Mental Illness

The Banality of Talking (And Why It Saved Me)

“I believe that words are strong, that they can overwhelm what we fear when fear seems more awful than life is good.” “• Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

I am not a talker. Sure, I talk, but I’m more inclined towards topics that, while they touch on my personal life, usually do not reflect my actual inner state. I’m happy to talk about the deeply personal-political experience, the way that social and cultural forces have inflicted chaos and rage on my own self, the way that the everyday frustration and general bullshit of the day to day can cause one to have to vent on the blinding unfairness of the world. With these instances can also sometimes come distance. It is easier to talk about things in the larger scale, in which you are obviously not alone.

[pullquote3 quotes=”true” align=”right” variation=”slategrey”]For most of my life, I feared that my words, my experience, were not crucial to the conversation.[/pullquote3]
However, over the past year, in what I like to refer to as “the year that shit hit the fan,” the need to speak became a necessary, life-saving function, in regards to my mental health. To clarify, when I mean the need to speak, I mean the need to speak. About me. While I was happy (loosely speaking) to talk about the world around me, I had for so long refused to talk about what was going on inside me, the internal muck that had laid itself into my life. While mental illness, anxiety, and depression are all very obvious topics that have a rightful place in a larger dialogue, I found that talking about my own shit still existed in a no man’s land.

For most of my life, I feared that my words, my experience, were not crucial to the conversation. It also meant that I would have to acknowledge and process many of the things that had happened to me that were so much easier to shove down inside. Instead of realizing what I was going through, it became easier to use as fuel for going forward, creating ridiculous assumptions that encompassed a “Yes, I hate myself, but if I just move out of this small town, I will be better. Yes, I think it would be better to die sometimes, but if I just write enough, make enough art, be successful enough, I will feel better about myself. Yes, I I have been through traumatizing things, but if I don’t keep going forward, it will all fall apart and who will I be then?” This way of thinking actually worked amazingly well for about ten years as I pushed myself to do more, to be more, and, above all, to avoid failure at all cost. If I just did enough, eventually recognized for doing so, the inner monologue of how much I hated myself was sure to disappear. Right?

As I picked up the pace of my life, doing more and more to fill in the obvious gaping hole where any sort of love, or hell, even like for myself would exist, I found myself feeling so very ashamed of the depression that I would sink into. In my own internal life, the one I made sure no one knew about, there was the constant sense of failure and hatred:  a deep, dark pit that ate away at everything, often cycling into a mixture of doubt, anxiety, and blame. To put it simply, I hated myself and could not understand how I got there. As anyone who has experienced any sort of depression can tell you, while most of us end up to this place in different ways, it tends to feel very much the same. We feel as if it will never end.

It was a conflicting feeling to carry around, and I doubted if there was a balance in between the fact that when I walk out into this world, I was (and obviously still am) am a very privileged individual who carries a lot of unwarranted social power based on my race, my class, being an abled ciswoman, one with an education and a job to boot. To deny that is to deny a very basic truth about the world we live in. Compile this with an already burgeoning sense of little self worth, and voila, you have shame 2.0.  To be depressed, while I knew it as something that was and is so very complicated,  in my head existed as something that I should be instantly ashamed of. I liked my life. Things were good. I did not suffer from many of the injustices that many live with every day. Instead of being the actual depression that it was, it became another reason to self-flagellate, to despise myself.  The idea of talking about what was happening inside my head seemed thoughtless – a burden to those around me, and a selfishness I did not want to admit to having.  But what about their comfort? I would ask myself. It’s not fair to have to listen to what seems to be a perfectly content person talk about how they hate just about every fiber of themselves. So, I stayed quiet.

It was only when a woman who, to this day, I will never be able to thank enough for opening up the floodgates, handed me her card. “I think you need to see someone,” she said to me. I felt instantly defensive. Yes, I had totally lost my shit in her class on radical confidence, but come on! It was as if an X-ray had been turned on and she was able to see every part of my body that was filled with the overwhelming sadness and anger that I carried around with me. Embarrassed, I took her card. “I’ve been going for six years. I think it would help you.” I found myself a week later talking to a woman from a sliding scale center in the city. “This is always the hardest part,” said the woman over the phone. As I hung up, I began crying because I did not know how I had gotten to this point and I did not know why I thought that saying so was a sentence worse than death.

To me, therapy is like oral storytelling, though perhaps missing the element of the “lesson” or that theme that brings everything all together. Instead, it is speaking from a place that is honest, often rawer, whether due to the space to speak on unprocessed events and trauma, or just to be able to speak from a place that is safely guarded from the realm of judgment. A perk of the doctor-patient relationship is anonymity, and I have found this has not only released the fear of speaking out on the internal chaos, but also being okay with taking up the room by speaking. Like storytelling, it trains you to speak specifically on the things you are going through, which, one hopes, can reflect a universal experiences, even if the details are different.

I also like to associate therapy with ipecac, the children’s medicine that purposely makes you vomit. Like this wrenching little liquid, therapy makes you lose all of what you had inside you. What comes out is the putrid gunk of what was essentially poisoning you. Obviously this is not a pleasant thing when actually happening, but like most physical acts of retching, you feel better afterwards. Not great, but better.

There is a thing thrown around in therapy called  Big T, Little t trauma: events that directly shape who you are and your perceptions of the world, as well as yourself. Big T trauma refers to the life-changing: abuse, rape, severe health emergencies, war, displacement, etc. Little t refers to something a bit less concrete: small, but consistent instances that in their occurrences over time, wear one down. The best analogy I’ve heard was that little t trauma is like rust: while always minor each time it happens, in the end, it eats into the general structure of even the strongest objects, weakening it. If not taken care of, the structure eventually collapses. In many ways, not talking is a way that the minor, or even the major, tends to become a rust on the self, wearing away at who the person once was.

I would have never guess that the most banal of activities would be the one that would eventually lift me up from one of the darker periods of my life. It’s a bit obvious now, though hindsight is always 20/20, and if you have been depressed, then you are also familiar with the sheer terror of admitting to anyone that you are. You fear the judgment, you fear the backlash, you fear that maybe somewhere in your internal muck, that you are lying, and that things really aren’t that bad and if you just sucked it up and do what your working class folks taught you to do, then things would be okay. Talking was reserved for the things that would make people comfortable and happy, not for the things that were not understandable.

When I was small, my grandmother – my Yiye, gave me three very tiny dolls wrapped in a box. “They are worry dolls,” she would tell me. “Put them under your pillow and talk to them. When you sleep, they will take your worries away.” As an eight-year-old, fresh out of the first round of therapy after Ritalin had fried my child brain and caused my anxiety to rocket, escalating to a point where I told my mother, “I’d rather die,” the dolls seemed to be a route I may have been more comfortable with. Night after night, the dolls ended up underneath my pillow, until I was no longer in therapy, no longer on Ritalin, no longer so very sad. As I grew older, they switched from place to place, never leaving exactly, but along with later events in my life – more anxiety, more depression, self-harm, sexual assault, drinking  – you name it, they weren’t objects that held power. Later, when I decided to break off from the life that seemed expected of most of the southern women I knew, I began packing for what was to be a dramatic move to New York, where I knew I was going to do something, moreover, be the person I wanted be. As I began packing whatever I could into a small suitcase, sure that my $800 I had saved would be enough to live off of for “a while,” I ended up doing something I never am keen to do, which is to purge my possessions. While going through a trunk I found the worry dolls, worn to hell after many a night until my childhood pillow. I wish I could say I kept them, but instead, chucked them into the pile, not necessarily recognizing how much I would come to think about them in the not-too-distant future. I assumed that my mental state would change once I was in a place where I could be as much as I thought I could be. I assumed I would be fine and that I could talk about things that affected me, just not things that affected me. Like I said, hindsight is 20/20.

Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, author of Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression, talks about the power and the urgency that is healing. Her own experience, vastly different than my own, reverberates on a level that I still understand. To speak is to be a storyteller, even if that speaking is hidden within the walls of any psychiatrist or therapist’s office. In one part, she quotes Audre Lourde’s phenomenal words:

My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit in a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.

It is the power of words, even secret words brokered for with sliding scale payments, that bring understanding and open up the muck inside. Talking, in all its every day, so very normal happenstance, which I can so often take for granted, is the thing that brought me back from the edge.  So as I head to that office every Monday morning, I think of Solomon’s words in Atlas:

Every day, I choose, sometimes gamely, and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?

With this, I keep talking.

7 replies on “The Banality of Talking (And Why It Saved Me)”

I also like to associate therapy with ipecac, the children’s medicine that purposely makes you vomit. Like this wrenching little liquid, therapy makes you lose all of what you had inside you. What comes out is the putrid gunk of what was essentially poisoning you. Obviously this is not a pleasant thing when actually happening, but like most physical acts of retching, you feel better afterwards. Not great, but better.

You know how some things just stop you dead in your tracks and make you realize, “THIS is what I’ve been trying to explain”? Yeah. This.

I can not begin to tell you what reading this meant to me.  It was as if you pulled all of my experiences and thoughts on depression out of my brain and put them on the “page” more eloquently, carefully, and honestly than I ever could have.  I’ve re-read it three times and read it aloud to my husband.  He just told me he has a new insight into the patterns of my thought.  Thank you so much for writing this.

Up until I was 11, I slept with my baby blankie. The satin binding was completely rubbed away (my mom had replaced it once), and it had holes and stains. At 11, I made the decision to put my blankie in storage to keep it safe as we were moving to a country that was known for its instability, and I didn’t want to risk losing it forever.

In college, I struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, and I was going to counseling to deal with the fallout of childhood abuse. I found my blankie in storage maybe a year into the whole ordeal and have slept with it ever since.

dammit. that really just touched a nerve and made me cry a little. I’ve been thinking about going to talk to somebody for a few months now, but basically all the stuff that you said was going through your head- all the paragraph that starts “It was a conflicting feeling to carry around…”. Yeah, that’s where I’ve been, where part of me still is I suppose. Hell, most of this article feels like where I am. Part of me wants to just talk and talk (or write and write) and get everything that’s in me out. But I don’t want to loose that much crazy on friends or loved ones, and part of me assumes they wouldn’t understand where all this comes from or what to do with it. Which is why I’ve been thinking therapist….

anyway, thanks. really.

Oh crap. Now I’m all weepy. I remember my 4th or 5th therapy appointment after some terrible things happened, I said to my therapist, “But I’m just telling you the  same thing over again! What’s the point?”

And she said, “You’re going to tell this story over and over again. It’s going to have a different beginning and a different end each time depending on where you think this begins and how it will end. Different sights, smells and sounds will make their way into this story. You’re going to tell this story until you can look at it from a distance and say, ‘That caused me great pain and it made me feel sad and afraid for a long time. It still makes me feel sad and afraid, but now I know how this story goes and I know how to control it. I’ve worked out the details and now it’s just something that happened.’ Other stories are going to come up, and you’re going to tell them over and over again, too, but each time, it’s going to become easier to get to that point were you look at them from a distance.”

And that, I think, is the point of therapy. You keep massaging the details of everything until you can step away from what has been going on and find a little way to be present not in what happened, but in what is happening now.

And it’s such a talent to be able to talk about yourself, over yourself. To open your mouth and acknowledge that things are wrong or right or almost there, even with no audience except your pet or your mirror. And even if their not your grandma’s gifts ..maybe you could get a new pair of worry dolls?

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