Damaged Enough

I had my first session of a new therapy group/”skills class” earlier this week. I caught myself doing this weird but familiar thing as I walked in the room; assessing my mood and the current state of my life, worrying that I was too well to be there.

I can’t get it out of my head that you have to earn therapy somehow. I’m afraid it will be a waste of time and money if it turns out I wasn’t as sick as I thought. It reminds me of the way people talk about “earning your seat” in an AA meeting. Like there’s some measurable amount of suffering we all have to reach before we deserve help.

Some of my concerns are purely practical, to be fair. I really can’t afford to throw money at this therapy group if I’m not going to get a lot out of it. But it also feels like a moral question, like I might be stealing a seat from a sicker person just by showing up.

At the same time that I want to be healthy, I also secretly want to be damaged enough to justify the help I’m getting.

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Wandering back into therapy

I had my last appointment with a therapist sometime last summer, I think. We didn’t officially wrap anything up; I just stopped going. I was busy with my new job and sick of shelling out for co-pays. I didn’t feel like we were making any significant progress anyway.

Shortly after that, I decided that I was done with therapy for the foreseeable future. I had already learned every feasible tool and trick. I was far from perfect, or even “normal,” but I was about as close as I could ever hope to get. Psychiatric mission accomplished.

Last week (two weeks ago? My sense of time is shit right now) I was treated to one of those horrible, scary “Look at your life the way it really is” moments. I was skipping meds and meals, resulting in constant disorientation from hunger and withdrawal. I was sad and disconnect and isolated, and just not okay. And I was scared because all of this had developed with my even noticing it. Things had just gone to hell and I’d thought I was doing fine.

I saw a new therapist this morning, and we made plans to get me into a dialectical behavioral therapy group. I’ve done DBT in the past and found it useful. It’s anxiety-provoking, but I’m kind of looking forward to it.

So now I’m wondering if I ever really will reach the point where I’ve gotten what I need from therapy and can stop. Maybe people like me just need maintenance, maybe forever. It’s a frustrating thought. I just want to be this non-broken person, but that may not be in the cards.

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Femininity and Survival

Today a customer complimented my “nice voice” and “pleasant demeanor.” I’ve gotten comments like this before. I am a little forest bunny at work. I am shy and sweet, and my voice is a good half octave higher than it is when I’m just chatting with friends.

Working in the service industry for the last ten months has taught me, more than any previous experience I’ve had, just how much of a performance gender really is. It’s not that I’m totally faking it; I am genuinely very shy, and I do want to be nice to people. And it’s not like I wake up every morning thinking, “Okay! Get your girl face on!” In fact, it’s weird how subconscious this role-playing is. It’s something I fell into right away when I took this job, without even thinking about it.

In truth, I would place myself about smack in the middle of the gender spectrum. In high school, when I was first exploring my identity and researching the options, I took a lot of stupid online tests. Including one – which could not possibly have been scientifically sound – that was designed for people struggling with the possibility that they might be trans women. The result I got on that test was (paraphrased), “You are probably not trans. You are a perfectly ordinary man.”

And yet, when I have to negotiate an anxiety-provoking situation with potentially dangerous people (and any stranger is potentially dangerous), demure femininity is always there for me. It’s the only way I know how to win people over. It smooths over problems – when something goes wrong, I’ve watched people instantly switch gears from anger to understanding when I apologize in my sweetest tones.

I watch my co-workers and their own methods of keeping customers happy. Some of them are really funny. Some of them are hyper professional, borderline intimidating. Some of them are cheerful and polite. We all have our tricks for avoiding danger and getting people to like us.

I don’t think I’m being a bad feminist by using femininity to survive. It’s possible that I’m mistaken, but I think the feminism lies in the awareness of what I’m doing, coupled with the fact that I generally know where “nice” ends and “putting myself in danger by being a total doormat” begins. I’d like to live in a world where these  kinds of tools aren’t necessary, or where I at least have better tools. But this is the scary, heavily gendered world we live in, and these are the tools I have.

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What’s So Scary?

It’s a little late for New Year’s resolutions, but I have been trying to try a new thing: less time on mindless websites, more time reading real books, or writing, or basically existing in the world in some substantial way. Earlier today I find myself scrolling through nothing again, and decided this was a perfect opportunity: close the laptop, do some reading.

I was surprised by the first emotion that came up: actual anxiety. Real, albeit mild, fear at the thought of possibly, in a small way, engaging my brain. I don’t think it’s the outside world that’s giving me grief right now. I’m pretty sure I’m afraid of my own internal world at this point – not worried about what I might see, or what might be done to me, but what I might feel.

Psychologists have written about the practice of self-desertion, a common issue for people with avoidant personality disorder. It means distancing yourself from your own thoughts, feelings, and needs. For me, it has often meant choosing fantasy and escapism to the exclusion of actually getting to know myself at all. And going back to that internal world where the genuine thoughts and profound emotions are is a scary prospect.

What am I afraid to find? A bad, hobbled person, a useless person in pain. And hell, maybe that’s exactly what I will find. But if I’m ever going to help this person, I’m guessing I’ll need to make some kind of contact with them first.

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Truce with the Devil

So, alcohol. I haven’t written about it in months, and that’s because I want my story to be a tidy “I saw the light and got sober and now I’m all better” narrative, and it’s not. I know there are people out there with stories like that. In AA they call that “getting the golden ticket.” Golden ticket holders are a tiny minority.

Like most people who have dealt with substance abuse or addiction, my story is more meandering, tricky and sticky. I started by joining AA, and have ended up pretty much wholly rejecting every aspect of their method and philosophy (with the obligatory note that if the 12 Steps work for you personally, that’s great and you should keep it up.)

I’ve been thinking about alcohol for the last few days, trying to tease out exactly what it is for me. A quick and dirty solution to social anxiety, sure. The most easily available and socially acceptable drug in my culture, yes. A substance deeply steeped in mythology and romanticization, an elixir that makes you tragic and beautiful and happy and poetically miserable – or even just normal. A little treat to get you through the day. The key to a parallel universe, a lazy and confusing and magical place.

At one point in my life it seemed like even more. It felt like something I needed to live, like the fuel I ran on. That’s where I was when I sought out help from a therapist and ended up checking into an intensive outpatient program. In retrospect, I call that decision the nuclear option. It was supposed to change everything about my life, and in some ways it did. In others, it didn’t.

I guess what I’ve been dancing around is that I do still drink. Not like I used to – not in the same amounts, and not with the same intensity. I don’t think I’ve been cured, like I used to be an alcoholic and now I’m not. I certainly don’t think I’ve hit upon any kind of program for people to follow, or that I’m an example of anything in particular. I do know that my relationship with alcohol remains different from an average person’s – but also different from an AA “real” alcoholic’s.

I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m still trying to sort this shit out. I have a couple of books on my “to read” shelf about the ongoing research and various debates surrounding addiction. Maybe one of them will offer the kind of narrative I’ve been looking for, the kind that actually fits my life and past. I know there are other stories like mine. I don’t know what we’re supposed to make of them.

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I Suck at Being Queer

Well, sometimes it feels that way.

God knows I’ve tried. I’ve hung out in gay clubs, joined a drag troupe (that I quickly dropped out of because my social anxiety was too much at the time), flirted with women online. None of it panned out the way I would have liked.

It has nothing to do with my identities – I’m perfectly comfortable being genderqueer, primarily attracted to women, playing with masculine and feminine self expression, etc. At least, sitting alone in my apartment, I am comfortable with these things. Watching gay movies, reading lesbian erotica, choosing gender-fucking fashions – these are all aspects of queer life that I love and have no difficulties with.

The problem comes in when other people come in. Because our sexual identities are social about as much as they are personal – they’re a facet of how we relate to others, the kinds of relationships that we pursue. And having AvPD means that my personal relationships tend to range from anemic to non-existent. Which means I often feel like I’m failing at a central part of being queer.

I mean, can you be a lesbian without ever having a romantic relationship? Hypothetically, sure, of course. But feeling so closed off from LGBT culture – just as I feel closed off from every other culture I’ve ever observed or tried to participate in – sometimes makes me wonder what I’m even doing. If I have the right to call myself a member of this group. If queer culture is one more place where I don’t fit in, don’t belong.

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Psych Ward Narratives

Last night I watched a woman from a local theater group perform an essay I wrote about my experiences on a psych ward. It was a pretty intense and great experience, mostly because she did an amazing job. When it was over, a random guy walked over and struck up a conversation with me. He told me that he used to work in a mental hospital.

“We were always really nice to patients like you,” he said. “People who didn’t belong there, who had parents they trusted when they shouldn’t have.”

I saw the story he was painting: a young woman, more of a kid, whose parents committed her against her will when there was really nothing even wrong with her. That does happen, but none of it is my story. I couldn’t bring myself to tell the guy that, however. I’d done enough sharing for the night; I wasn’t willing to get into my entire true backstory.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened, anyway. Months ago, I submitted a rough draft of the same essay to an online writers’ workshop. The results were both disappointing and fascinating – disappointing because they focused on my experience, rather than giving me the writing tips I was looking for, and fascinating because they revealed so many of the assumptions people make about psych wards.

“I’m sure you were too drugged up to remember much,” or “I’m sure the patients had their own private terms for…” More people than I’d previously realized have seen a few movies about mental hospitals and assume they fully understand the reality of them.

It makes sense, really. Mental hospitals and psych wards are classic settings for drama, horror, sometimes comedy. And when you see something portrayed a certain way countless times, you will generally start assuming that portrayal is reality. I know people like to criticize pop culture analysis by saying, “Everyone knows movies are fake!” I’m not sure we all do know that, though.

And my evidence is the number of pre-made fictional narratives that have been forced on top of my own, real one. My evidence is the number of people who think they know exactly what I have experienced before I’ve even opened my mouth. And who continue to think the same thing even after I’ve spoken.

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