Finding My Voice in 2020
Categories: Mental Health
The goal of this blog has never been murky, but it has also never been quite clear. And that's intentional.
I've always wanted it to be complete thoughts: things that I am able to look back at and understand fully (or at least, as full as I believe so). Often this takes the form in something that -as I can articulate well- can hopefully be helpful for others. But the goal has never been to make some sort of self-help blog.
Nor has it been to make a journal. As I said above, I want to write things as more of a chronicle of the journey rather than an exploration. I try to sit on ideas and -while I usually write them out in one go- the concept for most posts are rarely off the top of my head, nor are their contents.
Not that there's anything wrong with either self-help nor (public) journaling. It's simply not my own intention.
There is such a reason for a check in though. 2020 was an absolutely wild year for me; on top of....well, what went on in the world and particularly in my country of the U.S., it was a massive year of self-exploration, self-affirmation, and (dare I say) self-discovery. So much so that I am very much still processing much of it to the extent that I have not felt like writing it. But I've come to realize that I will start to lose some of my journey if I do not write it down. I will forget specifics or how to express what I actually felt at the time. So while I do not feel as though I'm at "the other side" of anything, so to speak, here are my thoughts, disorganized as they may be, about the year that is 2020.
I don't need to say anything about just how crazy 2020 was. "Crazy" hardly begins to quantify it and it pertained to literally the entire world. What was quite different, for me, was the net result. For most it was negative, even beyond obvious reasons. I wish the pandemic never happened. I wish people's health, their livelihood, their personal relations, their psychological wellbeing, and all else that was damaged had not been affected so. Unfortunately, I had and continue to have a nearly infinite insignificant amount of influence in the matter. What I did have some modicum of control over was my own experience. A level of control that, arguably, I've never had in my life. How? In what way did I have control in a global event that was so very much about wrenching control from a very large percentage of every human on earth?
What a ridiculous open-ended rhetorical question to ask. So let's get to the answer: expectations. Shame. Removing not just shame but the entrypoint of shame in my mind.
So so so very much of what I struggle with on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis is shame. Albeit derived from very real and physiological mental illnesses, for the human experience it is none other than shame, primarily as expectations cast on myself due to what I believe is expected of me. Largely by my peers but also from myself both in a personal but also an existential sense (Freud would call it the superego). A lot of it is common and systemic to our society. I feel pressure to have "success" in my career. I am constantly told how valuable love is and -albeit indirectly- how incomplete a person is outside of a relationship. Very often a family (i.e. children) by extension. Or, in a much cruder sense, that sex is something that people loathe to be without, as though any sustained amount of celibacy weakens their very soul. I am told often outright how caring about something larger than myself (e.g. community) is a source of purpose that is so strong that it can be the driving force behind my life. Or even having a purpose, period. And, saving the largest for last, social interaction. While I've come to recognize just how important it is and how hard-wired we are as social creatures to not just crave but need it, there has always been a ferocious flame in my mind of how much I must be failing at it. How difficult it is to force myself to be in social situations, how often I find myself struggling to enjoy it or loathing myself afterwards via self-criticism, and most of all, how little I actually do it.
All of these things have been a massive struggle for the entirety of my adult life to not even attain, but to even gain the slightest of footholds toward pursuing. And through a twisted sense of reverse psychology instilled in my wonderfully distorted religious upbringing, by naming these things as good, it is implied in my mind that a lack of them is bad. Because society values these and most people have some -if not all- of these "goals", their lack in my life has consistently made me feel inferior. A feeling that has seeped into my very definition of myself -my essence. Shame. It is bad enough not to have these things and to know that they are so good that they are constantly touted as that which makes life worth living. It's even worse still for others to find out. For them to see just how very different I am from them, but even moreso, to see how I am utterly and hopelessly not able to attain what to them is something as simple as breathing. And while I will always say that suffering is not a competition and that one person's suffering does not cancel out nor even lessen another's, the fact that most people do not deal with thoughts of longing for death -or worse, considering playing a hand in it- is a very loud statement as to a difference between someone who feels they are missing something and someone who feels they have nothing.
I've made progress on this on multiple fronts. First, I worked for years to be able to secure the job and career I've wanted since I was a teenager, and it has been hard fought. I have made (or really rather been gifted friends), both out of state who I have come to know truly care for me dearly, but much more recently at my new job who have been so supportive in including me and helping me out of my comfort zone to do things that I never thought possible, and how they continue to support me and deepen our friendship. (I literally tear up as I write this thinking about how many memories they were able to squeeze in such a brief amount of time I had before the pandemic where I was able to have the social life I had always dreamt of, and just how accepted I felt as who I am, limitations and all.) But even moreso, I have worked tirelessly on not defining myself by what I lack. By accepting myself as I am and by removing the word "should" from my vocabulary when speaking about myself as a person to the greatest extent possible. But it is a long, long uphill battle that for me includes more losses than wins. My journey so far has not been to win the war but to instead shift the ratio on battles won. But dear god, does it ever take a toll, and it takes so much energy just to continue on, to keep myself steady and upright that there's scarcely been room for anything else. But I digress.
2020 changed all of this by removing nearly every expectation. I was so so so so so fortunate to keep my job throughout the pandemic and to work from home throughout and I will never take for granted how that was able to both financially and psychologically keep a sound base. And while I lost a lot of connection with my work friends due to the lack of ability to do things in person, my presence on social media flourished with fiends who I feel I drew much closer to. But what was much more of a release was all of the other pressures. Quarantine changed everything. Dating, sex, social interactions, all of it not only became not required, it became required to not do any of those things. I no longer woke up every day struggling not to hate myself for not making "progress" on attaining them. I was being responsible for not acting. It was not an excuse to be lazy, by any means, and it was not as though I did not still want them. It was instead a lifting of shame, to a level I had never felt before, of being relieved of the feeling of not being good enough for themz. How absolutely freeing it was. How much energy and self I had to pour into....well, anything else I wanted.
Which raised a big question...what would I actually put my energy towards, if not having to smack myself with a stick towards those goals? This, of course, came with its own threat of shame. "You'd better be fucking productive during this pandemic. All this new energy, this free time, you can come out of this having learned a new skill, or read many books, or created many projects, or etc and etc." Thankfully, my years of therapy and progress in combatting shame were not for nothing and I was able to mostly sidestep these expectations. Instead of a duty, it became an experiment. To let myself float by the current of my mind instead of swimming determinedly towards a destination. This was aided by the fact that, after all, it is a goddamn global pandemic, and while many people did indeed see it as an opportunity to achieve, it was not only reasonable but quite prudent to devote time to one's mental well-being.
That's how I thrived in 2020. My letting go and relaxing. Well, not quite "relaxing", because it took a form I never expected. I started to care about things. I had energy to expend outside of my head, and I actually gravitated towards what I found to be important, my values and empathy.
I has always been my opinion, what I still to believe to be correct, that just as it is with the hierarchy of needs, it's been difficult to the level of impossible for me to care about anything outside of myself for most of my life. One could say that is a form of selfishness and I wouldn't deny it to the extent that a certain amount of self-focus is necessary, but it's much more that it's not likely that you will care about the world if you don't even want to live in it. But oddly enough, though I was quite literally trapped in my very small apartment for months, I started to care much more about the world around me. Most evident was my sudden interest in passion in social issues and politics. I have never, in my life, wanted to care about politics because in its essence it is arguing; if everyone agreed, there would be no need for politics. I've obviously held views but never wanted to express or discuss them. That is, until the social outcomes of COVID-19 and George Floyd.
Don't worry, I won't talk about it here. This blog is certainly not for that sort of thing. What I intend to say regarding it is that I gave a shit. I got outraged not merely in theory but in real events. It became a very prevalent part of my life, both following it and discussing it, but just how it fit into how I saw and defined myself (and how I wanted to) became what was ultimately the defining part of 2020 for me. I put a lot of thought into how I wanted to engage in this manner with my purest honest intention to be to discuss things in a calm and rational manner. To not let it become slinging spiteful comments, not just towards those I argued with but towards the subject matter themselves. I didn't want to add to the cacophony that is every person online thinking that their opinion mattered and deserved to be heard, and that -in their zealous rightness- they were justified in (pardon my candor) treating the opposing side as though they are a piece of shit. I am proud of myself in how I handled this. I maintained integrity for months, which in terms of internet argument time, might as well be an eternity. Eventually I failed. Well, not failed. I lost my cool. Less so in conversation (though there were semi-isolated incidents) but moreso at speaking of the issues themselves. Instead of talking about what I cared about and what I thought was important, I let myself....well, rant. And the fact of the matter is: nobody wants to read a rant about why what they believe is wrong. It will never change their mind. And, ultimately, I had two goals, one practical and one personal. The practical goal was to have truly honest discussions about serious matters. I legitimately enjoy speaking about serious matters and teasing out ideas. I wanted to always remember that my goal is not to be right or change the other person's mind, but to reduce my ignorance, even if it is most often on understanding merely why someone holding an opposing view believes what they believe.
The personal goal was to use my voice. It was not uncommon, I gathered from my therapist, for people who were stuck not just physically but also psychologically, to turn their attention and energy towards the world around them, especially in a world that suddenly became incredibly tumultuous. So to act as though I suddenly started caring about the world around me solely because I had the energy was disingenous. I was drawn to it because it gave me a sense of agency. It's not that I was convinced that I (the protagonist of life) talking on social media would bring about any change; indeed, as I mentioned, it was never my intention (or even hope) to change even a single mind. I've been on the internet long enough to know better that it's more likely for me to abruptly shit a flying pig than for someone to admit "I was totally wrong". What was, instead, my personal goal in enacting this agency was something quite different: anger.
My nervous system's default response is to freeze, maybe sometimes flee. Until recently it was only fight literally 1-2 times a year to the point that I could recall each individual event. Of course I got frustrated and upset, but I would never get really angry. So, as I've resolved my nervous system's obsession with freezing at the first sign of any confrontation, the fight part of my amygdala has been coming online more and more. And I had absolutely no fucking clue how to deal with it. I was totally used to sadness, hopelessness, self-loathing, but anger is a totally other beast. While what I knew how to deal with usually merited action, anger often requires inaction, and that's a difficult thing to do for me still because it requires limiting myself but not to the point of silencing. It's difficult to find healthy outlets for anger.
And that's where this fury came in. I cared about these things happening in the world. I was outraged. I was angry. The values that I've come to understand that are importantly, like empathy, were at ends with the events of the country. And reading about them and sharing my thoughts about them, as absolutely fruitless as it may be, it was a way to express that anger. It was a way to say "I'm fucking sick of rolling over. I'm sick of just standing by." Of course it took an insane amount of self control and I knew that going in. Outrage -especially justified outrage- without vitrol is difficult to do, 100 fold more behind a keyboard. Being angry feels good. Lashing out feels good, not just in a sense of "I am championing justice" but also visceral and emotional. Because it is indeed an outlet for anger but, because there's very much a moral component, we excuse it as being justified. This, in my mind, is very much a part of the human condition and something that most people absolutely refuse to address as a problem. This is something I've learned both by years of watching people with greater access to anger as well as viewing it within myself via self-introspection particularly in my growth in empathy, because vitrol is counterproductive to empathy. Anger is not though. Anger is human. Anger is healthy. Stifling anger is starving part of yourself. And I decided to use this newfound care and outrage to social injustice to nourish that newfound hunger.
I knew I would make missteps and most likely mistakes and that was a hard part of entering into it for me. I knew that, if only because I still feel so inexperienced with processing anger, I would most likely have moments in compromising my calm and lash out. To make comments that were not prudent to conversation but merely for my carnal desire for a show of strength. And I did, to a degree that I wish I had done differently, but not that I am ashamed of or even regret. Because I finally finally finally, after years of relearning the same lesson, knew truly that one cannot make progress without mistakes. That I am not perfect but that fact should not bar me from trying. That, with that knowledge of imperfection, entering into a realm of trying means that, yes, I will err, but I have to try anyway, or I will never grow.
That's the biggest way that 2020 was an area of growth for me. I was freed of so many sources of shame, and I used that space to let myself take chances and make mistakes. And I let myself do whatever the hell I was drawn to, which -turns out- was spending a shit ton of time on social media, but not just sharing memes. Okay, there were a lot of memes. But to find this newfound giving of a shit of the world around me, along with friends who also gave a shit about the same things. Even those who disagreed with me quite frequently. It's not where I want to end up, and that's been another powerful concession I've been able to accept. This was a step and it's okay for it to just be a step. It's okay that I am just talking on Facebook and trying not to rant instead of actually being feet on the ground for the matters I speak on. Maybe I'll get there, maybe I won't. But I took the first step, goddamn it, and I'm fucking proud of myself for doing so.
As I said at the start, 2020 still had a lot of other layers that I've still yet to unpack or solidify into what can become its own post, but this was a high level overview of what I have found to be most significant. 2020 let me see things about myself that I never had before, new things and new expressions of existing things. It freed my mind in ways that, truthfully, are not realistically possible without a global pandemic. It let me try out different parts of me, see what I liked, what I didn't, what I valued, what mistakes I was apt to make and learned to watch out for. I saw it spread to other parts of me too, I became more confident (or even merely questioning) about other types of self-expression. I don't know what's going to stick but I also know that I don't have to know, and nothing even has to stick. It was so much more about living in the moment without worrying about the past or the future on a longer timespan than I've usually been able. It's difficult to not focus only on the mistakes and not to obsess about whether or not being more vocal may have changed the way certain people see me or even strained relationships. I acknowledge those things could have happened, and I acknowledge that I have a long way to go. But 2020 gave me space to walk more freely on that long way. It's not something that could have, nor should have, gone on forever, but it was a very interesting experiment that I hope left an impact on how I view myself and a way around shame that I've never had access to before.
While the world has still not returned to normal (or the "new normal") as of the writing of this post, I'm already experiencing whiplash. I knew it was coming, and it's coming for everyone. But I knew that the more I diverted from my own normal, the stronger the jerk back to normality would be, and the self-loathing and anxiety I've had to endure while thinking back on the events on 2020 that I've recollected here has been intense. And I suspect it may grow stronger still. I'm still not remorseful. It was a period of my life where I didn't have to worry about moving forward, or not moving backward, or not moving at all. I could just fucking be.