Revisit, redress, restart, or: being complete within oneself.

Lately, I’ve been revisiting places that are connected with a lot of past pain. My intention wasn’t to test myself, although that was a happy side-effect, given the positive outcome. They’re just good places to go hiking, to have coffee and a piece of cake, or a burger and a beer, or a Glühwein–’tis, after all, the season. The pain is, predictably and in the most banal of ways, connected to a certain person of the male persuasion–but this is not about that story, which I’ve written elsewhere. This post is about the places. And the joy. And the ability to exist within yourself, with company or without.

It’s also about that most elusive of human goals: contentedness.

So, let me make myself comfortable, light a scented candle, and tell you all about it.

I went through a rough time last year. I’m not complaining – I’m rather lucky, after all. I had a great support system: a husband who loves me to pieces (although his high-functioning autism makes life hard sometimes), children who are a joy (although their anxiety or hyperactivity is often burdening), parents who accept me unconditionally, and friends who were there when I needed to talk. And, boy did I talk. You’ve heard of Dimitra. Several times. She’s the guest star of my life, really. She was always there when I needed her. What more could I want?

The answer is, time to myself, with myself, for myself. That’s what my therapist stressed, time and time again: you have to feel comfortable within yourself. You have to value yourself. You have to, yes, even love yourself.

“You have to travel alone,” Dimitra said. She was more right than she thought. Get to know yourself. It’s time well spent.

I genuinely love people. I have many friends, and they’re all special in their own way. It’s such a joy to be with them, share experiences, food, stories, walks, thoughts. But you need a good relationship with yourself to begin with, otherwise your self-criticism, self-loathing, self-deprecation, whatever it is that makes you less than infatuated with yourself, poisons all relationships with those around you. I’ve seen it happen. It happened to me.

When I took my therapist’s – and Dimitra’s – advice to spend time alone, something changed. First of all, I had some peace and quiet. Then, I realized I wasn’t bored at all. I could always find something to occupy myself with, be it books, writing, coloring, drawing, walking, swimming, or just plain lying around and enjoying some well-earned rest. And, finally, I realized that all my rejection sensitivity that makes me dread interactions with others is a reflection of how I see myself. So, I had to change my view of me. to look at myself in the mirror and be able to say, honestly and with conviction, “you’re absolutely fine the way you are.”

This is not selfishness. It’s basic common sense. We might think the expectations we have of ourselves are not the same as those we have of others, but that’s not entirely true. Expectations morph our understanding of the world. If you dislike, loathe, or disparage yourself, it shines through. And we all project, to a certain extent. Our relationship with ourselves dictates how we interact with others. If I hate my body, for example, I feel uncomfortable when eating, or when swimming. How can I fully enjoy myself and engage with my friends, then, at the restaurant or at the lake?

My friend Chet wrote this brilliant piece about joy. Joy by seeing your reflection in someone else’s eyes – that’s poetry! But, if I’m honest, this never expressed me, even in my days of self-loathing. The reason is clear: I never liked my reflection either.

These days, my joy comes from the inside. It comes from serenity. It comes from lying on wet leaves in the forest, alone and out of breath because I’m not fit enough to hike uphill, and looking at the sky through the foliage, and being at peace within my mind, because I accept. I accept I’m chubby and have no stamina, and that my body can’t cope with relatively simple things, and so I have to just lie there and enjoy the sky.

Joy also comes from sitting in a cafe with my friends and listening to their chatter, all the while feeling like I belong there, no matter if I have something to contribute to the conversation or not, because I am, finally, okay with myself. See, you can’t really have peace if you don’t make peace with all the parts of you that whisper to you how unlovable you are, or how objectionable your behaviour is, or how brash you are, and how not okay this all is.

Okay, maybe your parts don’t whisper that. In that case, you’re lucky. But mine did. The good news is: not anymore.

Revisiting places that are connected with pain doesn’t hurt me at all. Even when the pain was fresh and the wounds raw, the places didn’t hold any of the hurt. How could this be?

I think it’s because, somewhere within all that drama I put myself through last year, I learned to enjoy things with an eye turned inwards and a mind to savor all the joy in my environment. Today, I put this theory to the test: I returned to a place that is a landmark of last year’s pain.

The place is a small lake, and the last time I found myself in its vicinity was in January. To be precise, it was Saturday, January 16, and I went for a hike around it. It was frozen. The sun was shining. The landscape was an unbroken, otherworldly white, the air was frigid, the sun sinking between the trees holding an eerie quality in the silence. I walked and tried to reach that place within myself where whispers of you’ll be all right become true and convincing. But on that day, I wasn’t all right. Still, I learned something: I enjoy hiking alone. I enjoy it a lot. I could envision a day, after all the pain had dissipated, when I’d hike alone and I would be abolutely and unequivocally all right.

That day came ten months later, on the day I lay in the forest unable to hike uphill.

And what about today? Today, I didn’t hike alone. Sara and Christiane were with me, and it started snowing – big, fat, languid snowflakes – and we had a blast. We took photos. We ate and drank hot beverages. We froze while sitting there, at minus temperatures. We agreed we’d soon come back to that magical place, drink more warm drinks, eat more sweets and fries.

And what about the pain?

I’m glad to inform you, the pain has exhausted itself and left me to prowl for other victims. Because it never had anything to do with the place. Because I can and will be steadfast within myself, wherever I am, whoever I am with. Places can’t impose feelings on me.

Here, look at us three, enjoying ourselves in the cold!

About (my) privilege

I can’t watch anything on TV – concentration isn’t there.

Books. How about books? I said I’d spend the kids’ holidays reading. But today, my thoughts keep drifting.

Okay. Take a walk? But it’s stormy outside.

I could try yoga, but yesterday’s attempt didn’t work out. I can barely climb the stairs today. Something’s wrong with me.

Something’s wrong.

Was it the attempt to get off the SSRI that caused this, one of my worst bouts of depression ever? Or was it, oh, I don’t know, the fact that I’m finally strong enough to start thinking about the future, which includes my rather hopeless job situation and all the plans I’d made for a life whose best – they say – half is now over, which never came to fruition? Is it that I constantly think of my 86-year-old dad, and the fact that he dreamed of going to Bergen someday, and all the things I’ve been wanting to do someday, so that it’s been someday for the past twenty-odd years, and how these things still haven’t happened, just as my dad never got to go to Bergen, and his someday never came to be, and how – I see it, and it fills me with despair – my someday will not come to be, either?

Or is it my bad habit of comparing myself to the luckiest and most privileged people I know instead of taking a good sane look at my life and being grateful of where I am and what I have? I should be grateful, after all, given my initial conditions: I grew up in Greece. I’ve done well, all things considered, even if it’s only by getting married to someone who can give me a quasi-secure life in Germany while I keep struggling with mental health disorders for decades. In Greece, I’d be the village fool. I wouldn’t have the extensive mental health care I have here practically for free. I wouldn’t be able to go for hiking in the Alps. Now, the Alps are a short drive away, and that’s worth something.

See, what most people don’t get is that more important than any amount of work you can invest in anything is pure luck. Where you’re born, to what parents, in how educated a family, to how steady a home, in what country, with access to what schools, with what kinds of opportunity around you, which gender you have, who you happen to meet and marry (although, I should get some credit for that, because I only ever liked the safe and boring guys – those who are solid and loyal and steadfast). Sure, there are those rare cases of people who’ll pull themselves up by their shoestrings, rising from a very underprivileged position to heights nobody in their environment ever reaches. But these are memorable exactly because they’re not the norm. You can’t blame the rest for not making it – and sometimes they don’t, no matter how much they try and how much effort they put into it, because, in all we achieve, there’s a crucial factor: the random factor; in short, luck, whose importance for our achievements we all tend to underestimate.

So, why should I be bitter? I’ve been very, very lucky, even if my kids complain because the neighbours have a pool and all their friends have Playstations and Nintendo Switch and their own iPhones, and we can’t afford any of those things. We can’t really afford our house, to be honest. We’ve been overoptimistic – mostly about my employment prospects – and now we’re paying the price for that. But I’m still lucky. Many would give a lot to be in my position. Okay, no career prospects, sure, but a super-loyal and loving man, two wonderful children (yes, even with all the mental health problems), a home, even if mortgaged, and an acceptable level of health, even if it’s after a lot of bad luck and trouble. And, as much as I want to travel and see the world (which will not really happen – finances, time, you see), I still have Greece. Home. If you can’t afford holidays, how lucky is it to be able to go home to Greece and hop off to amazing tropical beaches, sparkly Aegean islands (the obscure cheap ones, every bit as stunning as the more known ones), mountains, forests, gorges, archaeological sites, medieval settlements, all that condensed wonderfulness that is my home country?

What a fail it is to compare yourself to others. What an absolute, soul-straining fail.

So, what to do now?

I’m going to try to earn some money, for starters. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to do that – either with editing/proofreading, or by finding a job. “Oh, with your skills you can definitely find a job,” all my male friends say, while the women chuckle under their breath and nod condescendingly, because it’s the truth we don’t like admitting that a woman with a family at the age of about forty has about one fourth the chances a man in the same situation has – not to find a job, but just to be called to an interview, and from there it only gets worse. With my patchy and erratic CV that includes mostly academia and multiple changes in branch and type of job, and with my non-native speaker status in Germany (I’m perfectly fluent, but have the suspicion they don’t believe me when I write it in my CV) these chances are even more diminished. A couple years ago, a recruiter – overoptimistic himself – tried to suggest me to a consulting company that hired PhD physicists, only to be told I’m too unstable (which, in a funny twist of fate, was accurate in more ways than they knew). Add to that being female, with kids, no industry job experience, and you see how much fun I’ll have as I try to enter the workforce. Stick with me for the next few months. It’s going to be soul-crushing. We’ll have a blast.

Luckily – a female friend said a while back – I’m growing out of the age when women can have children, and this will increase my chances a little. Not by much, of course, but still, it’s something.

Just think about that. Go on, stop reading and consider that statement, which – I’m not afraid to say – gave me some relief. Very well, men, tell me: how happy are you to be men? Imagine all the shit you’re going through trying to find jobs, magnified by, I don’t know. Pick a number. Chances are, whatever number you pick, you’re underestimating.

But enough about the work issue. I haven’t started searching for industry jobs (again) yet. All I’ve done is look for editing jobs (ha, those don’t come easy – and to be employed as an editor for a company or website you have to be a native speaker anyway, so that’s out of the question). I’m going to go the self-employed way for a while, because there’s nothing else to do right now. It doesn’t pay, and I don’t get social security, which stresses me quite a bit.

But I’ve made a mess out of my life anyway. In all categories, I’ve fucked it up, big time. The only thing I did right was find a man who won’t leave me, no matter what I do to him. I’m not sure he’s in his right mind, to tell you the truth. No idea why he’s still here. I’m nothing but trouble. Delightful, if I believe my friends, but still trouble.

In any case, the one thing I will certainly do is keep writing and editing. It’s pretty much the only thing that keeps me close to sane. This, and the very few people who came through for me. You know the name: Dimitra.

Funny story: today, I told Dimitra I shouldn’t compare myself to others; it causes nothing but pain. And she pointed out – tongue in cheek, I think, although it’s true – that, no matter what these people have, they don’t have her.

She’s right. I’ve never had a more loyal, self-sacrificing friend. And, you know what? She has to factor in in the evaluation of the worthiness of living my life. Family, luck, wealth, opportunities, friends. Well, on that last front, there’s no way you can do better than Dimitra.

Self-acceptance and fitting in

My therapist is adamant: in the core of all mental health progress is the concept of self-acceptance.

That’s a tricky one. Humans are fundamentally social beings. Without interaction within the species–speech develops simultaneously to complex thought–humans don’t develop to be, well, functioning humans. Today’s individualism culture tries to chip away that fundamental aspect of human existence, the inter-dependency of all people. It would have us be units, alone, while enjoying occasional interactions. But one look at societies shows this is pernicious wishful thinking: who of us can live alone in a cave without utilities, medical doctors, clothes, butchers, wheat growers? Even doomsday preppers hoard guns and cans of food–the know-how that goes into manufacturing guns and cans of food has taken millennia to establish, and the manufacturing chains, from raw materials to finished products, involve a staggering amount of experts and well-coordinated work. Wether we like it or not, we are all parts of a network, and we can’t exist outside it. And that doesn’t even get into the realities of mental health and emotional need, which make the existence in a community crucial for a person’s well-being.

Having a sense of self that’s attached to a group seems to be of fundamental importance. In many civilisations, individuals are defined by the clan, the tribe, the family. It’s a distinctly western thing to be so cut-off from the group. If you ask me, that’s good for some people. Some of us are just weirdos and don’t fit in anywhere. Our tribe stifles us, although we still benefit from its perks–high-speed internet surely being one of them. It’s just as well.

Maybe this is what my therapist means when she says, “accept yourself.” The problem with accepting myself came from my extant inability to belong in a tribe. It’s no coincidence that one of the first things she said to me was, “you’re allowed to be yourself.” I’d been trying to squeeze myself into a mould that didn’t fit me for so long that I became seriously mentally ill (okay, that wasn’t the only factor, but it surely was a factor).

I remember very well when I started feeling that I was somehow different. It was in kindergarten. As long as I was home with my parents and my brother and an aunt or nanny to take care of me, I was fine. At four years of age, though, I got to meet others of my species, and I immediately felt uncomfortable. It all went downhill from there.

So, how does someone like me survive in a highly interdependent, social, mutually-defining collection of individuals?

Therapist’s answer: “By accepting yourself. Self-acceptance should come from the inside.”

Now, I was skeptical of that at first. You can’t think you’re awesome if everyone else thinks you’re dumb. When does self-acceptance stop and delusion start? I’ve met enough delusional people in my life to know it can be a fine line. I certainly do not want to be delusional, feeling I’m a wonderful being, while others look at me and think, “ugh, that arrogant weirdo.” Because I still need to be accepted by certain people, too, for all that I don’t really belong in a tribe.

It’s a tough balance. My solution is: be picky. Instead of breaking yourself trying to fit the moulds created by different groups and communities, be yourself–like Therapist would have me be–and just accept those into your inner circle who can accept you for who you are. Also, be selfish: I don’t click with just anybody (actually, very rarely do I meet someone with whom I click), and that’s okay. I just can’t bother with parties, outings, groups of acquaintances, even with my extended family. I feel positively awkward when I’m in larger groups of people. Like the odd one out. When I try to make myself likeable to many, I mostly fail.

Now that I’m on my way to actually accepting myself, I find I need fewer people in my life. I don’t need to be validated by everyone, and this actually helps with my existing relationships. I’m also an introvert, albeit a very communicative one, and one thing’s clear: as soon as I finally started accepting myself, I started needing to be alone even more. My new motto is: if it feels better to do an activity alone, don’t be pressured by societal norms to, well, not. And these days–probably since I’ve never lived alone and the hardships of the past year have exhausted me–nearly everything feels more relaxing when I do it alone. Sitting at a restaurant: I’d rather be alone. Going to the movies: better alone.

This poses some problems. For example, I’m seriously worried I’ll alienate my few friends. But I think they’ll understand. I had a nervous breakdown complete with burnout one year ago, and I didn’t let myself heal. I took care of others instead–and yes, I know this was monumentally dumb. I’ve been running on fumes for a whole freakin year. Even small talk exhausts me now. I need to avoid a second breakdown, and if I have to retreat into myself to do it, well, this is what needs to happen.

So, friends, if you’re reading this: I love you. You’re special to me. I’ll get back to you when I have replenished some of my energy.

No, you’re not needy

“You’ve been emotionally abused,” Dimitra said to me yesterday.

I’ve been in therapy for a year. I’ve solved most of it–binge eating, body dysmorphia, trichotillomania, lack of object constancy; even my Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria has diminished greatly. But this took me by surprise. It hit me like a brick on the face. I asked her to explain.

Like victims of abuse, you have a warped view of what affection and care is like, so you’re repeating the same motives in new relationships because they are familiar to you. Your norm is to be around people like”– and here she mentioned some names of people close to me. “But you’ve come farther than that,” she concluded. She’s said it in the past: You need to be with people who value you. You’ve invested enough in others, it’s time for them to invest in you. You need people who are capable of showing love and care and affection.

If you’re a normal human, you’ll think all of this is self-evident. But for years, it wasn’t self-evident to me. I’ve learned to live with scraps of affection. I’m constantly picking people who don’t show love, at least not in the conventional way. I’ve had to learn to decipher clues. This, combined with the convictions my sick brain held for decades (“I don’t deserve it anyway,” “I’m disgusting”) is what brought me to today’s state. I’ve been emotionally starved, not only by those individuals in my live who couldn’t show love, but also by my own disorders. By my own self-hating mind.

When I broke down, nearly a year ago, Dimitra was worried sick. She and Christina–my friend who lives close to my home in Athens–coordinated to keep my mom in the loop and reassure her that I was okay, and to support Urban. This was a level of care I didn’t think I’d ever have. It took me by surprise.

“I love you,” Dimitra said to me that night, after the paramedics had given me Lorazepam and made sure my blood pressure wasn’t too high before they left. This killed me. Except my parents, nobody had told me they loved me in over a decade. Even my husband never told me he loved me–although, I suppose even I, in my RSD-addled brain, knew he did.

Someone loves you, I told myself. Your friend loves you. I held on to it for dear life. This healed me more than you know.

A few weeks ago, I was discussing with my best friend about feelings and the such, which invariably means I was throwing sentences at him and he was using the keyboard to grunt, assent, make sarcastic and witty comments, and be all-around delightful, or delightfully grumpy, in the way I know and love about him.

“See, I always thought I was too needy,” I told him. “But I’m not. You always reply to talk about feelings with sarcastic comments, and it’s perfectly fine. It wouldn’t be fine for a needy person.”

It’s true. For my best friend, any talk about my emotional world is like a metaphorical hot potato. Through years of being with those two–I’m including husband–I’ve learned to live with little to no acknowledgement of emotional needs, and even less satisfaction of said needs. Scraps. Bits and pieces. I love them to death, and they give me a lot of the things I need–a feeling of safety, intellectual stimulation, loyalty. They’re the smartest people I’ve ever met. They give good advice. I trust both of them with my life.

And I’m most certainly not needy. I don’t know if these two perceive me as such–and it’s okay if they do; their standards are their standards, and it’s fine–but the mere fact that I’m able to decipher their subtle hints that give a glimpse into their emotions and be there for them for nearly two decades proves once and for all that I. Am. Not. Needy. I’m the opposite of needy, even if I occasionally break down and shout at them. I’m human, after all, and I’ve had my own disorders to deal with. But at the end of the day, I make the effort: I take the time to decipher the hints, I perceive their affection, and I stay. And yes, I’m rewarded for it. These individuals are the uniquest of unique.

But what about affection?

This past year has surprised me in many ways. I’ve come to find there are people–actually, they might be the majority of people–who show affection, not only in that hyper-oblique way you have to think about and decipher (which is what I’ve learned to accept, and which would fly over most people’s head anyway), but in the real, showing emotion, telling you they love you way, hugging you when you cry way. I’d been stuck with the first way for years. This is what Dimitra means: I’ve had to work hard to perceive affection. I’ve had to invest a lot, my brain had to constantly work overtime to convince my subconscious that my husband or my friend actually love me.

Urban would say it’s probably my handicap–the Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, you see. He’d say I see things as more negative than they are. That I’m exaggerating. Yes, that has very often been the case. But it’s not entirely true, either. I’d even argue that the RSD, combined with the low feeling of self-worth has had the opposite effect. It made me fail to demand what I–and every human, really–deserve: affection, love, and their expression.

Dimitra says I should stick with Urban, now that the nearly two-decades-long struggle has paid off. He’s a case study, she says. The progress he’s made is astounding, developing empathy, acknowledging his shortcomings and working hard to be there in an emotional way his brain doesn’t understand. And he’s the father of my children. We’re a family. This is worth the astounding effort I’ve put into this relationship. But when it comes to others? Her opinion is clear: “It’s not worth the effort if you haven’t developed emotional shields.” You’ve invested enough.

You must have figured out by now that I don’t raise emotional shields. This has a lot of disadvantages, I grant you, but it has one great advantage: I learn. I learn about different types of humans, those who are misunderstood by their peers. I learn to recognise the subtle hints. I learn to love the atypical, the awkward, the weird. Humanity has so much to offer.

And, what’s more, I break. You might think that’s a disadvantage. It surely makes my family’s life hard. But every time I put myself back together again, there’s a breakthrough. My subconscious opens wide and is restructured. Most people’s deeper brain structure is fixed; their core beliefs, and with them the misconceptions and the sources of hurt will remain, undetected, unaltered, for ever. Not me: I open myself up to new misconceptions, new hurt, new trauma, but new discoveries, too.

Still, Dimitra is right: I need to learn how to protect myself a little more.


Available on Kindle Unlimited!

“That, my friends, is a great book.”Rebecca Hefner, author

7. All advice is good advice

<< 6. To take or not to take (the drugs) / 8. Here to stay (or: the disorder and I) >>

Whenever something like this happens (diagnosis: Acute Anxiety Disorder, brought on by prolonged intense stress), good, wonderful, caring friends rush to shower you with words of understanding, consolation, and, yes, lots and lots of advice. Most people around my age have experienced some sort of anxiety, trauma, or panic attacks—although maybe not to this extent—so they’ll try to draw from their own experience to give you pointers and try to help you through this difficult time anyway they can.

It’s a beautiful thing to be on the receiving end of so much support (and a cake! From a wonderful neighbor. Man, it was a very tasty cake!) and it’s very, and I mean very informative to listen to all the advice. And it helps to know that others have been through shit—pardon my language—and gotten to the other side, and they’re here to tell you all about it. It’s also very interesting from a sociological point of view. Because, if your friends are a mixed bag of ages, nationalities, and mental disorders, they all have different takes on your problem, and they all offer different bits of advice. Some of them have their positive or negative experiences with healthcare professionals, with different medications, the health system in their country of residence, their family or work environment—with regards to causes of stress—and many can relate to one or more aspects of your problem. One has similar issues with their children or their spouse, another one suffered from increased anxiety, yet another one dealt with unemployment or physical trauma or a diagnosis similar to yours.

Let me tell you, now, something I figured out just today: listening to all my friends’ advice is an exercise in getting to know them more intimately than any mere discussion between us would ever achieve. The advice they so freely and generously give has less to do with me, and is more a reflection of their experiences, and eventually, their character.

This is absolutely fascinating.

In order for someone to give you truly meaningful and helpful advice, they have to sometimes leave their experiences, impediments, and traumas behind, and focus on you. They have to either know you intimately, so that they can reach a conclusion on what will be good for you—irrelevantly of whether it would be good for them in a similar situation—or, like a healthcare professional, look at you with a scientist’s cold and calculating gaze, as a puzzle to solve, provided they have as much information as possible.

The thing is, none of us can be impartial, especially if we feel strongly about something—which invariably happens when issues of such emotional weight are discussed. This is not criticism, or a condemnation: I couldn’t be an impartial judge of another person’s mental condition, and I don’t think many people can. I still give my advice to my friends, and I expect them to give me their advice—for which I am truly thankful. Advice is, after all, useful: sometimes it just happens to help because your personality is similar to the advice offering person’s personality, it always gives you a different perspective on things—which is a necessary thing, you can’t go through life with only one perspective—or sometimes people are really able to step out of themselves for a minute and truly think about you as a separate entity with completely different feelings.

People are fascinating. Did I say that? My friends are fascinating. I profit from the interactions with them every single day.

And then, of course, there’s Guardian Angel Dimitra: Dimitra is truly able to see me, me, not a projection of herself on me. Or maybe she and I are so similar that the projection is the same as an impartial view of me and my troubles. I don’t know which of the two is true. I do know that, today, my doctor—who’s actually awesome, I take back everything I said about her caution while prescribing anti-anxiety medication—gave me antidepressants to help get me through the next few weeks until we find a more permanent solution to the problem.

Dimitra has been talking to me about antidepressants for more than a week. Since before the breakdown. She fuckin’ knew.

Man, this woman’s potential is wasted. I’m telling you, she could start a cult, and she’d actually make people better.