For about a year, I’ve had my anxiety under control. For a brief moment sophomore year I was on medication for it, but I stopped after realizing the medications weren’t really doing anything. I had to, at the moment, find an alternative way of fixing my crippling anxiety attacks, bouts of mental turmoil which I could sense coming like a storm. I cannot describe my anxiety attacks, and I’ve spent a long time trying to write my feelings into existence, only to realize that human language can only do so much to describe the nebulous, undefined spaces of our minds. After a tumultuous sophomore year, I spent the summer tending to my developing stomach issues, seizing in silence about my life and all of my decisions. Junior year was remarkably quiet – for half of it, I was at school, although I knew that my mind was really elsewhere. I was biding time, waiting to go abroad. I found it increasingly difficult to be present at Swarthmore, and when I was abroad, I found it just as difficult to be present in Senegal. I have described my abroad anxiety as a constant noise in the background, something I could tune out most of the time. It seemed to have solidified into a general malaise that my mind channeled through my GI tract. Now, I’m in North Carolina, working on a research project, and my anxiety is slowly mounting again.
I was talking to a friend that I made in the program about my conduct and my behavior and I expressed to her that I feel as if my anxieties are related to the ways that I orient my life around the acquisition of certain goals. I’ve been somewhat aware of this since high school, when my English professor would call me a “grade monger” almost as an insult, and I would smile, because I didn’t understand how “grademongering” could be seen as a negative characteristic. I have found great satisfaction in being a high-achieving student; I have very few other metrics other than my academic accomplishments to determine my self-worth, a horrible reality I am still in the process of correcting. I find that my mood is greatly impacted by my grades and the responses I get on my papers. When my comments in class receive minimal acknowledgement, I become insular, I cut myself down, and say “You are no longer allowed to speak because you were wrong.” A destructive desire to please others, for I have never been taught to determine my own value, mixes disastrously with an unhealthy sense of perfectionism and a dangerously disparate self-perception; my mind is a persistent calamity of self-affirmation and self-deprecation.
Every few years or so, I go through a “soul audit.” I, after having a terrible anxiety attack, sit down and figure out what about my personality is constantly triggering these attacks, and set about addressing the issue in order to spare myself further pain. It is an agonizing process and the wound is always ugly and raw, a scar of change. I must retrain myself whenever I locate the cancerous part of my personality, reorienting my character around whatever new trait I have shoddily inserted into myself. Stealing the personality traits of the people who inspire me with envy, I perform astral surgery on myself in the hopes that this time I’ll finally be better. Of course it never works – my body always rejects the new organ, I always revert back to who I originally was – or the person I have been methodically, deleteriously taught to be. At this point, I am not sure whether or not I should accept this as who I am and fix myself within the fearful school of thought which dictates that human beings cannot change. In my heart, I don’t believe this is true, because to do so would mean that there isn’t any hope for any of us, at least not now. We are not at a place in our society where we can love each other as we are, for too many of us must shape our lives in order to be loved by others, because we are afraid that in our nature we are innately unlovable.
Beyond “grademongering,” I find that my interactions with my friends follows a similar framework. I pay too much attention to things like body language, eye contact and the absences of action when I interact with people. I view things like laughing at jokes or asking me to hang out as currency, and therefore when a joke goes un-applauded or when I am excluded from social interactions, I become introspective and self-deprecating. I desire affirmation in social interactions in order to determine whether or not I am doing this thing – being human – correctly. As stupid as that may seem, as many times as I’ve told other people that there is no right way to be a person, it is a platitude I cannot fit into my personality. I yearn to be accepted and look towards social interactions, like research fellowships and publications, as a way of determining whether or not I am inherently good enough.
My personal work is affected by this dynamic in a way which truly frightens me. When I write creatively, I am writing for myself on the basest level. What few people read this blog affirm me with their readership and their kind comments to me in private, but this blog exists for me. Yet, the desire to make it popular frightens me, because I have never succeeded at things like this for reasons which escape me. In my mind, I am not sure I am good enough to become a famous essayist. I have such little confidence in my own ability in a vacuum that I often contemplate whether or not it’s worth it to get my hopes up about writing for HuffPost or the Grio when it seems like people have very little interest in what I have to say. I find myself speaking loudly into an empty room, and find myself in deep episodes of self-loathing about my self-righteous sense of importance and my unfounded right to public space.
My fiction writing occupies another realm of apprehension – unintelligibility. My first novella was met with good reviews from my family, and while I appreciated their affirmation, I found the fact that none of my friends had read it deeply hurtful. I did not speak on it, because it is not the job of my friends to buy all of my work and consume and love it, for I haven’t even been that supportive a friend, but I still found the fact that I had self-published and self-publicized my work only to receive silence from the people who with me shared the immense burden of my emotions detrimental to my perception of myself as a writer. In reviewing my next work, unpublished, I skipped steps and sent them copies to receive their comments. While my English professor remarked that my work was impressive and with a bit of restructuring, could be publishable, my friends’ comments seemed far more biting and vicious in a way which I found discouraging. One friend remarked that the narrator was whiney, privileged and impossible to sympathize with, a comment which I understood as an attack on my own personality, since the narrator was but a veiled persona. It was, however, a part of my personality that friend had only tangentially seen, the deeper, sadder inner workings of my mind I rarely exposed within that friend group. Another friend, a mentor of sorts, alluded at a sense of pretentiousness in the story which made it difficult to digest, and while I did sort of up the ante in crafting the narrator as a spoiled, pompous and self-aggrandizing individual, I found that his comments meant that the message I was trying to send about the issue of internalizing and negotiating your suffering was belittled by the way I was sending the message. Both of these critiques were valid, but they stung. I am still getting used to getting criticism, and I did not pick these friends because I knew that they would give me unchecked affirmation, but I found myself not knowing where to go with the narrative, which was really composed of all of my emotions put down on a page. My friends found it difficult to interact with the emotional landscape of my mind, which meant that their interests in me as a friend was scripted to only a certain part of my personality. I know it’s not healthy to project so much of my self-worth into my work, but considering that most of my work is in a way confessional, it is impossible for me, as writer, to negotiate the space between narrator and author.
Yet, I was afraid that my emotions would be impossible to decipher for other people, that the things people were reading did not make sense when one considered the way I presented myself as a person. A façade I’ve constructed to interact with the world around me, this form of self-representation was born out of a conflict between the person I am and the person I want the world to see me as, the latter being an artifice I at the end of the day can neither determine nor police. At the same time, I am afraid to speak to my friends about writing – or about the inner thoughts which become, through language, my writing – because I find in analyzing their actions and body language that they don’t seem to care. I am so afraid of rejection that I have resorted to making more and more of myself private in order to continue these surface and harmful relationships. And it is easy to say “stop being friends with these people,” but it’s literally all of my friends, both from home and at school. To stop being friends with all of my friends, to float in space, untethered to another human being, for me, is to do the unthinkable.
I want to write books and essays for myself, but I have to untrain myself in a way which allows me to find inherent satisfaction in my work. This is fine and nice, I guess, but I also exist in a society which requires me to live on some kind of income. Considering that I apply the same level of scrutiny to my academic writing as I do my personal writing, the concept of being an academic and writing for a profession fills me with dread.
This background noise is beginning to take a firm grip of my life in the form of a desire to hide. I crave privacy because I do not have to deal with other people’s judgment and misinterpretations of my actions and my personalities. I do not have to replay my interactions with other people because no such interactions exist. Whatever I produce is to my standards, and I am forced to develop a tool kit for measuring out my own self-worth, detached from the rulers and calipers of others. I have spent so much time pushing myself into the spotlight in order to have my existence, my right to occupy space, validated that now I am beginning to question whether or not I have such a right. What makes me special enough to write fiction, to write essays for this blog, to respond to questions in class, to be anything other than just a face in a crowd? What makes my existence important, other than that which defines everyone else?
This summer, I am on the verge of another one of these terrible “audits,” but I think I may be onto something big. My obsession with success, as vague and unclear a concept as it is, is perhaps the reason I find my life so unsatisfying and my interactions with other people so puzzling. I am a sensitive person, and I am also a perfectionist, a calamitous combination which makes nearly all social interactions agonizing. I cannot force myself into a dark crevice, into a small existence of private personhood, because part of me, the public side, the side of myself which thinks that there is something waiting for me in that spotlight, despite the foul whispers which populate my mind, drawing on the timbers of the familiar, which attempt to keep me sequestered in obscurity, says that is not, cannot, be my destiny. The public self, desperately seeking affirmation of others, and the private self, searching for similarity in others, must learn to cohabit somehow.