Caring Less

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Photo by Abigail Keenan

By Rachael Whitlock

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might recall an article I wrote a few months back called “My Eating Disorder Doesn’t Define Me.” In that previous article, I spoke about an eating disorder that had consumed my life for the past five years. I recently decided to write this follow-up article because I’ve realized my problem wasn’t simply an eating disorder; in fact, it was much deeper than that. My real problem was my overwhelming fear of being judged negatively by others. The eating disorder was simply a symptom of my own insecurity. Many people experience this feeling of insecurity in their lives, and while I attempted suppress these feelings with unhealthy eating patterns, someone else may use a different method of control. I bring up my insecurity not to discuss repressing it, but instead to take the much healthier options and address them in order to correct the problem from where it begins. In other words, I’ve decided to care less.

Unfortunately, humans are a painfully social species, and it’s completely natural for us to care about what others think. If we didn’t have this empathy, we wouldn’t be able to form any healthy relationships or deep connections with others. In order to be happy, great relationships with others aren’t an option – they are a necessity. The fear of losing valuable relationships with people stems from the fear of other people’s opinions. And in some cases, this fear is useful. It can motivate us to behave in a way that makes more people like us. But in many circumstances this fear leads to anxiety, insecurity, and depression, which is counter-productive to creating relationships with others. The best way to overcome this is to simply not try so hard. Although it doesn’t sound very helpful, it works. Humans are drawn to others that seem confident and genuine, so the less we worry about others’ opinions, the more they will enjoy our company.

For me, caring less doesn’t mean being apathetic towards other people’s judgments of me, but simply not taking judgment from the wrong people to heart. Throughout middle and high school, I worried about what everyone thought: family, friends, acquaintances, even total strangers. But now, I can count on one hand the number of people whose opinions I let influence my life. I’ve found the importance in trusting a select few people who have your best interest at heart. Everyone else’s opinions should be ignored if they are not beneficial to you. This is probably the most difficult, and most useful, piece of advice I’ve ever been given. Even though I still have to consistently remind myself of my own advice, the advice itself has immensely helped my recovery.

Another way to care less about others’ judgments is to simply think of the absolute worst-case scenario if you ignore someone’s opinion. Chances are, whatever happens will not be anywhere close to how bad your imagination played it out to be. This tactic was extremely helpful to me because I realized that no scenario was worse than the one I was creating for myself by staying bulimic. I decided the best way to be happier was to think of how much worse off I would be if I didn’t recover. If I continued to let my insecurities rule my life, I would never get anywhere. Richard Branson, the well-known English philanthropist, perfectly summed up this notion when he said, “I’d rather look back on life and say, ‘I can’t believe I did that’ than ‘I wish I did that.’”

I decided to write this follow-up article not for myself, but for everyone else who is struggling with their own fears and insecurities. After all, that’s what college is about: struggling to fit in, to make a name for yourself, to overcome your personal burdens. At some point in their lives, everyone worries that others think negatively of them, and this insecurity can manifest itself in devastating ways. But with a shift in your own thinking, you can overcome much of these feelings. I am concrete proof of this accomplishment. Although it’s not an easy or a quick fix, it is possible to become the best version of ourselves if we simply care less.

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By Joseph Cox

I was 15 years old when I self-harmed for the first time. In media, there’s always a pale character shimmering in the darkness of the room. The knife slides through the flesh off-screen, the camera zooms in on the neck as it gasps in succulent relief, and the character fades into sleep as all the troubles slip away and the blood reaches the comfort of the sheets.  I found relief, but it came only from the shock of the moment. It wasn’t the cut, but the bitter realization that suicide was drawing near.

Every year as the clock ticks by, the candles get more plentiful, and I venture just a bit farther from home, that kid with the knife gets a little bit farther away. I remember the days when I’d stand in front of a crowd and shake so much that my skin would beat against my baggy jeans, but that boy gets buried a little deeper with every presentation, speech, and leadership role I encounter. Though, all the drifting feelings can’t hide the reality that the boy is never too far away. He was wrapped in the same blanket I’m tucked beneath as I write this now, he wore the same watch, he sang too loud in the shower to the same music, and, truthfully, the same things scared the hell out of him. The people that didn’t care about him then don’t care about him now, he didn’t stop caring about the people he loved, and he stubbornly refused to have apathy for just about anyone, yet, somehow, he became much happier. He rose the tired body that he detested out of bed every morning, tried to fix the hair he could never get right, brushed the teeth that pounded with brace pain, and put on polos that looked atrocious on him only to drag his depressed self to the high school that had zero chance of improving his happiness. I just turned 19, and I think back to what I’d say to that kid now.

I’d tell him that the sweaty palms and resounding thuds of his heart won’t go away no matter how many times he stands in front of a crowd, writes down words he hasn’t heard someone else say, or talks to a girl he finds attractive, but it won’t matter that he can’t quell his heart. His heart is what makes him feel alive. Even when he horrendously massacres a social situation, he’ll learn to laugh at himself, and he laughs quite a lot. Sometimes, he screws it up just for the fun.

I’d go on to explain that I don’t blame him for anything he’s feeling right now. He lives in a society that’s rigged with systems built to retain commerce instead of happiness, and high-school is a breathing example of a system that went horrifically wrong. I’d also know that he spends every day surrounded by people struggling just as much, if not more, than he is. Then, he comes home to watch the news that belts a cheerful, “Good evening world,” while proceeding to tell him all the reasons why the evening is not good at all. Also, his parents ask him, “You okay?” so many times per day that he’d love to have something go right in life just to have something else to talk about. I’d tell him that life is incredibly tough at times, and I don’t blame him for wanting to die for a fair portion of it.

I’d also tell him that his polos and overly large jeans aren’t hiding his chubbiness from anyone, that his brown polo he used for picture day in middle school made him look like a UPS salesman, that the roundness of his face is hilariously more accentuated when his hair is short, that he’ll forever have a hatred of sandals and flip-flops unless they are worn by Spartans, and that he’d probably hate himself less if he just went to the gym instead of dissing muscular people that have the bodies he wishes he had. Also, I’d tell him mac-n-cheese is delicious, and even though he’ll go on a ridiculous diet plan that no one should ever do, learn the convincing rationality of veganism, and come to despise the drowsy feeling he gets from consuming cheese, he should keep eating it for the fun of it.

I’d tell him these things because depressed people aren’t always blameless. People confined to wheelchairs aren’t always nice, veterans aren’t always cool, policemen don’t always shoot unarmed people, and small children don’t always bring me to tears with their high voices, so no one should be treated a specific way due to one characteristic.  Don’t get me wrong, life became immeasurably more enjoyable upon graduating from the cesspool of self-loathing that is the average American high-school, and some mentally ill persons are dictated by the terms of their respective diseases. But, it’s not as if the universe delivered happiness to my life. As much as I wanted it to happen, happiness never burst through my door in Kool-Aid man fashion with an “OH YEAH!” no matter how many times I said, “Oh no.” to the life I so desperately hated. Why? Because depression doesn’t come from having a terrible life, it comes from the perception that life will always be garbage. Hence, we kill ourselves to avoid the insurmountable avalanche of trash coming our way. No suicidal individual ever had the final thought of, “I’ll bet life would be great if I was living tomorrow, but nah.” The truth is, I always defined what happiness was for me, but the kid I was had no idea what that definition might be.

What I did know is that other people weren’t bullied, other people weren’t chubby, and other people didn’t struggle with the immense amount of other troubles that are too personal and lengthy to mention to an audience that didn’t ask for any of this. I also knew that I felt sorry for everyone else, didn’t want to be worthless, and wanted every person on the planet to be happy. Yeah, of course I was going to be sad when that’s all I was consciously aware of.

Look, what I’m trying to say is being purposefully antagonistic to any ill person, mentally or otherwise, is probably one of the least cool things you can do as a human being. It’s right up there with kicking the crutches out from underneath someone and hitting a dolphin with a boat; cruelty and misunderstanding to any ill person is no bueno. However, bashing the ill person over the head with empathy until they feel helplessly defined by the ailment isn’t a better alternative, for we should strive to listen and care for the people that need it rather than berate them with empathy. Had I received more understanding, perhaps I would have learned to define my own happiness sooner. Instead, I was caught in the world that always loved to come crashing down.

Obviously, I’m not asking anyone to walk up to a cancer patient and go, “Hey pal, I empathize and understand the severity of your situation, but walk it off, homie. It’s just cancer!” because anyone who says that should be kicked in the left knee repeatedly. What I am saying is that empathy, as rare as it may be, is only the beginning of a decent conversation. Empathize, think through the situation, and respond accordingly. Don’t just hit him or her with an, “Aw, I’m sorry, but life will get better soon.” That’s about as useful as reacting with glee at any cat video; it’s an automatic reaction now.

So, in conclusion, I’d tell my 15-year-old self that he’s incredibly strong for enduring the pains that his perception, and the things that caused such perceptions, had brought him. I wouldn’t blame him the least for wanting to kill himself either. But, most of those crappy things aren’t going to change quickly, and life is still going to be insanely difficult regardless of what he does. However, with some work, some great friends, and a hell of a lot of mistakes, he can manage to work his way through life. I won’t propose that there’s some one stop solution to everything, but I will propose that life gets to be much more interesting when you leave that dark room, that desolate high-school hallway, and the daily drag of allowing yourself to have the exact same thought patterns. Start small, kid, because each step makes the next step a little easier.

You’ll probably never figure it out, but that’s what makes it all so entertaining.

My Black Dog

BLACK DOG

By Joseph Cox

“Antonin Artaud wrote on one of his drawings, “Never real and always true,” and that is how depression feels. You know that it is not real, that you are someone else, and yet you know that it is absolutely true.”

― Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

Depression, as well as several other mood disorders, is interesting in the manner through which it is understood. With physical illnesses, understanding is mechanistically simple. Runny noses, aching bones, sore throats, lesions, migraines, and shattered limbs are things that everyone relates to, or, at least, can easily conceive of. Mood disorders do not have a wonderful simplicity to them. Each one is a unique, entirely subjective burden that toils on each person it presides in. We know of these pains through observances or metaphors. Through the works of Van Gogh, perhaps, one can reach a simplistic understanding of what a bipolar mind can contrive. Through the observance of the schizophrenic individual, in clinical settings or on a dampened street corner, one can come to contemplate the unknowable turmoil of a shattered mind. Depression, like its counterparts, is difficult to convey in plain semantics. I could speak to you of how depression feels indefinitely, contriving countless adjectives along the way, but all the adjectives in the English language wouldn’t make me a tinge more relatable. Depression, it seems to me, is best known through metaphor. The metaphor of my choosing is the black dog.

Before I expel my experiences with depression, it’s important to note the context of this article. Since coming to UWF, a question has pervaded itself into my life, so much so that my thesis is, to a large extent, dedicated to it. Most people don’t enjoy asking this question, because they find it to be too personal, or too difficult to answer at times. The question often lurks behind the thin veil of security that’s present in most psychology classes that analyze disorders, and it’s a simple one. Why do people kill themselves?

Through my metaphor, I hope to shed a certain degree of light on this question. Though, I find the exact answer to be impossible to reach with certainty. The reasons for taking one’s own life are one’s own. Each person is an individual entity with subjective experiences, so I find any attempt to provide a universal answer to the posed question useless. However, perhaps with my metaphor I may contribute to the de-stigmatization of suicide itself, and provide some insight into what goes on, for some people, in the moments before making the choice…

Whenever I’m asked why I pursue a career in psychology I usually give a response like the following: I had a bad night, and I don’t want anyone else to have that bad night. That’s the annotation my brain has assigned the night with the dog to keep the memory at a distance, “the bad night.”

My dog had a muzzle and a chain to keep it at bay. My muzzle was selflessness, and I did not use it sparingly. I was constantly plagued by thoughts of worthlessness, so any selfless act I could perform muted a fraction of the dog’s bark. If I was up until 3 a.m. speaking to someone else about their depression, then I was having a wonderful night. The dog was muzzled in its house, because it knew I couldn’t care less about its whining for that time. Most of my days were spent trying to keep the muzzle on. I’d probe my way into the lives of those around me not just because I cared, but because I physically needed to hear their problems. Every question I got, every confession I received, and every ventilation I handled kept the muzzle on for a few hours longer. On most nights, the dog would squirm its way free, and howl to keep me awake. But on the good days, the days where I could listen to the problems of three to four persons, the muzzle would hold for the night, and the dog would give up for a change. The beast would kneel in its home with only the faintest whimpers. I became addicted to that ‘do good’ feeling. I still am today, though the reasons are different now.

The chain was made of relationships, because each one I hopped into managed to stop the dog from tearing me apart. If I had someone to give absolutely everything I had to, then I had no time to worry about myself. I had no time to contemplate my existence, or listen to the dog bark, because I was too busy doing everything I could to please my significant other. I portrayed myself as the perfect boyfriend, because I was willing and ready to do whatever it took just to see a smile. I romanticized my position numerous times, but the result, in hindsight, was always the same. My care was suffocating, and it took me years to realize it. As a depressed ex-boyfriend, people loved to feed me useless information in a vain attempt to console me. “You did nothing wrong,” was always my favorite quote, because that claim was never made with sufficient evidence. Perhaps I had done nothing wrong morally. However, no relationship executed with my method could ever hope to be right either. Even if I had done no wrong to those I was with, I had wronged myself through willing subordination. I wasn’t Joe at those times, because I was too busy being a boyfriend. To an extent, I knew of my situation. I saw the unhealthy signs in every romance. After all, I was interested in psychology, but every chain was better than the alternative. Anything was better than letting the dog loose.

The dog feeds on the cruel indifference, apathy, and gluttony that we often feed it, either intentionally or by our forced hands. The might of the dog grows in the moments that no attention is payed to it, and it is within that ignorance that it comes to dominate every fiber of one’s being. My dog was sickened by the cruelty I had shown it, and once he’s free, he can consume the world.

In the bleakest moments, there isn’t a world beyond the dog. There’s no friends outside, no support lines to call, no exercise to do, no release to be found, because absolutely every nuance of the mind has been consumed by the power of the dog. Every thought becomes a gravely howl that seeps into the body to render it motionless.  If it wasn’t howling, then the dog would just preside over me with its breaths. A relentless monotony of constant misery that there’s no escape from, because there’s no distraction from an endless sound. If you’ve ever been kept up by the barks of a dog late in the night, then you can relate to the feeling. Except the barking is in your mind, rather than outside a window. Every second brings another bark that screams inside the mind, and shatters existence itself in all its fragility. Barking, howling, slobbering, and with the scent of its warm breaths heaving over me in cascading motions, the dog towered above me in the darkness. There’s only so much to feel when the dog eats the world. Sometimes the sweet release of numbness ushers itself in, and the barks, the roars, are silenced. The dog is still there, slobbering above me in all its glory, but the sound is mute. I’m pinned down by his mass, but no longer shattered by it. I’m just there, alone in the collapsing darkness.

Though, there are times when the numbness doesn’t come, and there are only two options left: Face the dog that has come to single handedly dominate every aspect of my life down to the most fundamental thoughts, or stop dealing with the dog at all. This is how it felt to want to die. The choice is no longer life versus death, happiness versus sadness, or a continued story versus writing the end, because the choice is just dog or no dog. Facing a seemingly insurmountable object, or escaping into the vastness of the dark that had consumed me to feel the revelation of silence.

Perspective is everything when choosing suicide, and it is my belief that no one should have to face that dog, or any darkness, on one’s own. What seems insurmountable when pinned down by outrageous misfortunes may be conquered swiftly with the power that kindness can bring. Though it may never leave entirely, the black dog can come to be trained. Through repetition, one can learn to coexist with that demon within, but the process is no easy incursion for anyone. From the clinically depressed to the grieving to those agonized by the happenings of life, we all have a black dog in common. We all must learn to cope.