A journey to all the dark thoughts

Recently, I sent to a penpal of mine a description of my current depressive episode. She replied that she could not imagine that a psychotherapist could not immediately conclude a diagnosis from my, as she put it, lucid self-analysis, and devise an effective cure – effective provided the patient cooperates.

She knows that I have a bad history of psychotherapy attempts, and she appeared to try and empathize, telling me she didn´t want to persuade me to see a therapist again. And yet the tiny little qualification she made with regards to effectiveness speaks volumes about how many worlds we are apart. She has swallowed the blame-the-patient approach to therapy failure hook, line and sinker.

Ever since last weekend I´m struggling with what to answer. Part of me wants to be honest and tell her, without rage, in what way exactly I have been hurt and why I cannot believe anymore those were just instances of bad luck or black sheep. I can also predict, however, what is likely going to happen next: With the best intentions and in the solid belief that she is helping me she will tell me in what way she thinks my views are distorted, how she experienced her own (mostly positive) therapy and that I must have gone through some really tough shit in my family of origin if I interpret the well-meaning offers of highly ethical experts in such a self-defeating way. She might ask me if I´m sure that what I read into their words isn´t just my own depression speaking. She will assure me that of course I´m not the kind of person they made me feel like, and therefore I must have gotten them wrong, because it will go beyond her imagination that other peoples´ perception of me might differ from hers (if anything, she will add: “Of course I don´t know how you behaved towards your therapists, but the way I know you…”). And then what? What do I reply to that without at some point starting to sound defensive, paranoid or closed-minded?

When I was younger I admired proponents of the moral minority. I identified with 19th century atheists, early campaigners for women´s rights and those who fought being outcasted because of their sexual orientation. I admired their passion, their spite, their all-encompassing criticism of society and I could the intellectual sharpness of their arguments resonating inside of me, making me feel good, strong and like a pioneer. When I myself got into arguments that dealt with issues which touched upon my own, very personal conflicts with commonplace ideas and demands, I did not feel strong and in the right at all. I felt stupid, childish and impotent. For the longest time I could not win such arguments, and yet my own most personal stakes were too high for me to accept a defeat. If the others were right, I could no longer live with myself.

For some time I thought that the sheer monstrosity of the suffering this caused me was proof enough that the others couldn´t be right. It could not be reasonable that someone should righteously have to experience that amount of psychic destruction. This argument, however, never seemed to impress anyone other than very soft-hearted people. Whenever I encountered yet another stone-cold rejection of my passionate appeals I could feel my mind both turning dull and starting to race with torturing thoughts; and some painful, hollow feeling seemed to be eating itself through my chest, making me want to cut it out. Not to mention the wish to hurt the person who´d caused it in some way or the other.

It makes me doubt myself a great deal that many of those feelings were caused by my defending of beliefs which I now recognize as false. If much of what those “others” said back then was the truth, then my sense of humiliation related to being confronted with reality. And while the reality of ten years ago might not matter to me anymore, it still matters to me that I might have a problem with reality. I don´t want to be the kind of person who cannot bear to live her life based on what is true. So what do I do if all evidence is pointing towards just what I dread most?

There is no way out of this. I can either ignore or explain away the evidence, turning myself into precisely what I don´t want to be; or I can admit that the evidence is accurate, but unfortunately that noble act comes too late to redeem me. The damage the evidence relates to is damage I have done long ago. I´ve already become the person I never wanted to be, and admitting it won´t change it.

Some might think this is stubborn. The past is gone, and everybody deserves a second chance. Unfortunately, past and present are not so dissimilar. I still very much identify with that old sense of humiliation, I´m still having similar experiences and I can not whatsoever guarantee it won´t happen again. The thought alone of second chances scares me, the life of a penant doesn´t seem a life worth living to me. If I don´t even manage to be halfways decent without practicing a stressful amount of self-denial, how am I supposed to be able to be super good?

My thoughts sometimes work in mysterious ways. I was thinking about how much I would want to ask my former professor for his opinion on my life story and everything I had done. I would not so much ask for a moral evaluation, but rather appeal to his creativity, as he is the one person I could imagine off the top of my head who I´d trust to have a happier solution to all this than life-long penance and self-enforced toxic humility. And at some point in our imaginary conversation he, flatteringly and ever observantly, said: “I think it will be very difficult for you to really get rid of your way of torturing yourself, as this is part of what makes you so lovable.”

Imaginary as his view may be, it struck a nerve with me. First of all, I realized it reflected my own opinion of myself. I would not like myself if I wasn´t like that. Paradoxically, I can only agree with myself when I talk about myself in a harsh, critical manner. It is a paradox I tripped over quite often in my life.

Then, however, I actually encountered that view in real life, in someone else. It was Athena who told me that my ability to self-torture was the one thing she had always admired so much about me. She told me this in a very judging fashion, when I had just started to violently try and shake that fatal “ability” off, and this hit me. If my torturing and dissecting and deconstructing myself is indeed what makes me valuable, lovable, worthwhile to others, then what am I supposed to think of those whose love and appreciation I am trying to gain?! What is so different, so severely wrong with me that I have to persistently scourge myself in order to earn what others get for free? Why are others allowed to just accept themselves the way they are and somehow it doesn´t taint their honour? What am I – some kind of example? Something that isn´t likeable but useful, as long as it does what it does best?

What might have been most healing about that imaginary quote was, however, that he kind of called me out on my own neglected infatuation with my self-torture. Not in a confrontative, humiliating way, but by validating me. Since that conversation was but a figment of my imagination, I can say authoritatively that he really meant what he (didn´t) say. He finds me lovable that way, but he told me so in form of a self-critical observation about what he enjoys, not in form of a sourpuss moral demand that holds me to different standards than everyone else.

It did not come across as him telling me that I was bringing my suffering upon myself, but rather it felt like a reminder that my being like that isn´t all bad; it is nothing I have to fight with all I have. I am allowed to be this way, play with it, use it to charm others just a little bit. I don´t have to be all sourpuss myself, either – but liberating as that sounds, it is starting to conflict with my need to genuinely self-torture. Here is where imaginary conversations crash hard against their own limits. I have not really been absolved by anyone. It is something I do myself, and on my own responsiblity. As it is, there is no one out there looking at me that specific way. The conversations feel so real that it is sometimes hard to remember that. Again, I appear to have a problem with reality; and yet the conversation with Athena was real, and isn´t my anger about it somewhat righteous, too?

I feel like I´m, in a way, on to something when I say that there was a certain tendency in people in my life towards reinforcing a specific trait of mine more positively than good for me. This positive feedback created a certain pressure to remain that way, but also, I was held by standards set by my best self-critical behavior and those cannot be met at all times without cutting oneself off from life and emotions. “You can be so mature oftentimes, why can´t you be so mature now?”  My maturity, maturity in general became my nemesis; the very thing that made me feel like a failure in comparison. I was mistaken to believe it was the maturity of others I that pathologically envied and raged at; it was my own former behavior others measured me against that I could no longer live up to. Most of the people who confronted me back then were a lot older than me, and yet I feel like a failure for having been less mature than them – and, essentially, they, too, treated me like one because they were expecting me to act differently. Much of my immature behavior back then, however, did not so much consist in trying to get my way in ordinary teenage matters (going out, allowances etc.), but it was solely about the right to be immature, stupid and unreasonable. Maybe that explains some of the more outrageous things I said back then, things I cannot and couldn´t really agree with but which to defend seemed necessary.

My mother seemed to admire me in many ways, and that can be scary. When I think of her – sometimes almost shy – smiles and looks, I feel both lonely and awful, like I´m a person who intimidates others. It is difficult when you feel that a person really wants you to like her. My mother keeps on saying that I imagine her to be more vulnerable than she really is, and maybe that is true, but that doesn´t change my feeling of uncanny omnipotence. I do have a way of feeling responsible for too many things, too many peoples´ moods, and for believing that my own thoughts and feelings can cause terrible things to happen.

As I think these thoughts, I´m torn between two ideas:

1) I´m not really that important, my mother didn´t really admire me, she was just wisely humouring me because I was a demanding child with a terrible temper. My belief that my thoughts can make things happen shows that on a deeper level I´m narcissistic to the point of delusion.

2) I should have recognized the power I have earlier and used it more wisely, I must have caused so many terrible injuries, and most of all, my helpless, loving mother.

Neither idea does me any favours. They merely offer me the choice between a sense of guilt and a sense of ridicule. Neither idea takes into consideration what I want, or that I even am a being of my own with personal feelings that can just as easily be damaged as anyone else´s.

I´m not sure where all this takes me in terms of my original question. Maybe towards the conclusion that I´ve been so conflicted for so long that I really don´t need to try and resolve my issues now by telling my penpal what psychotherapy does to me. Or that I cannot trust myself at all, so that I should better not ever say anything about anything.

Or, of course, that I have no obligation to always be wiser and more mature than everyone else, although there was a certain pressure to do so that did not originate in myself. I can respond emotionally and take this risk that I make a fool of myself, and it will be no more of a shame if I do it than if anyone else does it. I´m afraid, however, this remains a very theoretical option, as my penpal, too, has an ever so slight tendency towards idealizing me – and that never ends well. When someone idealizes you for being something they value, they will never forgive you for managing to convince them that you are not like that, and their admiration will turn into vitriolic disdain if you try to tell them this is actually okay. In their eyes, it will make you weak – weaker than they themselves think they are for not fulfilling their own ideal.

Some people seem to understand themselves as the helpers of “genuises”. They enjoy the thought that they might be able to understand a genuis better than he understands himself. Instead of climbing all those other social prestige ladders that all too slowly lead up to the “genius” and trying to earn themselves a place of their own, they jump to the top of the invisible hierarchy and merely try to get one up on the person up there. All they need is someone who is clearly bright and creative, but just as clearly suffering and somewhat dysfunctional. What could prove their own, the helpers´ intelligence more convincingly than their ability to understand the mental workings of a misunderstood, outcast genius? It seems to indicate an intelligence that is superior not just to oh-so-ignorant society, but even to that of the object it studies. I feel a certain sense of caution towards people who call me a genius without a trace of sarcasm or hostility in their voice. It seems perfectly natural to me to have a great problem with the idea that someone else might be more intelligent than oneself, so those who have no problem whatsoever with that appear to be unnaturally superior to average people in at least one department: Self-confidence and how to display it. And it seems like a good idea to be just a little bit wary of such people. Clever, convincing displays of self-confidence are, after all, key to social dominance. Maybe it´s the sum of my experience, maybe it is sheer envy of the pure, selfless souls of somehow more mature people – I don´t know. If I dare trust my gut, however, I´ll remain cautious to spill my guts when people assure me one time too often that they think I´m brilliant and wise. I´m quite sure that their respect and adoration don´t go far enough to a) change their minds on things and b) not use everything I said against me should I develop a will of my own.

I think with those last bits I´m being horribly unfair towards my penpal. That was more directed towards a long-time friend who managed to both put me on a pedestal and look down upon me. It is amazing, though, to understand where so much of my paranoia is coming from. I discount many of my thoughts and perceptions as narcissistic and judgemental, but once I try to understand how I reached those conclusions, I find that they were formed based on observations and experiences which are perfectly valid.

I still don´t know what to write my penpal, but I think I´ll have an easier time figuring it out now.

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