January Breakthroughs


CN: Mental health, anxiety, therapy, public embarrassment, fire, mention of death (no-one has actually died)

This is a story of something embarrassing I did many, many years ago, and how I finally let go of it and became a calmer person in an unexpected multitude of ways. (Portions of this post appeared on my personal Facebook page this weekend, so for those who follow both that and this blog, you will recognize some of this content.) tl;dr: Therapy works; techniques your therapist suggests for letting go of problems often work better than you expect; mental illness lies to you a lot; I am a happier person as of yesterday, thanks to fire.

Years ago, I was in a friend's wedding party. It was my great honor to be in that wedding party, one of the first times I got to stand for a friend at a wedding. At the time, I had a maybe-sorta-kinda diagnosis of anxiety, but not any kind of real help to go with it -- my insurance only covered group therapy except in special cases, and the group therapy I had available required I leave work early, which was getting me (illegal) pressure from my bosses to stop going to the "class" I was going to*. All of that is to say that I was self-medicating at the party as I always self-medicated: with alcohol, and too much food (especially too many carbs), and being kind of blustery and toxic (because maybe if I engaged in the weird chimpanzee-troop social dynamics of my then-primary social circle I might feel better).

Naturally, this concoction led me to make an intensely embarrassing, drunken, anxiety-fueled, blustery speech at the dinner that got me (deservedly) made fun of for a long time. (I also remember being booed, but people who were there insist that this did not happen, so I am assuming this is a case of my brain weasels lying to me.) It was...terrible. I got out some nice words at the end, and the bride and groom insist that is what they remember (and that I was not the only one with a horse in the Embarrassing Wedding Speech race), but the bad is all that stuck with me for years. I literally flashed back to what I said and did weekly, the emotions still coming at me all sticky and raw.

It impacted my life badly. Topically speaking, it impacted my writing badly. If I can't sleep because bad thoughts keep me awake, how can I succeed at work and leave the office feeling good about myself? How can I concentrate on my writing with low energy plus guilt at an unproductive work day? How am I supposed to keep myself creating, a career which is inherently built on a series of small (and large!) failures, when I keep worrying that my next screw-up is going to produce a memory as barbed and traumatic as that one has proven to be?

This week I talked to my therapist about it. She asked me if I knew why that speech happened the way it did. I said I did. She asked me if I knew what I needed to do differently in the future to avoid having such strong anxiety episodes. I said I did. She asked me if I feel that I have internalized those lessons. I said I did.

So, she said, why are you still hanging onto it?

I know the trope of a psychologist asking an armor-piercing question that engineers an instant breakthrough is exaggerated by the media for the sake of resolving conflict within the runtime, but I am here to tell you that sometimes it happens.

Once I got my mental axis stabilized, we discussed how best to get rid of this painful and intrusive memory, to try to let this baggage (and a lot of other baggage impacting my quality of life) go. My therapist offered some techniques, and we agreed the best thing to do would be for me to write out, in detail, what that experience was like, and burn it. (Other options, for those playing the home game, were putting it in a bottle and throwing it in the sea, and putting it in a balloon and letting it go into the sky, but both of those have a worse environmental impact.)

So, I wrote out the memory yesterday, as best I remembered it, all of the little details that hurt the worst, from the moment I went off the rails to the friends giving me pointed, silent mockery months later for my screw-up. And I took it out to our barbecue grill, and after a long, slightly comedic struggle to get our barbecue lighter to actually produce flame, I burned the little wood-pulp bastard to the ground and watched it curl up into black, illegible nothingness.

And honestly? Right afterwards, I was shaky with adrenalin; but also, that memory doesn't hurt anymore. It's there, and I can remember the lessons I learned from it about public speaking, alcohol consumption, and the need to be ready for certain social situations to change in certain common, human ways; but I don't flinch at it the way I used to. Some of that is my friends coming out of the woodwork to say "Dude, who the fuck mocked you for that?" But some of it really is the symbolic act of letting the memory go.

Not only that, I am, at least right now, finding it is having some knock-on effects on other intrusive memories and thoughts. For months now I have had trouble getting to sleep because I've stayed up late at night contemplating my own mortality and, on the worst nights, worrying I am going to die in my sleep; last night, for the first time in a very long while, that thought both entered my mind and did not interfere with me drifting off. (I mean, there was a spike of worry for a second, but I also managed to logic out my overall health and remind myself that, barring a cataclysm, I was waking up the next day.) And I now know that if something starts to get on top of me the way that speech did, I have a way to deal with it, and for bonus points, it means I get to play with fire.

So as I said in the tl;dr: therapy works, and I am feeling a lot better. I'm going to be trying to engage in my therapy practice more going forward -- I had been ignoring a lot of articles my therapist sent me home with, not wanting to let this subject dominate my life, but I think that she has a lot of good ideas and I should give them all a chance. (My therapist herself has said I can throw away anything I feel doesn't apply to me, so that helps.) I'm very glad I finally broke down and got myself help last year, and that I am privileged enough to have access to help. May this be the herald of a healthier, more mentally fulfilling year for all of us; and may this be the start of me making some Good Art in 2018.

*I had not admitted it was therapy because at the time I thought I might want to get a promotion at that sinkhole of a gig, and I didn't want to mess up my chances by admitting stress management was an issue.