 something life
That 20 something life

TOMORROW, I thought. Damn. That’s SOON. Normally, if a doctor thinks I need a follow-up, I can manage to get by with a few weeks in between. I remember forcing myself to be chipper. The receptionist called the mammogram office for me, trying to be polite, describing the spot on my breast in terms of a clock. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Will they find a lumpy spot. At this point, I felt like I was watching some bad Lifetime or ABC Family movie, even as I was trying to convince myself to not worry.

Somehow I drove to Target. Somehow I parked, got out of the car, and wandered past the Starbucks, the produce, the laundry baskets and into the baby section.

lions and tigers and bearsI stood in Target staring at baby toys, trying to pick the right one for my soon to arrive bonus-nephew. Rows upon rows of stuffed animals waited on the racks, just waiting for someone to slobber on them and throw them out of the playpen. I wandered up and down the aisle in a daze. Lions and tigers and cancer oh my. No no no, think about the cute fluffy animals. It’ll all be fine. No point in worrying until tomorrow. Bears? Yes, bears. Lions and tigers and bears, oh, my. Not “cancer oh my.” Keep it classic. WWJGS? (What would Judy Garland Say)?

My phone rang, startling me out of my plush fauna revelries. It was my mother, offering to come with me the next day. At which point, I descended into panic, staring down at the rough gray carpet under the fluorescent lighting and trying to calm my mind. Taking your mom with you on a doctors’ appointment when you’re in your 20’s feels like admitting your own mortality. She was there at the beginning; God forbid she not be there at what could possibly be the beginning of the end, or at least the start of a fight against my own body.

I wasn't very sad. Just overwhelmed. But I was definitely making this face. Though decidedly in a less tanned and handsome form.
I wasn’t very sad. Just overwhelmed. But I was definitely making this face. Though decidedly in a less tanned and handsome form.

“Mmmhmm, mmhmm, um, sure it’d be great if you could get off work for a the morning to come with me, great, thanks mom, oh so you read today’s Tinder Buttons, no I don’t want to talk about it even if you do, no, no, this is about me not you, mhm, well I should go, because I don’t want to talk about this and I’m in Target, yeah I’m ok…bye mom.”

I love you, mom, but I don’t know if I was ever so glad to hang up a phone. My brain didn’t have enough words to talk about anything of substance, let alone my freshly posted piece The In Between Place, which had already taken a considerable amount of energy to share. I went back to bears, relieved that their little sewn mouths wouldn’t try to talk to me and that their brains were full of fluff.

Which bear was it I wanted? Brown. Fluffy. Ag his mouth is a funny color. This is stressful, there are too many bears, no just buy this super cute bear so you don’t have to stand here anymore and be surrounded by fluorescent lighting and happy people who probably aren’t thinking about strange growths in their bodies or their mortality. They just want to buy frozen peas and fabric softener and maybe to pick up a pack of gum as a minor indulgence in the checkout line to remind themselves that they love themselves enough to spend that extra $1.29. I was stricken by hypothetical envy. I want to have my biggest issue to be if I want double mint or bubble mint gum. Gosh, this bear is cute. Cute is good. Cute. C-U-T-E. Two letters that are in “cancer” are in “cute.” How weird. Wait, that’s not weird. That’s just the alphabet. Maybe if I have cancer it can be cute cancer? Wait, what? That’s not a thing. You probably don’t even have cancer, let alone cute cancer. Cancer isn’t cute. Bear. Just hold the bear and carry it to the checkout line. One step at a time. Bear.

smiling's my favoriteAt the checkout counter, I fidgeted nervously and made too much eye contact in a vain attempt to convince the cashier that the vague glazed over look of panic in my eyes was actually good old fashioned over enthusiastic friendliness. Instead, I just came across as a super creepy smiling woman buying a teddy bear and sneaking pointed looks at the many gum options near the register.

I went home, zoned out, and then somehow magically the next day came. Fortunately, my mom happens to be not only a totally hilarious and all around fabulous lady, but she has already had breast cancer and spends a lot of her life contending with pills and things that will keep it from returning. So she knew the ropes.

A few hours into my appointment, including some time dressed in a surprisingly comfortable clinic robe and sitting in a waiting room that was vaguely spa-esque, I had a mammogram (Which, contrary to what everyone had hold me, was not at all painful and in fact oddly comfortable). Then I had an ultrasound in which I got to see the inside of my breasts. I chatted to the tech, asking about what I was seeing and the process of training to be a tech and did she like it and how many of these did they do a day. I attempted mindless conversation to keep myself from wondering about what the machine would tell me about my own body. And then suddenly there on the screen were my breasts. The inside of a breast looks like the most beautiful ocean waves or hills. There’s a whole landscape in there, a world unto myself, and it was fascinating. And in my case, it was not just fascinating-it was lump-free.

My hills are alive with a lack of cancer.
My hills are alive with a lack of cancer.

It turns out I had an agitated lymph node, but that it was all a-ok. I walked out of the clinic, passing on my way women who wouldn’t be getting such happy news, who were already fighting the good fight, or who would find themselves suddenly drafted accordingly within a matter of hours.

All I could feel was overwhelmingly lucky.

It was at that point that all the little bits of panic, the ones I had managed to keep at bay excepting for that moment of crisis in the Target baby aisle, converged. I was overcome with joy and relief and terror for what could have been, finally giving myself permission to feel all the things and to think the darkest thoughts that only optimism coupled with all of my willpower could keep at bay. My subconscious was tired from holding back as it tried to keep my consciousness sane and functional. I was exhausted in every sense.

But I, in my infinite wisdom, still kept a lunch date I had made for the afternoon after my appointment, having made the date far before I knew this would all be going down.

I stirred my iced tea and kicked my heel against my chair leg, zoning out as he talked about the book he wanted to write and his kids.

MarilynIn my mind, the conversation went a lot like this: “oh, you did time? What for? Oh, drug dealing?” Jeeze this guy’s too intense for me. Oh, Tinder. Oh fuck yes no cancer for me, thank you boobs thank you. You’re the best breasts in the whole wide world. Good job, guys. I’m going to put on the extra cute bra when I get home. Y’all earned it. “Oh, and you have five children? What are their names?” Shoes on a monkey, I could’ve died. Hello, mortality. “Wait, FIVE? Oh, and you have grandchildren? Whom you don’t care about at all? And you’re already talking about getting new furniture for your apartment in light of my existence?” Wow, at this point there are so many red flags about this guy that the room looks like the inside of a matador’s cape. He’s so young to have that many grandchildren. Huh. Yeah, I shouldn’t have come on this date. Fuck. This is why we meet in public places, and don’t tell men our last names. Also why we insist on longer conversations before agreeing to a date. Oh my God cancer. I don’t have cancer. “Yes, the lamb is very good here.” Oh, do I want more iced tea? “No, thank you.”

Amen, 'Ders. Amen.
Amen, ‘Ders. Amen.

What I actually wanted was to run home and bake a cake for my cancer-less breasts and dance and sing a song and cry in my closet, not necessarily in that order.

Check, please.

What this boils down to is how on earth are we supposed to reconcile how complicated, bizarre, and painful real life can be with the friendly small talk of a first date? Or even with the ordinary moments of daily life? The dishwasher keeps needing to be filled. People buy gum. People have babies, stop at red lights, bake cookies, and sit in waiting rooms. Life goes on, even when our minds are continually grinding to a screeching halt.

you keep goingSometimes I find it incredibly offensive that life keeps going even when I’m struggling, in a way that’s wholly illogical. I remember being really depressed one day in high school, sitting in a corner of the library, and being absolutely annoyed at all the people being happy because it was exhausting to listen to other people be joyful. It left me frustrated. I felt I’d somehow failed myself in that I couldn’t just hop back on the happy train. At the same time, I wanted somehow the world to match my mood, to validate it so I wouldn’t feel quite so out of sync or so alone in that moment. Even when we reach out to a friend, that process of externalizing our emotions can be so hard. Try as you might you can’t get the contents of your mind out, let alone explain your feelings (especially when said feelings are exacerbated by teenage hormones). It makes that loneliness all the more isolating.

But we exist in a world full of other people. Our moments of struggle inevitably will not always align with the world around us or with what our schedule holds. Life can be terribly inconvenient like that sometimes, and it’s so tempting to try to not only not acknowledge that, but to not even reveal that to other people. As if that’s somehow weak to mention our struggles, or that it’s a cheap way to get at someone’s feelings, or it might be too inconvenient to other people if we burdened them with our woes.

I'm gonna go with this advice from Dr. Kelso. There's probably no right way. Just what's right for us.
I’m gonna go with this advice from Dr. Kelso. There’s probably no right way. Just what’s right for each of us.

In my last post I focused on not hiding my personality. But what about our lives? How on earth do we hide that? Should we hide that? Gradually reveal them? How quickly?

To what extent do we owe it to ourselves, our friends, and even relative strangers to keep our private life private? Is the idea of private life whatever one makes of it? Does it make it easier to have secrets, or does it make it harder? Or, perhaps, there are benefits and drawbacks to each. How long do we have to hide our most precious and powerful stories? The stories of our bodies? The lions and tigers and bears? Oh my.

I treasure all my stories, but the stories that are written on my body, that my flesh remembers, are the most precious to me because they are the hardest to tell. The ones that hurt. The ones that scared me or left me confused. The ones where the telling leaves you every bit as vulnerable as you felt in that moment, the memory of physical pain matched by the stress of capturing what that tale means to you. The ones that remind you that being alive is precious.

So this is one of those stories. I don’t come off as particularly sane, optimistic, or pulled together. Nor do I come off as having judgment when I picked that guy to go on a first date with (sorry, mom. I promise, he doesn’t know my last name AND I ordered dessert AND I made much stricter first date rules for myself). But I hope, if you’ve managed to make it this far in this piece, that you find comfort regarding your own body’s stories. It’s okay that they’re complicated. It’s okay that the weight of memory matters. It’s okay that double mint gum will never taste the same to me after standing in that Target aisle.

Or at least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

In other news, celebrate every single healthy bit of your body today, and any parts that aren’t so healthy and need extra love, send that love their way, be they tiny or major ailments. It’s beautiful to be alive and have the opportunity to have moments of crisis. Every bit of sadness and struggle is only possible because we’ve been happy, and because we’re gloriously, tenuously, ridiculously alive.

Damn, ain’t we lucky.

no day but today
No one captured the power and complexity and glory of bring alive like Jonathan Larson, so I’ll leave you all with this.

The only way to succeed is to let go of the idea of success (anxiety, chihuahuas, and merry-go-rounds)

R.I.P. Tinkerbell.
R.I.P. Tinkerbell. How little I realized I had in common with you until it was too late.

“Relax,” the Gentleman reminded me as he kissed me, the constant tension that runs through my body jumping from my lips to his. “I can feel you shaking.” Oh dear. I’m so tense I shake. I am a human Chihuahua. If I were a dog, I would be in Paris Hilton’s purse. Shame. Shame shame.

I have spent my entire life anxious. It took me 24 years to realize most people aren’t overwhelmed by the world all the time. I would panic in the grocery store as I found myself overwhelmed by noise. In high school, if I couldn’t find all my colors of pen so I could write my notes in rainbow order, I was distracted all though class. The idea of getting lost made me feel violently ill; I once got lost in rural Tennessee, panicked, and proceeded to drive 100 miles an hour on roads with no names in the wrong direction (logic was clearly not with me at the time). Even as a child I was a perfectionist to the point that when my parents once attempted to reprimand me by lightly smacking my hand I beat my head against a cement column in our house for an hour and refused to stop, aghast at my own misbehavior. I was the human version of Dobby, with no tea towel and better hair.

I’m doing so much better, in large part due simply to the realization that most people don’t live like this and it doesn’t have to be this way, but by nature I still am relatively more anxious than most people.

Even with all this progress, I’ve actually managed to clench my jaw so much from stress that my jaw throbs and sometimes I can barely open my mouth. Sometimes I even find myself unable to eat my favorite cereal (Grapenuts. Yes, I am an old person. Yes, I know they taste like dirt. Yes, I still love them. Mmm dirt. The taste that goes crunch.). Even my dentist says I have to relax.

I’m a go-getter, a doer. I like having goals, and I’ve been described as “teleologically inclined,” meaning I’m all about results and the endgame. I like checking things off lists, and I love accomplishing things that are difficult. But every time I try to relax, and especially to meditate, I find myself more stressed. With visualization exercises, if you’re supposed to visualize a warm relaxing sensation spreading through your body, I’m always convinced my imagined warmth is spreading too slowly. When I focus on my breathing, I find a catch in my throat as I become hyperaware of my lungs. And then the more frustrated I get at my lack of success, the worse these issues become. It’s a viscous cycle of anti-relaxing relaxation attempts.

Tonight the Gentleman suggested that I can’t approach relaxation as if it is something to be achieved. There is a difference between being and doing. I have to work on simply being. The more I actively seek to relax, the more tense I will be when I feel like I’m floundering. And then it finally dawned on me:

The only way to succeed in this is to let go of the idea of success.

The same thing, I think, applies in dating, too. When we’re hunting for something in particular, we don’t appreciate people’s authentic selves. We construct them in our minds, overlooking who they really are, or else when their true selves register with us we’re constantly measuring them up to some preconceived notion we have of who our ideal partner ought to be. Then we find ourselves disappointed, our dreams fading into a reality that tastes bitter in our mouths after the sweetness of imagined success.

In having such a particular idea of what success means we lose what actually makes a relationship successful: recognizing and appreciating someone for who they really are. Being present, not in some false dream we’ve created for ourselves.

Gorgeous take on this by the incomparable Harold Feinstein. Reaching for the Brass Ring, Coney Island, 1958 http://www.haroldfeinstein.com
Gorgeous take on this by the incomparable Harold Feinstein. Reaching for the Brass Ring, Coney Island, 1958 (http://www.haroldfeinstein.com)

We treat so much of life as if there are goals to be attained. We reach for brass rings we’ve placed for ourselves, in turn losing sight of the twists and turns of the merry-go-round. The ride itself is the prize, the goal arbitrary, distracting us from what is at hand, be it relaxation or a relationship.

It’s the little moments that count. It’s learning rather than mastering. It’s not a forward progress necessarily. It’s simply movement, attempts, breath in, breath out, less effort, more existence.

Relax. Just relax. And be. If anything, it’s a place to grow from, with no particular end in mind.

Forget the ring. Take the ride.

When a photo in a leopard print dress changes everything (Tinder meets self-esteem meets Mister Rogers)

He had asked for one body shot and two face shots, “nothing R rated” in his terms. I sent my favorite photo of me goofing off in a leopard print dress that hugs all my curves. I found myself surprised at how nervous I became. This man was ripped, handsome, with a collection of tattoos that made me all but drool and the kind of shoulders that make you want to climb a man like a tree. Would he hate the photo? Would he hate my body? Would all of our conversation be for naught once he saw me?

The response was immediate and unhesitating: “YOU’RE PERFECT. 🙂 We’re so on for tonight!”

He quickly followed up with a “Not to sound shallow or anything. I had just been worried you were too skinny for me.”

I was immediately overcome with shock. WHAT. There were men out there to whom my body wasn’t a concession but rather something to be wholly delighted in? Who were drawn to my body just as I was to theirs? I knew I loved my body, but out there there are other people who do, too! I get to be perfect to someone other than myself!

It was one of the most liberating text message exchanges I’ve ever had, but it called into question a lot of things I believed about myself and my self-esteem. I love my body. I adore the swell of my hips and the curve of my waist, my absolute mane of hair that makes me crazy but that falls like a water fall. I love the freckle on my left shoulder that peeks out of tops and my super high arches in my feet that let me dance like a maniac.  I like me. But I don’t ever expect other people to. I constantly anticipate a battle to justify my self-acceptance.

And if that’s the case, am I really accepting myself? Am I truly loving myself?

Fred Rogers, who is essentially the patron saint of my family to the point that my mother periodically still weeps that he lives among us no longer, tells us that love is an active noun like struggle.

From The World According to Mister Rogers by the ever incredible Fred Rogers

I firmly believe that this doesn’t just apply to loving others but to ourselves and our bodies as well. It’s just as much a struggle to love ourselves the way we are in a moment. Self-esteem isn’t a state of perfect caring. Yes, we can want more for ourselves. We can want stronger, faster bodies while still loving who we are in this moment. And there are moments when we don’t feel so great, when no outfit looks right, when our hair won’t quite stay, when we stand before the mirror questioning ourselves. Those are the moments when I end up with outfits strewn about my room, my third eyeliner attempt still crooked, with no shoe sufficiently sexy and comfortable to merit being worn out for a night of dancing, and I just want to sob. And that moment MATTERS. It is every bit as perfect and normal and beautiful as the days when I walk out the door feeling absolutely fierce and fabulous, if not more so, because it’s a moment in which I have a chance not to love myself in spite of my seeming inadequacies but rather to love myself through them.

We have to let ourselves struggle in these moments. That’s when growth happens. That’s when real love happens. When we know we’re not perfect, but we fight through the self-doubt and choose to love ourselves as we are in that moment, that’s when we’re making progress with our self-esteem. The struggle is where the love happens.

Self-esteem is a constant and continual process, not a pinnacle of achievement. It’s a journey not a prize to be won. It’s okay to have setbacks. It’s okay to keep learning. It’s okay to be surprised at that moment that someone says we’re perfect, so long as we take that surprise and we learn from it.

There’s no such thing as a perfect body. There are only bodies which are perfect to us as individuals, who each have distinctive preferences. We have to leave room for others to accept us and adore us, including our embodiment. And we have to leave room for ourselves to figure these things out and be okay with those moments that surprise and challenge us. We owe ourselves the patience to work through the hard moments, through the revelations, through the days when nothing looks right.

What surprises me is that this revelation came via Tinder. This wouldn’t have happened without me contending with an app that in many senses reduces people to a single image on which you can swipe left or right and make snap judgments based on that photo of whether or not you deem someone worthy to communicate with you. I’m finding myself constantly challenged by this. My family keeps telling me that Tinder can’t be empowering.

I’m going to go ahead and beg to differ on this one.

I’m going to let Tinder keep pushing my buttons, and I’m going to keep pushing back.