Your flesh has come of age

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“You destroy me. You’re good for me.” — Elle, Hiroshima, Mon Amour

(Rest in peace, lovely, prolific Emmanuelle Riva.)

“Here is what we know for sure: there is no end to want. Want is a vast universe within other vast universes. There is always more, and more again. […] One can make a life out of focusing on what one does not have, but that’s no way to live. A seat at the table is plenty.” — Elisa Albert

I’ve learned in recent years I cannot be careless with my words, which when I was younger, I realize now I often was. For a while, as a bitchy little contrarian teenager, who knew no other way of dealing with simultaneously sticking out like a sore thumb (due to being 4-6 inches taller than the 4,000 other students I shared a campus with for four years) and being completely invisible (due to, well, no one ever taking notice of me, regardless what I did or did not choose to do), I almost wore it like a badge of honor. Most young people shrouding themselves in protective sarcasm do, though we like to think, before we (hopefully) grow up, this is a novel or unique approach.

First for others who I care for, but also for myself. I was able to talk myself down so casually. (It’s a hard, hard habit to break, to quote a song off one of my favorite albums of last year. I still do it.) I was taught, approaching 30, the consequences my words can have, solid as actions, lasting as hammering nails into wood. Why was this such a difficult lesson to learn? Why did it come so late? Is this really just the consequence of a life spent mostly alone and lonely? Possibly. If no one around you cares what you say, it’s challenging to assign any weight to those words. But thinking on it now, there are so many things others have said so carelessly to me that I know I’ve never forgotten.

Another thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that there truly is no end to want or desire — regardless what it’s focus might be — frustrating, maddening, depressing, terrifying as that can be; how it can make you want to tear away your own skin. I continue to learn that being mindful is the only way to push through it, to the necessity of sheer survival, and cherishing what you do receive, which is rarely what you expect to, and even less often what you hope for. To give more. That, in fact, wanting things is good, and yet not getting everything you want is also good.

A lot of things have fallen away from me in these recent years, plenty of which have been freeing, while others have been dismaying. A best friend of over two decades, any close family ties with my father’s half of the family (I never really had any to my mother’s, with a few exceptions, to begin with), expectation of growing out of my invisibility. I suppose when I was younger I believed, or at least hoped, that someday I would, after so many years of cocooning myself, eventually emerge as a colorful, striking, beautiful butterfly — the ultimate cliche! — but, no. I remain, as ever, the sort of homely little moth who blends into the sweaters you’ve forgotten about in the back of your closet.

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But fighting your nature is no better (nor less futile) than fighting your desire, so — entering my 30s, continuing to grow older — seems as good a time as any to accept such lessons. I’ve certainly gained much more mental clarity and emotional stability over the past year or so, which seems to point to it being the right direction. There is so much negativity and fear in the world, growing every day; fighting constant battles with myself, on top of struggling with those greater issues of humanity, seems a great waste of energy. Onward, little brown moth. Someone, at least, may see one day the little holes you left behind, even if they’ll never see you.

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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.

Sliding scale of value

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Sunset on Vermont, East Hollywood
December 2015 © Eleanore Studer

Had something of a revelation today, while texting with a lovely and supportive friend (and hopefully not distracting her too much from actual work in the process). I already can’t recall whether it arrived in mind because of something specific she said, or just came as a result of having an illuminating conversation that allowed me space to see things I otherwise have trouble seeing about myself; perhaps it was a combination of both.

I’ve spent a long time — possibly my entire consciously developing life, since leaving the relatively carefree period of childhood  (pretty early, as most gifted and overly intellectual children tend to do) — struggling with self-worth. I will be harder on myself than any other person apart from me could possibly ever be, and criticize myself more harshly, too. It’s a big part of what gives me so much trouble forgiving anything I do or say that I perceive as a mistake. I’ve tried what feels like countless ways attempting to combat this, and re-frame my way of viewing myself. But when messaging with this friend today, I had a new thought that seems quite obvious in retrospect, but is nonetheless an angle I’ve never tried for handling this issue.

We were talking about our issues that we can be most sympathetic with between each other, due to whatever similarities they might have, and when she mentioned being a “caretaker” and having to learn to divorce her own self-worth from the concept of that burdensome “job” she assigned herself with people, I countered that I tend to view myself in terms of “usefulness” (e.g. if I find ways to make myself of use to people, they’ll be less likely to abandon me when I really need them). Guilt has all ways of finding me, and “Maybe I didn’t do enough” is a familiar refrain of that same old song of mine. (“You can never do enough” is what it turns into when things get much worse.) We moved on to discussing learning to recognize and acknowledge negative thinking and self-criticism; learning to call yourself on it, even if, for the moment, you’re not able to correct it, and recognizing it is the best you can manage… And I guess that got me thinking.

Maybe, as opposed to attempting to attack low self-worth head on, it’s a problem that needs to be approached in a more roundabout way. Maybe that makes it easier to work through, or at least less daunting and seemingly impossible. I realized suddenly how easy it is for me to view things I do for others as worthwhile, but how hard it is for me to accept any time I spend on myself as the same. I always frame my own time in terms of usefulness, too — did I get enough work done? did I get the work done I wanted to get done handled the way I wanted? was I productive? — and if it feels as though it wasn’t useful, that can make me feel like a failure. If I were to assign a visual to the value of my time, it would be a sliding scale, and most of the time, the way I see things, time spent on myself inevitably falls to the bottom. Maybe I need to try going at it almost backwards. Instead of fixing self-worth first, and judging how I spend my time less harshly as a result… maybe learning to value myself better can start, among other things, from learning to view whatever time I spend on myself as valuable, regardless of how productive (or not) it is.

I realize this will still be hard. None of this comes to me naturally or easily, and it can be exhausting sometimes. It won’t stop me from a genuine desire to do for and give my best to the people most important to me, because that’s one of my instinctive, natural ways of expressing love and care. But maybe trying to learn this concept of framing my own time and its value might be at least slightly less difficult than what I’ve tried for myself in the past. I suppose there’s really only one way to find out.

I’d say, “It’s a start,” in order to wrap this up, but that really isn’t true of a process you’ve been struggling with for over two decades. Maybe all I can say is, “It’s an idea,” and for now, that will have to be good enough.