It can be lonely next to you

The power of memory to edit can be a strange thing. It’s understandable — our brains are constantly reshuffling what we can recall from where, the older we get, so it’s the essentials that tend to stick. Mine is stronger, particularly visually, than average, but even so, the mundane moments between the highlights are as unlikely to stick with me as they are for anyone else.

I find myself wondering lately: How did I do it? In the beginning, the early parts, how did I manage what seems to have become so challenging now? Did it hurt? Was it confusing? Was it so much quieter? It must have been, and yet…

How did the time pass, and where was my head then? My emotional state then, how maddening could it have been for me? How anxious, how habitual, how manageable? Was it easier because there were fewer expectations, because I had no idea what would happen? Not that I have any better idea what might happen now, but how was it I could accept that so much more easily then? Did I? Or have I just forgotten those struggles in order to make room for what I’m wrestling with now? How did those days, those nights feel? How much have I edited out, for brevity? There must have been more of them then, and yet…

I wish I could call her up — younger me — and ask her: What are you thinking right now? How are you feeling? How are you doing it? (You don’t even know what it is you’re doing, do you? It just seems like that now, because now is not then.) (Younger me, probably, were this possible: “What the fuck are you even talking about?”) Hang in there; watch yourself. You will get careless, difficult, complacent. You will find new ways to create problems you don’t have to. You will end up stuck only because you walled off your best options with fear. Take it easy. Don’t get so ahead of yourself. Don’t confuse hopes with plans, which can be a trap. Be open, which is not the same thing as hovering over the precipice of holes you’ve already dug. The latter only means you’ll end up working so hard to control your future you’ll run headlong into a brick wall of your own making. You don’t like to be wrong, and you don’t like to be afraid, but in order to be prepared for whatever comes next, you have to allow yourself to be both. Whatever feels so insurmountable to you now — and it must be something; probably several somethings, everything is so new and scary and impossible to predict — will pass, to the point you can’t even recall it now. Can you even imagine? You got through it, you learned from it, you made yourself more. You are stronger than you realize, and yet…

Thinking back, so many of the best things, the best moments, the best experiences — you know the ones I mean — were never planned or expected. (Remember how your heart raced, how suddenly everything seemed so open ahead of you? It was because you allowed yourself to give up control, to be afraid, to move past it, to step into the unknown, to not pretend you had any idea what might happen. That’s where the magic was. That was brave. Stop, breathe, wait, look around: you can surprise yourself again.) Often they completely surprised me, snuck up on me, occurred despite things seeming unlikely or hopeless or somehow otherwise dire. The surprise in them was a bigger part of what made them great — made them memorable — than I think I have allowed myself to remember.

The revisionist in my head likes to look back and claim she knew what she was doing, she had a plan, she laid out all the pieces in order that That happened, and This was wonderful, and There was where we ended up. She’s also a liar, of course. I didn’t plan any of it. I couldn’t have; no one can. The illusion of control over one’s life is not confined to the present. I can tell myself that hopes being realized and plans coming to fruition were one and the same, though they were in fact nothing of the kind. My hopes only came true when I let them linger quietly and stayed open, did not impose plans upon them at all. They came true almost in spite of me. They were most fruitful when I got out of their way.

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This photo of me, which I took by mistake — I’m clearly not paying attention; I thought the lens was facing the other way — is one of the rare ones of myself that I love. (Candids are almost always my favorite photos, of anyone.) I want to look that lovely all the time, and yet apparently I probably do, or so I’ve been told; I look so hard the rest of the time, pick every little thing apart, until I can’t even see it. But there it is, right there: and it was a mistake. It, and the moment I captured within it, is vivid and worth keeping almost entirely for that reason. It’s okay. Just get out of the way. It sounds easy, but it’s not. Do it anyway.

I want to allow the world to surprise me more. I want to surprise myself again. I will.

Just have the courage to open up to yourself
Then we can be free, yes
I wanna be free…

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Acceptance

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Meg Ryan as Kathleen Kelly in Nora Ephon’s delightful 1998 film, You’ve Got Mail.

People are always telling you that change is a good thing. But all they’re saying is that something you didn’t want to happen at all… has happened.

I find my mind revisiting this quote more often than ever recently. As with many things that the late, great Nora wrote (particularly under the guise of her charming, timidly brave little bookseller character struggling to make sense of her “small life,” Kathleen Kelly), it resonates with me deeply on a personal level, while simultaneously serving as a reminder for something I’d do well to be more conscious of.

There’s been a lot of change in my life of late, and not all of it of the kind I have liked much at all, but it is all equally inescapable, because that is simply how change works. One of my greatest projects this year, in terms of scope and difficulty, has been practicing something more akin to what is often called “radical acceptance,” because really the only surefire way to tackle the heart of anxiety is to surrender as much of the illusion of control as possible. In reality, all I can control in my life — and even then, it’s a pretty tenuous concept of control — is my own reactions to whatever I encounter while living it, both mentally and emotionally. It’s a daily struggle, as is everything else when laboring under anxiety and various other fun little neuroses, but it’s the best anyone can do, including myself. Part of being gentler with myself on the whole includes accepting these things, rather than pretending I’m supposed to, for some inexplicable reason, be stronger or tougher or more capable than anyone else. As my favorite musician once sang, “I will do what I can do.”

Besides, as another great writer, Junot Díaz, once wrote, “I guess it’s true what they say: if you wait long enough everything changes.” When I’m being overly critical of myself, I often like to paint hope as foolish, but the truth is, waiting on changes of a more positive type, perhaps even for things I still dare hope might happen (however unlikely they may be at the moment) — so long as it’s not the only thing I’m doing — is far from the most ridiculous way of spending some of my mental energy. Better that, than concentrating on talking myself out of hope. That makes it far too easy for other negative thoughts to creep in, especially those about myself, and in learning to fend those off better, too, I’m just less inclined to entertain them.

I have a whole little list of reminders saved on my Keep (notes) app on my phone, and I’ve found that taking a moment to re-read it every day has been a rather helpful habit to get into — along with others I’ve been stricter about lately (exercising, standing up straighter, being more consistent about my skin care, watching my breathing patterns, meditating before bed, being more mindful of my anxious thoughts whenever they might start to rear their heads, etc.). They are fairly short, though the full list is about 30 items long. Then again, it does seem to be the simplest things that, in the end, are making change a bit easier to deal with. As ever, one day at a time.

The guns of her mind aim a line

It’s been an interesting experience, this past month or so, forcing myself to really re-calibrate the negative pathways in my brain. Discovering that anxiety is at the core of basically everything that I struggle with has been a major illuminating factor, though that still doesn’t allow me to be lazy; understanding the ways in which my brain makes big things out of little things so easily if I don’t check it carefully isn’t enough to actually stop it happening. I have to listen to what it’s saying, recognize that it’s essentially lying to me like a big, neurotic jerk, and focus instead on the things I know or trust to be true.

Though I think everyone on earth must struggle to some degree with trust, I suspect it particularly affects those of us who grapple with anxiety, only because anxiety means there are a lot of things your brain is going to try to convince you of that you fundamentally cannot trust. It’s unsettling to have to recognize that your brain is, in many ways, the most effective liar you’ve ever known. (And I once knew a girl in junior high who literally pretended to be twins. And it worked, for, like, two weeks! That was so insane it was more impressive than anything, though.)  It’s hard work to learn when to stop yourself and say, “No. This is a ridiculous thing to think, and here is why.” With anxiety, your brain likes to lie because it is easy, and because it has gotten very good at it. And who doesn’t like doing what’s familiar and easy?

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Essentially, what I’m learning to do now is teach my brain an almost entirely new language, or at least a different dialect of what it’s been speaking to me for a very long time. It’s a bit of a steep learning curve, and I have stumbled a few times along the way, as those closest to me no doubt recognize, but I just keep pushing. Which is why I’m able to, today — even after entertaining a thought that was painful, then grappling with the realization that I had no actual reason to believe such a thing in the first place; even when dressed in a rush and not looking my best by any means — smile a relaxed smile, and breathe easier. It is a process, but it feels as though those atrophied muscles up in my big, silly head are slowly getting stronger.

Disordered

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Sunset at Balboa Park, San Diego
26 February 2016 © Eleanore Studer

I spent probably the entire first half of my twenties, or at least close to that, depressed. I did not recognize this, directly, until I had entered into the latter half of them. I recognized it enough, indirectly, to know I had to escape where I lived, because a great amount of that depression was situational, and I knew if I didn’t make a place for myself somewhere, anywhere else, my hometown might kill me. (Not in the literal sense; I’ve never entertained suicidal ideation. But figuratively, I knew it could make a shell of me, a husk of a person that held nothing. That’s a kind of death, too.) I resolved, at some point in that haze of darkness, that I would not allow it to destroy me. This fall, I will turn 30.

I first fell in love with Los Angeles when I was 21. My first visit to it, in which I was fully conscious of being in L.A. (a couple of childhood trips to Disneyland don’t count, and not just because that’s technically Anaheim), and which was made entirely under my own power, was in the late summer of 2007. I was just beginning to realize my college major had nothing to contribute to any future I could envision wanting for myself. I was definitely beginning to chafe against the notion my generation was still raised on; that once you finished college, you got a job and got the hell out of the house (and simultaneously starting to recognize that this was going to become the first big hurdle my generation was forced to clear, with no real help from anyone, and the guilt that would inevitably be attached to the extreme difficulty of making this a reality). I was young, and had been stuck feeling more so even through college, as well as feeling very separate; I attended community college, in a program no one else entered directly from high school. I was 17 in the beginning, while most of my classmates were in their 30s and 40s. I worked full-time, and in later years, after college, had to work two full-time jobs to continue to survive, and continue dreaming of that elusive escape.

I was less than a week away from my 22nd birthday, driving alone in my car, my camera gear in my trunk, so early in the morning the stars were still out. I hadn’t slept the night before, knowing I would have to leave San Diego around 3:30 to reach my destination in time; being young, reckless, and an insomniac, this didn’t strike me as much of a problem, nor a challenge. I was driving on the PCH for the first time so far north, which wound ahead of me, dizzily unfamiliar, on into looming hills in the darkness. I didn’t have GPS then, only a Thomas Guide I had glanced at and attempted to plan my route from hours before. But it was early and dark, and I was unsure of myself. I was heading out to shoot a triathlon at Zuma Beach in Malibu, and once I came up behind a car with two bicycles hitched to the back, I simply followed it with a flood of relief I could feel down to my toes.

I reached the beach by about 5:30, as planned, just as the sun was beginning to scrape away the night sky with bruising purples and pinks. I knew no one there, and no one knew me. I parked and walked out onto the sand. I grew up in coastal San Diego, but I had never seen a beach so beautiful in my life. By the following summer, I had spent enough time exploring the city proper, over the course of a week spent with a vacationing friend from out of state who knew it better than many locals do, to have fully fallen in love with it. Every time I set foot on the streets within it, I felt as though I was walking toward something. Where I came from, I felt nothing but endless, fruitless, circular motion toward nothing. The energy in L.A. wrapped itself around my heart like a fist, with a grip that only grew stronger whenever I reluctantly drove back home. I knew with a certainty reserved for little else in my life that I had to get there somehow.

It took me four more years to manage it, and even then, it was by the barest scrape of my teeth, and I came so close to not managing it, it’s no less than a small miracle that I did. I had a very lucky hiring at just about the last minute, and that was the only thing that saved me. My bigger stroke of luck came through there; I met someone wonderful, who showed me not only how to fall in love with — not the dream of, but the reality of — the city, but how to make my home there. I’ve seen enough people come and go in my nearly four years here now to recognize the small miracle of that, too. If you are very lucky, someone will open their arms to you and show you the way to truly be here.

It was only once I made a home here, and left my hometown, that I could look back and truly recognize: I had been depressed. These days I still deal with bouts of it that come and go, but back then, I lived entirely within it. That’s the sort of thing you can only recognize once you have stepped back from it.

That does not mean I’m not still a mentally ill person, of course. I labor under what can best be described as “mild” paranoid personality disorder pretty much all the time, which goes hand in hand with often acute impostor syndrome. Only in recent years, too, have I gained enough perspective to recognize that, for as many wonderful memories as I may have from my years being primarily raised by my (stay-at-home, self-employed business man) father, many of the darker aspects of his personality (and my mother’s) were passed on to me as well. He is eternally dissatisfied with his life, no matter the circumstances. I know that I do not suffer from this exactly, but I do know that this is largely where my dissatisfaction with myself stems from. His pride in me has always been vocal, but that did not keep him from questioning every decision I made, attempting to subtly control everything, asking me to justify every action. I may be happy with where I am and what I’m doing, but he will question every aspect of how and why. In his mind, there is always something better just out of my reach, and he wonders why I’m not trying harder to achieve that forever elusive next thing. Happiness in the moment is never enough. This leaves me often struggling with accountability. If I fail at something, my brain demands to know why, assumes the fault is entirely mine, and is harsh and unforgiving. (The primary difference between us is likely that my father applied this ideology to everyone. I internalize everything; I treat only myself this way.) All the anxiety — and there is more of it in me than I can possibly list here — meanwhile, comes from my mother. So, too, does my instinctual need to give my best to others, through some fear of abandonment, leaving very little for myself.

I had a long conversation with my dearest friend today, who is the only person who will read this, though as I am in some way writing it for both of us, that seems appropriate. It was a difficult conversation, because I am headstrong in many ways, both good and bad, and am struggling with the fallout of some experiences this year that have called out all my worst trust issues and self-doubts from where they like to hide, to all parade around the forefront of my mind instead. It makes me difficult to be around, let alone to love. It makes me crave the company of those few I do trust, while simultaneously distrusting any desire they may have to be there for me. (This, naturally, causes a conundrum.) It makes me fearful of losing anyone else; makes me certain that if I do, it will be my own fault. It blinds me to the gratitude I naturally feel for being where I am, for having gotten this far, for the people around me, for where we are going next, for what I am capable of, for having survived.

But I am grateful for that conversation, as I am for every conversation we have ever had, because (among many other reasons to be grateful for anyone who can know me so well, and not only still love and trust and cherish me, but to do so because of this) it gave me some further illumination, on top of what I reached with the help of another friend the other day. I often say that I’m difficult to love, and while that may be true, I think I’ve often been blind to the fact that this also means it is a struggle for me to love myself. If those who love me can choose to be patient enough to do that, then so can I.

So, I made myself a list. I typed it out in my favorite list app in my (slowly dying) cell phone, so I can carry it around in my pocket. It’s a list of reminders of things to do every day. Things that I don’t need any reminder for on good days, but often let fall behind me on bad ones. The list reads…

Reminder: Every Day…

  • Exercise
  • Eat something!
  • Make time to read
  • Take a photo (even if it’s just on your phone)
  • Sketch something
  • Stand up straight
  • Look pretty for yourself
  • The emotions, desires, and hopes you struggle with do not have to cripple you. Use them to act as though you are still trying to win them back in return, but from yourself. Others will see that positivity, too. Let those emotions, desires, and hopes beautify and empower you. Remember how they felt in the beginning, carrying you forward to something new, frightening, overwhelming, and wonderful.

A pretty short list, but as they say, you have to take one day at a time. I got myself here. I got in a goddamn U-Haul on Carmageddon II weekend like an insane person, and I might have nearly had a panic attack after 11 that night, knowing that, in that moment, I knew no one in the city, but I fucking got here. I came here; I fell in love. I didn’t do it alone, but I did pull myself together to survive and make myself a home. This city is my home. I made it mine. I was able to do that where so many others have been unable and moved on elsewhere. I dreamed of belonging here, like countless others do, and now I do. I am strong enough to do that, and so I am strong enough to do these things, and more. And I will.

I have a lot of good ideas that I can be too adept at thinking myself out of. (A favorite dark joke of mine is that my greatest talent is wasting all my others.) I tell myself I don’t have the resources, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m not talented enough, I don’t have enough time, the end result won’t be worth the effort put in. I tell myself I will fail, because making your worst fear familiar is strangely, horribly easy to do. I think maybe we tell ourselves that if we keep fear close; if we let it sidle right up next to us, we can rationalize it away, and ultimately it won’t make victims of us. But maybe that’s the most insidious thing about fear; maybe it tells you this, and that’s secretly its most effective way of crippling you. Fear gives no fucks about knifing you in the back if you invite it to stand right behind you. I’ve thought all these things about ideas I’ve brought to fruition, and they seem silly in retrospect, with the final product in front of me. The ideas I have yet to realize are good, too. I can make those real, too.

This photo is from one of the most recent days I can recall being purely, simply good, from waking until sleep, a couple of months ago. It took place in my hometown, though it is no longer my home; we were simply visiting. I have a lot of lovely memories tied to that day. My wonderful friend was with me. As the sun was going down, we walked through the park with our arms around each other, and were just happy to be there, together. I think if I stick to this list, maybe we can go back there, and make more memories like those. I hope that we can. If I remember that I am strong, that my fear only owns as much of me as I allow it to, to be kinder to myself, that my friends — particularly the one reading this now — are here with me… I know there will be many more good days here in my new home to carry me through until then, and after. One day at a time.