I usually start with some pivotal moment and work outward from there. Leaving my religion. Getting on antidepressants. Starting therapy. My partner coming out as trans. Starting therapy again. It doesn’t really matter; the story of my mental illness and the story of my life are the same story.
So let’s start in Indiana, on the worst day of my life—the day before my first of a dozen interviews for faculty positions at all the top universities. I had no intention of taking an offer from Purdue; it was a practice run. So why was I so panicked that not even sleeping pills could help me rest? I was hot shit on the market that year. This was supposed to be a slam dunk, but I was imploding.
My clearest memory from that day was me, standing out in the snow, waiting for my partner to pick up the phone. I vividly recalled time spent watching my infant daughter: there but not really there, work and worries forever stealing my attention. I knew what it would look like if I stayed on that path. I said the words “I don’t want this” into the phone, and cancelled the rest of my interviews.
Exactly five years later, I did it again, stepping down from a leadership role, for the exact same reason. I had tried a lot of things, but something was still wrong.
As a branch of medicine, psychiatry starts with symptoms, diagnostics, and disorders. I had some mix of Generalized and Social Anxiety Disorders, with occasional depressive episodes. My primary emotion was dread: a floating sense that something, somewhere, was wrong and it was all going to fall apart. The “generalized” part meant that the dread would latch on to whatever I could rationalize it with. If I don’t make this deadline, my career will fail. Any day now they’ll see I’m a fraud and I’ll be fired. At some level I knew these worries were overblown, but I couldn’t seem to put them aside. No matter where I was, there was always a tension, a nagging feeling that it would be dangerous to fully relax into the moment.
For those five years I tackled my disorders head-on. If something promised to reduce anxiety, I did it. Yoga; two hour walks; jogging; meditation; dropping caffeine; cutting out sugar; probiotics; sleep tests; a slew of acronyms like SSRIs, CBT, THC, CBD, and more. All of these helped, for a while—and sometimes they helped a lot. I remember Christmas a couple of years ago, when my antidepressant kicked in, and I felt that tension truly lift, for the first time in many years. But somehow it always snuck back in.
I was searching for that one weird trick that would suddenly cure me. But healing is messy and non-linear, and it doesn’t happen overnight.
In the months following my second implosion, I came to think about mental health differently. Rather than focusing on symptoms, I focused on areas of rigidity. What are the things I won’t let myself see or think or feel? What kinds of compulsive behaviors does that lead to? What assumptions do I habitually make, and how do they affect my life? My therapist encouraged me to see psychological flexibility as a measure of mental health.
Here’s the rub: these areas of rigidity are pesky fuckers, invisible at first, so reinforced into habit that you’re barely aware of them.
When I go into someplace like a coffee shop, I often feel like I’m imposing on everyone there. I am hyper-aware of the people around me. Where does the line end? Am I going to the right place? Is someone going to get frustrated that I didn’t move at the right time? Oh shit, the person in front of me didn’t see that it’s their turn, should I do something? OK, it’s my turn, I need to appear friendly but make clear that I want the minimum amount of interaction. Where am I supposed to wait?
These thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are so automatic that I barely register them. But I am nevertheless ruled by them. They steal my attention and energy. They inject anxiety. And they push me toward avoidance and denial, to the point that I could find myself preferring an uncomfortable bladder (“I don’t have to pee that bad”) to the discomfort of asking someone where the bathroom is, without even realizing it. And the list of my rigid habits is long and growing, as I build the skills to discover them. I started to wake up only when I realized that I saw my life as one big to-do list, an unending gauntlet of obligations in which I had less and less agency over time. I was very ill.
My deepest area of rigidity, the habit that most shaped my life? Success. In particular: achieving whatever the authority figures around me seemed to want, even if they didn’t articulate it themselves.
Rigidity is often born from survival. Maybe you survived an environment where your needs weren’t being met; you found your way to the best substitutes you could. Maybe you survived an acute trauma, like a threat to your physical being. Maybe the trauma was repeated, like being hit or yelled at as a child. Whatever the origin, your mind and your body worked overtime to protect you, pushing you into patterns, aversions, and strong feelings that guided your behavior toward survival. That survival often meant avoiding the full feeling of what you were surviving.
In other words, the habits are hard to see, but their origin is even harder: it’s the very thing that your mind is trying to protect you from experiencing.
A book that’s been very important for me, The Drama of the Gifted Child, portrays a common story, one that I share, and how it shows up in therapy:
In the very first interview they will let the listener know that they have had understanding parents, or at least one such, and if they ever lacked understanding, they felt that the fault lay with them and with their inability to express themselves appropriately. They recount their earliest memories without any sympathy for the child they once were, and this is the more striking since these patients not only have a pronounced introspective ability, but are also able to empathize well with other people. . . In general, there is a complete absence of real emotional understanding or serious appreciation of their own childhood vicissitudes, and no conception of their true needs—beyond the need for achievement.
The portrait ends with a haunting line:
The internalization of the original drama has been so complete that the illusion of a good childhood can be maintained.
It took me thirty-three years and a lot of self-compassion and curiosity to uncover the truth of my own childhood, which I always saw as safe, comfortable, supported, and loving. Even now, as I write these words, I feel the pull to make excuses, to second-guess myself, to say “it wasn’t so bad”. The adults in my life were doing the best they could, and I didn’t know how to tell them what I needed. They only hit me when I was little, and it was just spanking, not beating. It never occurred to me that the reason the violence stopped was that I had figured out what I needed to do to survive, that I had learned how to please my parents, to hide the parts of myself that would get me in trouble.
I learned an even deeper lesson. Love for myself as I was—all of my humanity, all of my inner experience—was not available to me. But there was a substitute: attention and praise for what I could achieve, which started very young. I was given an IQ test in first grade, and enrolled in a gifted program that bused kids from all over the county into a special classroom once a week. I was told I was different, that I had special worth that separated me from my peers, because certain intellectual activities came easily to me. This message was repeated over and over throughout my life, all the way to the brink of becoming a professor. And because I was singled out, pulled away from my childhood into more “worthwhile” activities, I missed out on a lot of basic skills that didn’t come so easily to me.
The story almost tells itself from here. Humans have a need to be seen and loved as they are. I was lost in a wilderness that couldn’t meet those needs, not in a healthy way. I sampled the nuts and berries I could find, and some made me sick (getting yelled at or spanked). Through trial and error, I discovered what would keep me alive, even if ultimately malnourished. By the time I left the wilderness of my childhood, I was so habituated to the survival skills that I developed that I didn’t realize it was possible to live any other way.
For me, success was never a matter of ambition; it was a means of survival. It was the only way I knew how to be in the world, and I got really fucking good at it. But achievement is not a well-balanced diet. Like junk food, it just leaves you wanting more. And let me tell you, society is more than happy to present an unending ladder of success.
I’ve been explicitly working on my mental health for more than five years, but I feel like it’s only in these last months that I’ve really started to heal. That healing has come from going beyond mindful awareness of my thoughts and habits to uncovering and making sense of their origins. Of course I’m an anxious wreck! I’ve been throwing all of my energy into what I learned, very young, was the “best” way to meet my needs—into things that could never fully meet my needs. By surveying my life—by facing my childhood for what it was, by mourning for the lost years, by letting myself feel the terrible isolation and abandonment and longing for love I experienced in my childhood, by raging at my parents and their inability to meet or even comprehend my basic need to be seen and loved regardless of what I did—I have begun to loosen the rigidity, to let go of the need for success, to open myself to new experiences, to fail, to discover my self, and to be seen and loved for it.
I started down this road with four words: “I don’t want this”. But I’m finding my way with another four:
I am a survivor.