Birthday Post 3: Feeling 22

Archive re-upload note: this was a sensitive time in my life, when I was caught between trying to stay on good terms with my parents for the sake of staying in my siblings’ lives, and unpacking some very real memories of trauma I’d been taught to ignore and minimize. because there was still a chance, I kept quiet about my family online at this point, but blogged out of a need for words. It wasn’t until my father told me I could not visit them again (unless I agreed to subject myself to “reconciliation” through a Christian counselor that believed children, including adult offspring, should respect the authority of their parents), that I had nothing to lose and finally began my series revealing the memories I’d masked and denied during years of gaslighting. I will add that while I concluded four years ago to keep trying to be positive, it wouldn’t be long before depression swept me under again, and I learned that positive thinking itself is ineffective for healing and processing long-term trauma. I simply turned to it because it was all I knew at that time in my mental health recovery. I’ve since worked with several professionals who’ve prescribed psychiatric medicine that works, helped me develop tools and skills for coping with my lifelong mental illness, and have come to trust my own emotions a whole lot more – though I’m still learning day by day how to best express them and listen to the people around me. 

I’d been up for an hour this morning before I realized it was my birthday. I think that’s a first for me. I’m usually excited about a new age. I’m only writing a post today to continue the routine.

There’s so much going on, and so much I can’t talk about publicly yet. Some of it is good, but when I get together with my more intuitive friends, they can see it in my face: I’m processing a lot, and I’m getting up every day just to survive.

I felt elated the day I finished my book last week. I’d projected that writing this book would take about six months, and it took more like 30 months. That’s still crazy fast for the subject and content (it’s nonfiction, and the current title is “Poet Seeker: What I learned about noticing the unnoticed in everyone.” Alternate titles included “How to be a humanist without losing hope,” and “Believe in yourself, dammit”).

During those two years, I was also in school, moved out of my parents’ house, and started working full time.  I finally got myself into a routine of getting up three hours before work to write. Then I went and finished my book, so I’m caught every morning feeling ready to write, without a major project to work on. I’m making decisions about what to work on next while I wait for logistical things like edits and finding a publisher.  Acceptance finally motivated me to put serious work into my book. A few months ago, I took this free online course about how smart people underestimate the amount of time it will take to finish something. I told myself: “I don’t care how much longer this is going to take. I want to write something I’m proud of, something good, and to know that I worked hard on it.”

[Second author’s note – anyone reading this may be wondering, “Wait, you wrote a book in 2014? Why didn’t you publish it? How can we trust you to finish another one after all these years?” The manuscript is buried somewhere, and it came to a solid 50,000+ words. I even recorded the whole thing audibly so my sister could listen to it, and she liked it. The reason I didn’t pursue publication is that everything I confidently wrote out, from the bottom of my empathetic heart that wanted to see the very best in people, crumbled within weeks of its completion. Not only did my ideas stem from imprecise reactionary thoughts, I was describing the benefits of friendships and relationships that didn’t turn out to be healthy at all. “Poet Seeker” was an ideal – something I was writing in my attempt to prove the innate goodness of humanity, the ability to see the best and greatest potential in everyone. A year later, I still had only a few friends that the book was originally about, and still fewer now. Dedicating so much time to a book that had the quantity – word count for a book – but not the quality I knew I was capable of, taught me a hard lesson about how much output I can realistically expect from myself. I wrote it as a distraction from the turmoil I couldn’t share with the world – both in my family and in my circles. Because I’d been taught so little about what healthy looks like, I attracted unhealthy friendships. What I wrote was a book about how to be a doormat, and soon afterward, the story I really needed to tell would be revealed. That’s why I’m working on putting quality psychological research into the trauma I’m recounting in Music in the Dream House.] 

I’d finished the last ten chapters in a matter of weeks after telling myself that.  That’s the good thing that’s happened.

The bad things are, well, enough to make me exhausted at the end of every day, distracted at work, constantly on guard around people I once trusted, and struggling with the dissonance of re-evaluating memories. Most people in abusive situations don’t realize what’s happening until some experience shatters the illusion of love and mutual care and trust. I may or may not talk more about that, and about who’s involved, at a later time.

I’m in a safe place right now, so don’t worry too much.  For now, I’m alive. I’m processing. I know I’ve overthought the situation when I start repeating the same thought process, and I’m lying on the floor in shock. The only thing to do then is work on something else, or sleep. My brain can do so much for me when I’m asleep, finding solutions that my staggering wakeful mind cannot.  My counselor told me yesterday that he’s glad I started therapy when I did. I might not otherwise have the tools I’d need to deal with this. At the beginning of the year, I was too fragile.  I explained in this post that I didn’t need stuffed animals and imaginary friends until I was an adult. Today I need the comfort of dead authors and fantasy characters and my plush octopus, Gilbert.

A friend sent me the song “The Humbling River” by Puscifer, and I’ve been listening to it almost every day since. Its point is that no matter how many battles I fight on my own, there are some things I can’t do by myself. I need to rely on other people.  Those people are around me. Every week, I have people to talk to, people to support me, people to offer advice worth taking, people to help me face my problems, and people to help me escape from them so I can relax.

Which brings me to the inevitable philosophical discussion about Taylor Swift’s song, “22.” I never really liked the song much, but I sense bravery in it: “We’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time, It’s miserable and magical.”

I’m happy, because I’m in a great place personally. I’m getting better emotionally, I’m being productive, and every day I’m closer to the person I want to be. I’m free, which comes with responsibilities. I’m confused, but that doesn’t mean I’m not seeking clarity and trying to live logically, even if the most logical path requires pain.

Lonely? Sure. I mean, I don’t have someone to hold me and let me fall asleep to steady breathing, someone to make sure I don’t wake up alone before sunrise, feeling like I want to scream. I used to think I wanted to be married by now. Now I’m not sure I ever want to get married. I’ve lost so many people (and, to be fair, I sometimes initiated these closed-off friendships), that I think friendship is fluid. People grow and stop being compatible with each other’s journeys, and I can’t expect otherwise. Maybe it’s silly to stick with one person for an entire lifetime.

I’m told that such a thought process is typical for a 22-year-old. So yeah, I feel lonely, sort of. But I also have a very supportive friend group for whom I’m so, so grateful.  It’s miserable and magical. I’m not pretending like everything’s okay. Once I’ve spent some time facing reality, though, I’m going to remind myself that truth is positive. I’ll look in the mirror and say, “Hey, Cynthia, I’m looking good. I’m proud of me. I’m healthy and dedicated and I’m growing. Happy birthday, even though it doesn’t feel like it.”

Today’s plans are nine hours of work, followed by hanging out with a friend from out of state. I’m going to listen to positive music, and smile and laugh, because it’s what I’ve got. I’ll be listening to Disney’s “Jump In!” album, and lots of Superchick, and Avril Lavigne’s “Rock N Roll” and “What the Hell” because the older I get, the more I’m convinced that positivity is a choice.

Thoughts on Being an Adult with Imaginary Friends (The Gilbert Post)

I wasn’t the type of kid who liked dolls or toys. I wanted everything to be as real as possible. Play-food annoyed me, because it looked tempting, but I couldn’t eat it. I spent time in the real kitchen at an early age because I wanted to experience what I was making. If I read about something, I wanted to try it. This was amusing when I tried to blindfold myself and climb around the local playground after reading a book about Louis Braille.

If I was playing with other kids, we’d play at stories, but it had to be as realistic as possible.  This is what I thought about when I watched this TEDx talk my friend Andrew gave, which was released on YouTube last week. He talks about why adults should have more imaginary friends.  I think in many cases, adults may need imaginary friends more than children. Imaginary friends help us cope, and give us companions to help us find solutions.

The transition into personal responsibility and independence has, for me, been challenging and even antagonistic at times.  So it was that I didn’t have a plush toy with a name until I was 21.  One of my friends gave me an orange plush octopus this spring. I named him Gilbert, after one of my favorite authors, G. K. Chesterton, who is called Gilbert in the Sandman comics. Gilbert is super soft and huggable. I imagine that he has logical analyses for my philosophical questions, like his namesake. When I feel alone or fragile, I hold Gilbert and he makes me feel better.

The person who most inspired me to value my imagination is a fictional character. Sara Crewe from A Little Princess keeps her doll, Emily, when she loses her riches. Sometimes when she’s alone, she talks to Emily about her problems. One night, she comes to her cold attic, deprived of food and exhausted from work, and tells Emily that she thinks she’ll die.

I’ve read this part of the book so many times, I can quote whole lines from it: “You are nothing but a doll!” Sara cries, all in a moment breaking her grasp on her most crucial weapon, her imagination. Then she gets angry, and yells at the doll, and knocks her to the floor, making Emily’s sawdust-stuffed face lose its shape.  This was shocking behavior for Sara. She never cries, never loses her temper, and is a leader because she never makes herself disagreeable. The scene is jarring, but Sara hasn’t broken character; her character is breaking.

She picks Emily up and straightens her dress. “You can’t help being a doll,” she says. “Perhaps you do your sawdust best.”

About a month ago, my friend David suggested to me that virtual realities would make people happier. I asked if we’d demand reality, saying a system of mere games might be one to rebel against. He wrote to me, “I think in the future we will think very differently about ‘artificial’ lives.”  At first, this idea sounded, to draw on the most cliché example, like The Matrix. I want what is real, and only what is real. I don’t want to live in a world of play-food.

So I did some research on game theory and game compulsion (often mistakenly called “game addiction”). I found out that the people who are most likely to lose themselves in gaming are working with the same false dichotomy I’d set up: reality vs. virtual reality. The only difference was that I was clinging to reality, while others cling to virtual reality, deeming it more worthwhile than reality.

Another example is dreaming. Our brains need to sort out our experiences, and healthy thinkers problem-solve in their sleep. The experiences I have in my dreams might be more important to my personal story than my next mundane task. For that matter, daydreaming, or my personal ambitions and goals, are another form of unreality that impacts reality. In the same way, the imaginary conversations I have, and the dialogues I write and rewrite in my stories, are important.

A false dichotomy means there are more than two options, or the two options don’t conflict. In this case, the difference between virtual reality and reality is so unclear, the most unreasonable thing to do is try and divide them. Sane, logical, imaginative, and creative people live in realities that value a cycle of the two. We have ideas, and make them into things we can share. We have experiences and interactions, and process them as dreams.

I have to accept virtual reality and imaginary friends, because they belong in reality. I track my productivity and emotional satisfactions every day, and I added a new question to my evaluations: Am I willing to play the game, or am I stealing clues from myself by questioning reality?  I’m getting better at participating in the world of both the imaginary and the so-called real. Gilbert the plush octopus approves.