Demolish The Boulder

Tonight, I fed the guinea pigs. Real cuties, those two are. They squeaked and squeaked until I had to get the salad from the fridge, sit down on the floor and hold leaves for them to munch on.

Most importantly: I was right there, in the moment. Watching them attack the salad, listening to their adorable chewing sounds – chomp, chomp, – laughing like a little child at the petting zoo.

I was there because space has opened up in my head. I can finally exist in the moment. Because the thing that kept me from living my life is gone.

The thing was there for over a year. Like a viscous liquid you constantly have to wade through, or a boulder you need to constantly carry on your back. Talk with your kids? First set down The Boulder. Go for a walk? You have to haul The Boulder along. Try to escape it, and it rolls along behind you, trying to crush you. You can’t get away. It takes effort and stamina to always, always push through a mental block in order to do literally anything. But that was The Boulder: a sink of effort, energy, emotion. And all the while, nobody can see where your exhaustion comes from. They don’t feel your brain working in overdrive trying to manage life with an invisible burden you lug around, day and night.

Today, for the first time in over a year, I didn’t debate making coffee. I kid you not, I’ve constantly had to convince myself it’s worth the effort to grind the coffee beans, clean the coffee machine sieve, fill it with coffee grounds, press the button. But today, I thought to myself, “oh, that’s actually not much work,” and I did it. Just like that. You can’t imagine how proud I was of myself. Not for the coffee itself. But because for the first time I realised The Boulder weighing me down is truly and utterly gone. Festering limb severed. Healing progressing nicely. I finally have the energy to deal with my everyday life, including the little or big crises that inevitably come with children. And I have the emotional and mental stamina to make a damned coffee.

What the hell is The Boulder, you’re wondering. It doesn’t matter: it was just another obsession. A difficult problem. An emotional drain, a fixation that outlived its usefulness.

When I look back now, I realise there’s always been an obsessive thing in my life. Maybe not as prevalent or oppressive as The Boulder, maybe not as acute, painful, all-consuming, but always there, in the background, draining mental resources, forcing me to multitask to execute the simplest of tasks, because the thing was always there, a process running parallelly in the background. Every other thought was on top of the default baseline of worry and mental wear that the thing induced. Now, after the final break from careers, expectations, conventions, traumas, disappointments, and after a spectacularly successful course of therapy, I can finally be. The background is fading. No all-consuming parallel process running silently inside my skull. The mental space that’s opened up is huge. Is this the capacity, the emotional and mental energy normal people have? People whose brain is not working against their reserves of patience, energy, endurance?

I don’t know how I’m going to put this newly discovered capacity to use, but for now I’m just enjoying not being mentally and emotionally exhausted all the time. I’m enjoying being able to concentrate on one thing at a time instead of constantly having to juggle two. For the first time in my life, I can enjoy things for what they are. Because I demolished The Boulder.

See, freedom ultimately comes from the inside.

Going off the meds

It’s finally time.

Burnout, breakdowns, a year of crying and therapy. Three fourths of my family is in therapy right now. My husband is in the process of (possibly) getting an autism diagnosis. My daughter is learning to cope with stress – and with mentally ill parents. And, last but not least, the person who holds this whole thing together: my humble self. I’m in the process of accepting myself as a valid human being (the jury’s still out on that).

That’s no small feat. I’m not going to go into the details now, but feeling like an alien has been my norm. I haven’t had a “normal” childhood or a “normal” youth (what is that, anyway?), I haven’t had “normal” relationships with friends and family (again, what’s normal in that case?), I haven’t had a “normal” career path, and I haven’t had a “normal” – or sane – relationship with myself.

One year minus two weeks ago, I started taking a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, an antidepressant whose purpose was (in my case) to treat chronic stress. It worked like a charm. I was able to go to therapy and solve the problems that had been plaguing me for twenty years – or a lifetime, depending on how you look at it. I was never at peace, after all. Nine-year-old me wasn’t at peace. Even four-year-old me was starting to feel something was off.

This year, thirty-nine-year-old me has a chance to be at peace. Therapy, drugs, the help of a loving family and wonderful friends and encouraging readers, and things are slowly getting where they should be. I can’t break free of the idea that I’ve just lost so much, but there’s nothing to it now but to make the best out of the second half of my life. At least I won’t have a mid-life crisis – one of the consequences of doing things “the wrong way round.”

This time, I’m taking things one at a time. Okay, I’m not an independent adult, and I’ve never been. I can’t solve that right now. I still have a phobia or two. I can’t solve that either. But I’ve solved so much, so I can focus on one thing at a time. And that thing is now: be off the meds without suffering from debilitating anxiety. This means I’m going to take some weeks “off” – i.e. I’m going to treat myself as well as I can while doing the basics to take care of my family. I’m going to do my best not to feel guilty that Urban is working and has to do laundry and other housework. I’m going to sit and colour with my favourite felt-tip markers because this is something that soothes me. I’m going to read fiction and non-fiction. I’m going to give myself all the time in the world. I’m going to do yoga and learn a language while training myself not to feel guilty when I’m not progressing with my hobbies as much as I’d like to. I’m going to write, maybe. I’m going to market my book, but only when I feel like it. I’m going to make stress dissolve but tackling that overwhelming guilt that has been accompanying whatever I do or not do for as far as I can remember.

Some months ago, I halved the SSRI dose. Then I halved that. When I took the last quarter-pill, last Sunday, I was only taking that every second day. A single subtle sign of anxiety has returned during the past week or so – the persistent tinnitus in my left ear – but this time I’m determined to be as calm as possible. Let’s hope I can make this work.


If Jane Austen wrote erotica, this is how she would have written.”

John and Stella have lived, loved, and been hurt. But now they’ve found each other: a middle-aged couple who know what they want, they start exploring kink after decades of self-repression. But their relationship is tried by strong external forces – and by John’s tendency to always, always have his way.

And if I can’t, I have my doctors and my therapist, and science happily has given me a way to deal with all this.


16. Reassessing two decades

<< 15. Don’t be a superhero / 17. Confirmation, contradiction, confusion >>

Things have changed. Not just the little things my doctor expected, like less stress, more calmness, better interactions and fewer fights in our family. Yes, these aspects of life are improving, but they’re not what I want to talk about today. The more surprising changes are the ones I didn’t expect, the big ones, the ones regarding those ever-present problems in life I thought were solid parts of me and my mental state.

Turns out, my brain has been tricking me for the past two and a half decades.

They told me the SSRI would take about three weeks to reach its full effect, and they were absolutely right. First of all, it took three weeks for the tinnitus to stop. Now the buzzing’s completely gone. And one or two of the chronic high-pitched components are gone, too. If this isn’t an advertisement for this drug, I don’t know what is.

On Thursday, I went to my psychologist with a list of all the changes I’ve noticed after these first three weeks. If I’m honest, their magnitude has shocked me. It’s not because I didn’t know that I was troubled, but rather because I hadn’t realized just how much and for how long. Trying to think back to the last time I was in my current state of mental calmness brought me back to my early childhood, and that’s certainly a shocking statement.

Just think about it: we’re talking about a whole lifetime of anxiety. Which is one thing, sure; but the most painful aspect of this is that I had no fuckin clue. I didn’t know this wasn’t normal—if anything in life can be said to be normal or abnormal—I had no idea I was living in a constant mist of anxiety which intruded into and corroded every joint holding the parts of my being together.

At my psychologist’s office, I took out my list and started enumerating all the changes I’m noticing.

“I can fall asleep,” I told her.

“Couldn’t you fall asleep before?” she asked.

Duh. Of course I couldn’t. Ask my parents: it started when I was eleven or whereabouts, and falling asleep has been a difficult business ever since.

“Is that not normal?” I asked her. She shook her head. Apparently, most people can fall asleep.

“I don’t binge eat anymore,” I continued.

She knew about the binge eating, of course. We’ve discussed it before. What she didn’t know was the disgust and self-loathing that goes with it, the unconquerable compulsion to ingest sugar in any form, the powerlessness to stop even when it makes you physically sick and you’re mortified at your own self-destructive urges. She didn’t know about the constant state of hatred toward your own body, the guilt at every bite—even at healthy bites, at the things you’re supposed to be eating; you shouldn’t be eating anything, after all, you’re fat, repulsive—and she didn’t know about the shame of eating in public, the constant, intrusive thoughts: are people looking at me? Do they know I’m a disgusting pig? Do they think I’m hideous? Do they see me as I see myself? And with that comes the dysphoria, the feeling of being trapped in a body you can’t accept, that nothing else matters, only what others see, and what they see is layers of fat, a revolting being who doesn’t deserve to be desired or to call herself a woman.

But three weeks of antidepressants, and the binge eating just… stopped. Poof! That was it. Twenty years of trying to manage my eating habits, of diets, attempts at mindfulness, at listening to my own body and heeding its needs—mindful eating is the goal, after all—and all it took was 21 pills. And, suddenly, the self-loathing has receded, it barely even registers. My body has its flaws, sure, but it’s mine, and it’s fine.

“I don’t hate my body anymore,” I told her.

“Why would you hate your body?” she asked.

Well, why not? Guys never liked me, and in today’s society, being desirable is pretty much the only widely acceptable measure of a woman’s worth. So, how could I like myself without any affirmation? Where I grew up you were ridiculed for gaining a couple pounds—and oh boy, did the pounds pile on when the binge eating started. In the society that shaped my subconscious, men are misogynist and cruel. Young me wasn’t liked by young men—and it wasn’t just my appearance, they didn’t like my character either—brash, aggressive, troubled, anxious, clingy, phobic, and intelligent and ambitious to boot; altogether too much work for those twenty-something-year-olds who preferred easy booty and had a disinclination to be challenged in any way that put their own perception of their masculinity in danger.

The psychologist let me ramble on about it for a while, then put down her papers and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. She looked at me with that expression people sometimes get when they think you’ve been greatly deceived and see it as their responsibility to set things straight. “You’re an attractive woman,” she said.

Well, sure, okay. But I’m also a practical person, quite obsessed with problem-solving, and, although her observation made me think about the possibility of her statement being true, it’s not like I’ll ever be able to really internalize it, to actually feel like an attractive woman.

Or will I?

This drug is making me not only see things differently, it’s making me approach things in an emotionally new way. Interestingly, it’s annoying, and my ego is suffering slightly because of it. I battled these problem for years, and now, 21 pills and they’re gone. Was my mind not strong enough? My willpower? My logic? I pride myself on my methodical brain. Why couldn’t I solve this for so long? God knows I tried my best.

“You wouldn’t blame a diabetic for taking insulin,” Tyler says. “They have a condition, and they need to take medication to survive. You have a chemical imbalance in your brain, and you take the medication to get better.” In short, I’m sick, he says. Contrary to what society sometimes tells people with mental health issues, this is definitely not my fault.

I asked my doctor if I could continue the medication for longer than the couple of months she had initially envisioned. I explained to her that this is not just a stressful phase, this has been my life for practically as long as I can remember. She said I don’t necessarily have to discontinue, and a huge weight was lifted off me. Sure, I might want to try to see if I can manage my stress without chemical help, but my doctor understands, my psychologist understands, my family understands, and my friends understand.

What’s more, I don’t think the antidepressants affect my ability to write.

So, Tyler is right. This is what I need, and I won’t beat myself up about not being able to solve everything with sheer willpower anymore.

10. A borderline borderline

<< 9. Middle of the night anxiety / 11. Panic Attack Thursday >>

For months, I’ve been wondering why I get along so well with people with Borderline Personality Disorder. I have several close friends who have been diagnosed with BPD or exhibit most of the traits, and I really, truly get them. When they describe feelings, symptoms, reactions, I feel them, mostly because I’ve had similar emotions and reactions in the past. I relate, not in an intellectual way, but in the we-share-an-experience way.

I talked about it with my therapist today—I started therapy again, for stress management, you see—and she confirmed my suspicions. I have several borderline traits, she said, but my condition is probably not severe, and in all likelihood not diagnosable. I grew up in a loving family, I was held and soothed as a child. The only reason I can find for this near-disorder is the one month’s separation from my mother immediately after I was born. I was a preemie, you see: in those days, they left you in an incubator, and nobody touched you for weeks. The therapist says this could well be my early-childhood bonding failure, and I have no reason to doubt her.

I did an online test based on ten yes-or-no questions, and I scored 6/10, where 7/10 can get you a diagnosis. Self-destructive behavior? Check! Binge eating is one of the first items on the list. Emotional dysregulation, outbursts? Check—although with lots of effort, I’ve improved that a lot. Self-harm? I won’t go into that, but let’s say, a tiny bit—enough to make “no” a dishonest answer. Anger outbursts? Towards Urban, mostly, yes. Also, towards some friends, back when I was pregnant, because somehow the hormones exacerbated the paranoia that my friends wanted to undermine me (or, to be more accurate, they caused some paranoia. I never exhibited this kind of thinking before that, and I haven’t since). Unstable relationships or lots of fights within relationships? Oh boy, the times I almost left my husband for dumb reasons. The only thing that saved me is that Urban has the inertia of a freight train. He trudges along, seemingly unfazed, and this saved the relationship. Thank God for that.

What else? Ah, the fear of abandonment. This is my “nobody will like me” mantra, which Urban is tired of hearing, and even more tired of refuting. I’ve had this feeling after every meeting with a new-ish friend since forever—since kindergarten, I swear—that now I finally did behave in an inappropriate way, and they finally saw how I truly am, and they won’t like me anymore.

Every. Single. Time. To this day.

It’s getting better, though. I have a lot of friends—my therapist has pointed this out often enough—and time and experience have proven that people actually don’t abandon me, even if I think my behavior or my personality is horrific. It’s an intellectually approachable result, for which I used the scientific method: observation, data gathering, statistics. Still, it’s not as easily accessible from the emotional side, at least not where new friends and new relationships are concerned. And the lack of boundaries… well, I’m able to regulate it, most of the time. It’s hard. I know it scares some people and drives them away, but my friends seem not to mind too much, and readers sometimes find it refreshing. It’s interesting, after all, to gain some insight into another person’s psyche. We are all relieved to see that we are not alone in our struggles, fears, insecurities. Most people hide themselves behind well-crafted facades. I just can’t—and believe me, I’ve tried.

I don’t experience dissociative states, though, and the above symptoms are mostly mild, and some of them have even subsided with the passing of the years. I can even feel the love of my friends these days, at least of old friends, although it is and will always remain a mystery to me why the majority of them rarely, if ever, initiate contact. “I love you,” they say, and yet they never send a message. It’s one of those great enigmas that have no answer, and my psychologist says I should just call them when I want to talk to them, and that’s pretty much that.

One might think finding out that you almost have a serious disorder when you’re nearing forty is jarring and disturbing, but to me, it’s liberating. I finally know why for thirty-five years I’ve felt wonky around others. Why I couldn’t adjust as well as I’d like in elementary school, why by the age of eleven I was convinced that no boy will ever like me, which continued in adult life as I’ll never find a boyfriend, and to this day continues as, if I ever get divorced, I’ll die alone.

(Evidently, I found a boyfriend. Phew! Hopefully, we won’t get a divorce. I mean, we won’t. Just think of the hassle!)

So, where do I go from here? I don’t think this new knowledge helps with the stress management, except as far as it gives me more insight into my condition, and therefore removes some of its general uncertainty.

One consoling feature of being on the verge of borderline disorder—a borderline borderline, if you’ll excuse the pun—is that you get the superpowers (increased empathy, deep insights into feelings and relationships) while still being able to tackle the debilitating symptoms of the disorder, even if that means approaching them from the intellectual side and not from the emotional one. Those superpowers you can use in multiple ways. I use them for writing deep characters in my books, for example, and my friend Chet, who has BPD, does the same thing. When I started reading his first book, I went Woah! I could have written this! He also gets my characters, and I get his. He even likes my deeply flawed and morally grey John character—whom I love—but I can assure you that few other readers do.

Anyway, I can’t change it, or rather, I can change it a little bit, with lots of effort. No point worrying over what you can’t change, as they say. I have to accept it and move on.

I did find a boyfriend, after all. He’s making pizza as we speak.