Trigger warnings: anxiety, depression
Sometimes, especially on particularly bad days, I wish I could change so many things about myself. If a genie told me I could customize or eliminate three aspects of my physical, mental, or emotional self, part of me thinks I would have a difficult time choosing. My anxiety…my struggles with depression…my lack of self-confidence…my body’s reaction to dairy products. So many candidates! But am I doing myself any favors by day dreaming about such things?
During my first session with my new therapist, she asked me what I wanted her to know as far as why I was there. I explained to her that my understanding of counseling and therapy is not to go to someone who can fix me, but rather go to someone who can guide me in finding the tools I need to fix myself. She smiled at this and said, “But you don’t need fixing.” Part of me wanted to argue that, yes, I am broken all over the place (mostly inside my head) and would appreciate her help in remedying my problems. On the other hand, I understand what she was getting at. In the 1946 classic, It’s A Wonderful Life (Capra), Clarence tells George, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” Can the same be said about aspects of our personality or even mental illnesses? Why not? I dedicate this blog post to Clarence.
I actually am not a movie watcher. This is notsomething I would change about myself, as I find joy in other things such as reading, writing, and crafting. That being said, when I am home in Colorado, my teenage nephews are sure to catch me up on all the latest superhero movies. Over Christmas, they introduced me to Doctor Strange (Feige & Derrickson, 2016). There is one particular line that really caught my attention. The Ancient One says, “We never lose our demons…we only learn to live above them.” To me, this is another way of saying that if we set out to “fix” ourselves, we will fail. Why? Because we are who we are for a reason, and our whole is a sum of all our parts.
My demons are many, though not as numerous as plenty of other people. I do try to consider myself lucky in my struggles, for they could be far worse. My anxiety seems to be the demon who does its best to stay on top of me, barely giving me a fighting chance at higher ground. I would love to say goodbye to my anxiety, replacing it with the occasional and more rational worries that plague “normal” people. I would love to not overanalyze everything. I would love to not lay awake at night thinking about everything I believe I did wrong that day. I would love to not obsess over whether I locked the door (even though I’ve checked 8 times already), paid a bill (even though I already received confirmation that the payment was scheduled), turned off the stove (even though I didn’t even cook anything that day), or any other thing I can think to obsess over unnecessarily. I would love to not fear being fired over silly mistakes on the job. I would love to not agonize over whether I have offended another person. I would love to not seek constant validation and reassurance.
But what would Clarence have to say about my anxiety? He might tell me that without my anxiety, I would be far less likely to work hard, for in working hard I make fewer mistakes and am more independent. He might tell me that without my obsessive thoughts, I might miss doing or saying something important. He might say that these are not things to be ashamed of, but rather controlled so I can still receive the benefit that comes with a small dose of everyday worry.
If anxiety is my nagging demon, depression is my dark demon. There’s no good way to explain depression to someone who has never been in its grip. A suffocating sense of grief and sadness hangs over you all the time, nothing has appeal (food, hobbies, people), and the biggest kicker for me is the sense that if I were to suddenly disappear off the face of the earth, it would be the best possible outcome. There is always a voice in the back of my head telling me that it isn’t true, but the more depressed I become, the quieter that voice becomes. (A message to anyone who is losing the sound of that small voice: talk to someone…get help…you are loved and the world is a better place because you are in it.)
During one of my recent medication management appointments with my psychiatrist, she asked how I’m doing, as she does at the beginning of every appointment. I said, “I’m…okay?” She said, “Is that a question?” I told her I thought I was doing okay, but wasn’t sure. She said, “You feel okay, but you are waiting for it all to come crashing down again?” She hit the nail on the head. One of the worst things about episodic depression is that you are always waiting for the pin to drop. It’s only a matter of time before it happens again, right? So you can see how depression is always there, whether you are actually depressed or not. I am either depressed, or waiting to become depressed.
It’s exhausting! But would my life be better without ever having experienced depression? I’m not so sure. It has taught me how exhilarating and beautiful the good times can be. According to a line in the Stephen King book Wolves of the Calla (2003), “it was the possibility of darkness that made the day seem so bright.” That possibility is always there. If it wasn’t there, I would take the truly happy times for granted. Depression has also taught me the importance of actively facing my demons head on, rather than just hoping they go away on their own – “the quickest way to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west chasing after it, but to head east into the darkness until you finally reach the sunrise” (Scazzero, 2014, p. 141). There cannot actually be light without darkness somewhere. It’s just important to know when to seek help if the darkness starts to swallow you up.
Another demon is how deeply and completely I feel. I am an empath through and through. Dr. Judith Orloff (2016) explains that “the trademark of an empath is feeling and absorbing other people’s emotions and/or physical symptoms because of their high sensitivities.” She goes on to say, “They feel everything, sometimes to an extreme.” Somehow, my mind and spirit feel that my own anxiety, depression, and other feelings just aren’t enough. I must also take on the extreme hurt and joy of the world around me – either extreme can be exhausting. This side of me strives to be everything I can be to those around me. A downside is that when I am in need of a break or am struggling with my own demons, I tend to let people down more often, as they have grown accustomed to me going above and beyond for them. Part of me wishes I was not as in tune to others as I am, but I know that is likely the most important and beautiful part of my personality. Learning to control that sensitivity is the key.
I came across the following quote today. The authenticity behind the words encouraged me to write this post. It made me realize that even the so-called “bad” parts of me serve a purpose in the end.
“I used to dislike being sensitive. I thought it made me weak. But take away that single trait, and you take away the very essence of who I am. You take away my conscience, my ability to empathize, my intuition, my creativity, my deep appreciation for the little things, my vivid inner life, my deep awareness of others’ pain, and my passion for it all.” – Unknown
I think Clarence would be proud of this epiphany. I don’t need to be fixed. It serves no purpose to wish parts of me never existed. I just have to fight to gain the higher ground so I can keep my eyes on my demons. If I could change just one thing about myself, it would be my desire to change anything.
Capra, Frank (Producer & Director). (1946). It’s a Wonderful Life[motion picture]. United States: Liberty Films.
Feige, Kevin (Producer), & Derrickson, Scott (Director). (2016). Doctor Strange[motion picture]. United States: Marvel Studios.
King, Stephen. (2003). Wolves of the Calla[audiobook version]. Simon & Schuster Audio.
Orloff, Judith. (2016). 10 Traits Empathic People Share. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/emotional-freedom/201602/10-traits-empathic-people-share
Scazzero, P. (2014). Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It’s impossible to be spiritually mature, while remaining emotionally immature. Nashville, TN: Zondervan.