Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Father, Christmas

I just saw my father for the first time in a year or so. I used to see him once every week or two, on Friday nights before I went to visit my mother (they live ten minutes from each other). But it was always compelled by guilt and laced with the fear of what would happen if I ever disrupted our relationship. When I felt him pulling away from my after I transitioned, I took the opportunity to pull away also. Now, I talk to him perhaps three or four times a year, for a couple of minutes. And that’s that.

That kind of distance does something. I felt cut-off, certainly; better because I wouldn't feel guilty by being around him, worse for the lingering knowledge in the back of my mind that he was still out there and knew I’d pulled away too. But it also gave me new clarity when I saw him again.

I suppose this is what happens to many when they go off to college and return. Instead of having someone be a usual presence, you gain more perspective and distance. And with distance, like taking a step back to survey an entire scene instead of focusing upon what’s right in front of your nose, you see more anew.

He was the same person I remembered, but I could see the sameness with a twinge of difference. Fat, awkward, a scared boy in a large man’s body who doesn’t know how he ended up in the dolorous life he’s found himself in. Now, his hair and beard are almost entirely white, and I thought of how he looked a bit like a rather tired and sad Santa Claus. The comparison prompted me to imagine, as I often do, a hypothetical future scenario where my partner and I ask him to dress as Santa Claus and bring gifts to our kids for Christmas. And I imagined how happy he’d look, how joyous he’d be to have these innocent little creatures laughing and smiling around him, happy because he was giving them things, and he’d see their joy as love. He’d want to awkwardly pull away, of course. He wouldn’t know what to do with this love that scared him. Or, in the worst case, one of my children would say or do something that would prompt him to respond to them as another selfish, poorly socialized child might, not really understanding that he’s a giant adult playing with tiny children, not a poorly socialized peer. But assuming that didn’t happen (and, if it did, I don’t think it’d be particularly severe), it would make him shine. He would be so so happy. And I would be happy. A bit wary, of course, but with my own family and the safety I felt with my partner and the love I felt for my children, I would be happy.

It’s a fantasy, of course. Not *that* much of one; a feasible one, as far as fantasies go. But it was still starkly different from our present reality. The reality where we stand somewhat distant in the cold,  the gray sky and the dead trees the backdrop to two sad, lonely people. He can barely look at me, his eyes shifting down and away, his body withdrawn. And as I stand there and look at this childish old man before me, I wonder to myself “How could I have ever been afraid of someone so sad and scared? How could this man have ever invoked such absolute terror inside of me?”

Then he looks at me, for a moment, and I meet his sad, sunken eyes with the blueish purple sacs below them just like mine. And I realize how very similar we are. How, even though I devoted years to trying to find ways to Not Be Him, he’s one of the few people I know who feels so very… familiar.

This gaping wound, this morose and fearful child in a decaying body he barely recognizes as his own. I want to reach out to him, to cry out “I feel so sad and scared. I feel so very alone. And you know that feeling. You live that feeling. You are that feeling. I live in a world of people who seem to hide or never feel the loss or hurt or fear or desire that I so so strongly feel all the time and here you are, your very existence aching. I know that ache. God, I know that sad, bitter ache that wishes for so much more than it has. And I hate being so lonely and unhappy, and I hate not knowing how I ended up this way or how to change or break free. And I just want to be with someone who knows, who lives that feeling too.”

But we both know that can’t happen. At heart, he's a little boy who wants to be loved and wants to be protected. I can’t ever be the parent he so desperately needs. I can never be enough for him. I can only ever be a child to this sad, sweet, awkward boy who only ever wanted to be loved and when he finally was he hated himself too much to accept it.

And that’s the dark coda to this sad story. I ask him about his work, and he predictably complains about it (now he has too much work, whereas a year ago he was constantly obsessing about being fired for too little; it’s always something). And then he says “But it keeps me going; I’d probably have no reason to get out of bed in the morning if I didn’t have it.” The sort of glimpse of desolation that he tosses out where part of him so wants someone to ask more, to care more, to reach out and feel that desperate pain even though I know that if I tried he’d lash out and pull away.

Yet it feels like a Ghost of Christmas Future, pointing me towards my own grave. The walking dead, a sad, lonely, self-loathing person who hurts so very much but pushes away those who try to reach past, barely living only for work, the one place one can truly feel useful, valued, and productive.

I don’t want to feel like that. I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to end like that. But it’s in my blood. I’ve been running from it for so many years, and yet I’m still staring it right in the face. And one day, an ever-smaller number of years from now, I can so vividly see myself traded places with him, glumly bewildered at how it happened just as I always feared it would.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Feelings Work #1

[I'm going to try something I suggested to a client to prompt better exploration of affect: starting entries "with I feel <feeling word> word." I've been trying to write otherwise, and I just keep getting lost in my thoughts, so maybe this will provide a bit more focus or at least a decent drive to finish a post.]

I feel sad. I feel sad because I'm alone. I don't want to be alone. But there aren't really that many people I'd want to be with anyway. That's a polite way of saying there's no one in my life I want to be with, which is true and it isn't.

It's not true because I also feel really anxious. I feel anxious all the time. It's not always obvious (I hide my feelings well), but I'm worried most of the time. Usually, it centers around all the things I'm not doing. I haven't got my classes planned, I'm not doing x for y person, I've done z to q person and I feel guilty about not properly atoning for it etc. And the worst offender: my predissertation and dissertation aren't done and I'm behind schedule and if I don't finish them when I have the chance I won't get out of Knoxville in time and I'll wither away here and disappoint everyone who knows me because I'm so mediocre and far behind and I won't ever actually get out of this PhD program or this goddamn city and I won't ever form a meaningful relationship with another woman because I can't seem to find anyone I really fit with here and, basically, I am a failure and a disappointment who is destined to be unloved and alone.

Did you catch all that? Kinda spiraled out of control pretty fast, didn't it?

I carry that around most all of the time I'm not working on something else. It's why breaks tend to be so depressing/anxiety provoking: all I do is think about all I'm not doing and then I try to avoid all of the negative feelings that come from all the anxiety of not doing things which makes me get even less done which makes me more anxious about not doing things which, well, etc.

And the worst consequence of not getting something done is disappointing people. I am terrified of disappointing and hurting people. It's one of the reasons I hate gifts and Christmas: I am so terrified I will do something wrong or disappointing with gifts that I'd just prefer not to have anything to do with any of it. I absolutely hate receiving gifts because that puts pressure on me to give gifts which makes me even more anxious about disappointing someone.

It's one of the reasons I don't like to touch people. I'm afraid of doing something wrong and disappointing them or making them uncomfortable or hurting them. It's one of the biggest reasons I don't get close to people: I'm terrified of disappointing them. I push them away so I can't disappoint them. And it's exhausting and it's isolating and it's saddening, but it's so.much.better. than failing them.

Of failing you. Because if I fail you or disappoint you or do something wrong, you'll leave me. Or you won't tell me and you'll resent me for it. Or you'll remember it and hold it over my head and I'll never be able to atone or redeem myself and it will forever be a blight upon me.

I would rather be alone than deal with the incessant prospect of failing you.

That's not the only reason, of course. I'm afraid of you failing me, too. I'm afraid of you not understanding me, not protecting me, not supporting me, not knowing what I need. I'm afraid that you'll let me fade away because I'm not really that important to you. Just like I don't let you be that important to me, so that when I fail you and you leave it won't tear me apart like it does when those I've cared about left.

I'm sad that I'm alone, but it's better than the alternative. I'm terrified of disappointing you, so I don't let you get close enough to need or depend upon me or expect anything from me. And I'm afraid that the only way I know to break out of this cycle is to find one person who loves me so I can't disappoint her because she values some essential part of me, loves *me* and no matter what she'll keep loving me and I'll keep loving her (and because I love her and provide value to her, it constantly atones for all the ways I'll fail her). And what's scary about that is that everyone I've loved like that has left me anyway and it was never because I disappointed them, but because I was unhappy or distant or "too good."

So I know that means that I need to like myself and not be unhappy and be somewhat selfish and take risks by letting others get close. But I can't seem to make that happen because I'm so scared all the time of how I'm going to disappoint and hurt others. And I just don't know how to stop it. I don't know how to break one part of the cycle so the other parts fall into place.

So I feel sad. And anxious. And afraid. And all of these things are so much worse for the fact that I don't know if or when they'll ever be anything different.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

What is "Good Enough?"

I tell this story a lot, but it's funny and pertinent enough to repeat:

My therapist once told me I was a perfectionist.
I told her, "I can't be a perfectionist: I never do anything well enough."
And then, two seconds later, "... Oh."

I'd never really considered myself a perfectionist. To me, a perfectionist was one of those people I admired so much who would spend hours and hours over the course of days on their assignments, fine tuning and working to ensure everything was "just so." That was doing something well. What I always do is wait until almost literally the last possible moment in which something can be accomplished and then coast on my adroit writing skills to create something passable right before the buzzer. That was almost the opposite of what I thought a perfectionist would do.

I've written before about the ways I believe perfectionism and procrastination are often related. I won't rehash that here. But that perfectionist value system is not simply the source of my procrastination; it's a core aspect of my depression/anxiety and self-hatred too.

Specifically, this comes from the value system of perfectionism: Doing something "well" is standard. Doing something "best" is positive. Everything else is simply not enough.

You can see it two posts ago. In that post, I essentially assert that I feel as if I was born with negative value (as in, it would be better for everyone if I did not exist). Adding value to the world was the only way for me to even justify my existence. Presumably, being "the best" or doing something "perfectly" was/is the only way for me to be genuinely worth something. Which, of course, is impossible.

However, what that post and the self-hatred post did was to increase insight about and debunk negative feelings. Neither suggested reasonable alternatives.

Of course, that's the goal of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. As demonstrated in the above posts, I can totally get behind undermining negative attributions. Where CBT falls flat for me is in the counter assertions: "I have value." "I am worthy of being loved." "I am good." I just don't know where the proof for those things are, outside of wishful thinking. Thus it's no surprise that I stopped at "existence is value neutral." It's a disavowal of the negative without an affirmation of the positive.

But "value neutral" isn't sufficient for resilience or affirmation. The base question still needs to be answered: "What is good enough?"

It needs an answer, because perfectionism has an answer. Even if you're charitable with yourself, "good enough" is "doing everything well." Perhaps not perfection or superiority, but no egregious mistakes or mediocre performances either. And that's great, if you never make mistakes. But if you're a human like me (and there's a pretty good chance you are!), never making mistakes is not a valid long term strategy.

In fact, it's a terrible one. I can feel good on days when I feel like something (clients and/or teaching) has gone well. But when they don't? Or, God forbid, when I make a mistake? It's a suicidal spiral, filled with alienation, failure, and hopelessness with nothing but a lifetime of the same to look forward to.

I had no counterargument. I had nothing to say. And I need one. When I start to self-destruct, I need to be able to tell myself "You are doing enough. You are not perfect, but you're enough." In order to do that, I need to figure out what the hell "enough" means.

If perfection's not the answer, then what is? What's the counter proposition? What is "good enough?" Not necessarily happiness, but a base level of satisfaction and fulfillment, a state of being where, when met, you can say "If I do no more, no differently, that will be OK." What does it look like? What does it feel like? How do you sustain it? But, most importantly, for you, for yourself, what is "good enough?"

I've been chewing on one possible answer I'll hopefully post in a bit. But, for now, I think it's important to frame the question. And, hopefully, hear some of your answers to it too.