What eyes can tell

I’m scared to look into people’s eyes sometimes for what I might discover. I mean really look inside. Sometimes I see nothing, but if I linger too long, I can sense this chilliness, loneliness and misery that is deep inside them. I get sucked in, and it takes me a while to pull myself back. The first time it happened was after my first hospitalization, when I briefly returned to work to hand in my resignation letter. She was one of my coworkers, and had these jet black, sparkling Eastern European eyes. I was talking to her very briefly, and more I listened, I saw what was behind those big eyes- helplessness, desperation and anguish. No amount of smiling could erase this fact. We were only talking about work, but that energy was so strong, I couldn’t help but get sucked in. I obviously cannot know what she was really feeling internally, and why, but being an overly sensitive person, I just picked that up.

This is one of my intrusive thoughts- I have an encyclopedia of them, of course. What I saw that day, during such a brief encounter, still gives me the chills. It’s nothing concrete, but just this feeling of profound sadness. I felt something similar today while I spoke to my model for my figure drawing class. She was very bouncy, happy, and energetic (“hyper” was how she described it)- looked almost manic with her eyes darting at one thing to another, while she chatted with all the students in the room before posing about the dress she prepared for the class (a period piece that someone gifted, that made her feel like Jane Avril) there was a sense of hidden sorrow, behind all the pomp and chatter. It could be from how she acted, her every word seemed planned, and every gesture from something out of a silver screen many decades ago- all the same while looking so anxious. While she modeled, she seemed to bite her lips (which made drawing them difficult) constantly, while she frowned and fretted quite a bit. She tried to shake off the thoughts time to time, but the thoughts just returned (from the look in her eyes), and she was fidgeting again. I would not have had such an in depth look at someone, but I couldn’t help it, as I was drawing her.

Needless to say, my energy was drained by the end of the session, trying to draw this person as an empath. All this could be a projection, but some of it might not be. Who knows.

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Wounded inner child

People with Complex PTSD, or those with experience with “mini traumas” don’t often validate the cause of their suffering. It’s easy to dismiss because looking at it chronologically, day by day, nothing really happens, but cumulatively, it’s like little water droplets that crack open a rock over time. A little bit of yelling here, snide remark there, bit of physical violence, bullying, confrontation here and there- this breaks a child’s spirit over time. It also affects her self esteem, confidence, ability to play and enjoy life, interaction with people without anxiety, to name a few.

I used to be one of them. I denied that I was ill from what happened as a child within my family unit. It was seemingly uneventful, my childhood. Not one single event was extremely significant. But overtime, the little things shaped me. It shaped me to be afraid, to be cautious, and not trusting. And because I am so close to my parents now and am dependent on them, I didn’t want to see them as one of the reasons why I’m sick. Even after they have owned and apologized for their behavior (not that their intentions were malicious, and their apologies uncalled for), I didn’t want to connect what happened to me as a child to how I am now as an adult.

Today in therapy, we were exploring this concept of “inner child” that is often spoken about in psychology. I actually laughed out loud when my therapist, C told me to literally “speak to my inner child” when I was alone. So far everything she recommended I do has worked, so I wasn’t going to question it until I’ve tried it at least a few times. I was confused about what kinds of things to say to her (my inner child)- I supposed nice things. C said I was to tell her that she was enough, and she deserve a relaxing break, that she can trust herself and so on. C said this was a way of retraining my mind, becoming nurturing and self compassionate.

The problem is, I kind of suck at being self compassionate. If I took a class on it, I would get an F even if I studied. I did a lot of mindfulness activities in various forms, like meditation, DBT modules etc. but for some reason it felt disingenuous. I don’t mean the concept of mindfulness itself, but just how I personally feel when doing those activities. I feel like I’m being a phony and wasting my time. I also fear that I will get thoroughly lazy if I get too good at it. C says that this stuff will naturally take a while to feel comfortable doing, because I didn’t grow up this way- the little I remember of my childhood, I remember spending hours and hours with tutors and being extremely busy doing something productive every second. I existed to fulfill a purpose, and not be a person- no one treated me any differently either, no relatives or any other adult in my life. Of course relaxing feels uncomfortable!

My next project is to sit still without doing anything (not even meditation) for half an hour and not give into the urge to do something productive, including analyzing my thoughts. This also has to be completely spontaneous.

Enough

It took me a long time, but I think I might know now.

(Though, knowing isn’t the same as doing.)

Before, I didn’t feel enough for this world. But the truth was, the world just wasn’t enough to take me in.

Me, with the jagged edges. Me, who couldn’t fit into a cookie cutter shape.

I lived merely to fit into something instead of:

Creating, finding joy, appreciating, feeling good about how things were when they were, being happy, going with my gut, taking risks…

Living.

My blank canvas. So many things I could have painted instead of painting over my flaws.

Anxiety from my day off

Today was spent dealing with the anxiety and fatigue I inherited from the day before. It was from a short shopping trip in SoHo, Something that had to be done at some point. My wardrobe was lacking, since I only had clothes I wore to work like button ups, and nothing that I could casually wear to art class or the museum to. I don’t know why that distinction is so clear for me, but I felt unnatural wearing my work clothes to other places, even though it was pretty casual dress code, where I used to work. Here I should mention that I absolutely hate shopping- more so now because I am easily overwhelmed by crowds and loud music. Clothing stores usually have both. I made a note of bringing headphones for the next time. SoHo is another problem area for me: I have this irrational fear of running into people I know from before, because I know that a quite a lot of them live in the city. I’m afraid that I’ll see them, and not really know how to explain my situation. (Note to self: make a cope ahead plan for meeting friends from pre-mentally ill period.)

Dealing with my cumulative anxiety from the last few days usually means I stay in and don’t do anything that is potentially triggering. No music with lyrics, lots of tea, cat cuddles, knitting/crocheting, painting, taking care of my indoor garden, and feeling bad about being a lazy piece of sh*#.

I don’t really think that taking time for myself is bad. But I believe and feel it in my heart that it is. This is one of my OCPD tendencies of over scheduling my time. I’ve mentioned this before, but when I don’t have things lined up, and I’m spontaneously spending my time doing my hobbies, the panic creeps in. Is there something I should be doing? This habit goes back to my early childhood days when I carried a planner for all the after school activities I had to do because there were so damn many of them. There was never a free time for me to just play (I even had an art tutor to help me with my paining), and nothing was ever just for fun- it was always towards some goal in the distant future, or I wouldn’t be spending time over it. Even after I moved away from my parents, That panicky feeling persisted throughout college, then post-college. That critical voice, I know now was that of my helicopter parents,- who at the time, didn’t know this was going to be detrimental for me in the long run- persisted to this day, and I haven’t been able to completely heal from it.

I don’t want to be this way anymore. I want these critical voices to stop telling me to work 24/7. These tendencies of overworking myself ironically destroyed everything that I have worked for. Still, I feel extremely guilty for taking the day off. It’s an inappropriate feeling, but it’s like mildew that has lived deep inside me that I just can’t scrap away easily. Old habits die hard.

 

 

One year later

I’m still alive and kicking.

Everyone heals differently- it takes some months and some years. The severity of the wound is also varied, however similar the cause may be, it’s complicated. It has been a year since my first symptom of manic depression occurred. It was mostly depression at this point. (7 more months and 5 more psychiatrists it would take for me to receive the correct diagnosis.) It was during the winter over the holidays when I was at my dad’s place on the other side of the world, heavily jet lagged. I haven’t slept for days, and my mood was fiercely dropping. We were out for dinner, just the two of us, for Chinese food. Out of nowhere, an immense grief came over and soon enough, tears were streaming down my face and fell into my food. My dad was obviously bewildered by my sudden change in mood. I was confused because I’m not a public crier. Unknowingly, my mom, who knows me better, later told him that I get sad like this sometimes, and it’s not a huge issue. But he still insisted that I see a psychiatrist. I didn’t- not right away. Not until I went to the ER for the first time after my failed attempt at ending the sadness, a month later.

Since then, everything changed. I mean really everything about me, inside and out. The people in my life, relationships, my career trajectory, my physical location, priorities, values, how I spend my time, how I think… I can’t think of a part of my life and my family’s life that hasn’t been touched by my recovery on my path to healing. For a year, my life centered around hospitalizations, psychiatrist visits and therapist sessions. Every month I counted- I felt like I was running out of my allotted time to be sick. Look it’s 6 months already, shouldn’t I be applying for jobs or grad school by now? Shouldn’t I be a real person again by now? Recovery is the opposite of linear- It’s been a year, and honestly, I’m not anywhere near where I thought I’d be in my recovery. But I know now that that’s because I needed this time. I have not been lazy, or uncooperative- rather the opposite. I’ve worked hard to stay alive and to try everything I could including medication and huge lifestyle changes. I’ve given my 100%, and while I’m not where I thought I would be, I feel okay about where I am.

Therapy updates

“Who is Amy?”

Asked C, my therapist. There was this absolute silence between us, it seemed like time had just stopped. I wish it had, because, then, I could time travel in my past and my future and create a 10 page report on who I was, all stapled and fresh out of the printer. What I’ve done, where I’ve been, who I know. This wasn’t the first time she’s asked me, and every single time I come to a screeching halt. My throat closes. The next inevitable question is, “why don’t you know?”

That question has plagued me since the beginning of our sessions together. It’s one of the questions that prompted me to read philosophical works like Being and Time. Not so surprisingly, my identity, who I was, was no where to be found between the pages of theoretical phenomenology.

My identity has always been viscous and malleable as hot metal. Like a chameleon, I can sense the color of my surroundings and become just like one of them. Them, being whoever the people are in the group that I need to blend in with. It’s not something I’m proud of for being flawless at.

Another excuse I have, is that I am just too many things that I can’t summarize in a bite sized answer. In actual interactions with people, what I usually do is observe my audience and their scope of life experience, and give them what they can chew. They only see that side of me, a bit like blind people feeling an elephant and all reporting different shapes of what the elephant could look like (snake, column, sac..). Most people are surprised after months and years of knowing me of the different sides I have, because not all of them surface after a few interactions.

Here is a sample: division 1 college athlete, math and statistics nerd, artsy hipster,  musician, actual artist, corporate yuppie, confused immigrant ESL dork, best dressed, sweat pants wearer, bad girl, good girl, emo poet, long distance runner, Model UN-er, bosslady, shy, bullied kid, rich kid, poor kid, scared kid, getting-accepted-to-very-single-job-kid, best daughter, worst daughter, honors student, failure, overachiever, underachiever, amazing friend, worst friend ever, best girl friend, batshit crazy ex-girlfriend, academically gifted, dumb as hell…

But C is not happy with my labels for myself. Those are external labels that are defined by what I do, and my relationship with other people, and me compared to other people, says C. It’s not an identity that grounds you, no matter who you’re with and what you’re doing.

I ask her if other people have such an identity. She chuckles warmly.

There are some theories as to why I am this way. One, provided by C, is that I have fragments of personalities from the different periods of my life when I was different things. I have never integrated those fragments, and that’s why I’m having a hard time getting to the bottom line of a single identity. Two, I have pieces of myself from the past which I am accepting and rejecting due to my perfectionism about my self image. Because I’m only accepting the “good” ones, my self image is lacking, and has becoming artificially uncomfortable and unwieldy to live with.

So in summary, I basically don’t like some parts of myself very much, and I haven’t really accepted myself fully; I haven’t been self-compassionate about certain things from my past, and that’s coming up in my intrusive thoughts, ruminations, and dreams. When my illness gets worse, I think the impulsiveness of bipolar and negative thinking leads me to suicidal thoughts.

I never could answer the question during my session, of who I am, in general. I am different to every person I greet, depending on who they are- while it is very consuming, that’s just what I know how to exist. If you were from Scarborough (which is a neighborhood in Toronto, Ontario, Canada), and you traveled to rural Europe, if you say that you’re from Scarborough- they would have no idea where that is! You would say Canada. But if you are in Ottawa, (the capital of Canada), then you would say that you’re from Toronto. If you were living in Toronto, and they ask you where you live, Scarborough would suffice. So I think it’s OK to cater to the audience of who you are and explain relatively to where they are coming from. That’s the reason why it is hard for me to answer this question. But if I can change, I want to. If I can feel more whole, I’m willing to put in the work.

Do you guys struggle with your identity and how you think about yourself?

 

Intrusive thoughts

Back to being happy/hypomanic today. I was able to do two things (!), and stay in out in the city for the AM and PM, which is a feat. I usually don’t have the energy to go to the museum because that is a lot of standing and I tend to stare at paintings for ages, but I went to view an exhibit my art teacher was raving about at the Met (though, I have seen most of it in the Met and in Paris a few years ago, but refreshers are always nice), and went to my anatomy class for artists. It was a full day and I’m exhausted, but it was good- it was progress.

I’ve been monitoring my thoughts a lot, and thinking about what the heck I’m thinking about, just to see what brings me to my lowest during my depressive periods in the cycle. And I found that it began with intrusive thoughts then led to rumination, which made me lose my confidence in my abilities to do anything (interact with people, plan my future, be productive etc.), and further plummet into self-pity.

But what’s funny was that I noticed that the amount of intrusive thoughts is the same during hypomanic and depressed periods (and of the same genre), but the important difference between those times was how I am able to handle them. For example, I have a titanium shield for harsh self talk or negative thinking when I’m hypomanic; when I’m depressed, I believe all those intrusive thoughts are true- and I extend them even further by providing examples of why those thoughts are true. In a way, intrusive thoughts are like viruses. When you are healthy, you have intrusive thought immunity- you don’t get infected as easily, but when you’re depressed/mentally ill you’re more likely to get infected by the virus- and eventually the virus will spread. You can extend the metaphor in how to treat yourself when your immunity is crappy- you drink tons of vitamin C and rest – which is the same for mental health immunity – you eat well, take it easy and rest.

It makes sense that the amount of intrusive thoughts are the same for both states. I mean, I am still the same person with the same history, aren’t I? The things that I’m proud of, happy about, embarrassed by, shameful of, or regretting from the past, do not change because my past does not change when my mood shifts. It’s the same fodder for rumination, however I’m feeling. So instead of saying that I’m depressed or hypomanic, I would like to start saying that my immune system for my mental health is normal, or that it is malfunctioning.