Blargh update: why am I doing anything?

It’s that time of the month–when I start checking my calendar to see when my next therapy appointment is. I meet with my therapist monthly now, timing which seems to coincide nicely with my declines into nervousness.

Like many, I was disturbed by the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and saddened by the death of Robin Williams. I wanted to write something about my feelings earlier, but I needed a break from social media. Trying to post anything lighthearted and unrelated that week felt shallow, and I needed time to gather the courage to admit what I want to say.

I’ve talked on this blog before about how I used to cry daily before I left my job in academia, but what I haven’t stated here, although I’ve talked about it publicly, is how often I contemplated my own death during that period. I wasn’t suicidal (my therapist said I was a low suicide risk), but I thought a lot about jumping off of things.

I remember going to a wine festival with David around this time, one of those pay $30 for seemingly unlimited wine. In general, I try to steer clear of this type of event because I’ve found they carry hidden costs (i.e. terrible hangovers), but we’d gone, and while the night started fun, it ended with a cheap can of high gravity beer and me yelling at David when we crossed an overpass, “Don’t you understand I want to jump off this.”

I didn’t really want to jump off the bridge that night. Nonetheless, my jumping fantasies continued until I left my job. At some point, I realized they weren’t about dying but rather escaping a figuratively high place where I felt trapped (the Ivory Tower).

Since leaving academia, my desire to jump has diminished, but I find myself worrying about what I will do if I find myself back in that place again. Which begs the question, why the heck am I trying to write and publish a novel? Whether I fail or succeed, the process itself is bound to provoke my anxiety and cause me a good deal of stress.

David works, and if I wanted, I could spend my days taking care of our home, making sure nothing collects on our feet when we walk around barefoot and preparing elaborate dinners like the kind we used to enjoy when we were graduate students in Berkeley. I think this is a valid life option for me, and one where my overall happiness might be greater than if I pursue writing. If I write, I know I’ll have to face down my anxieties, but if I don’t, it’s possible I’ll be less anxious.

But I know I’m not likely to be much less anxious. That’s the thing about my OCD–it’s always looking for something to latch onto–a possibility of peril that will jolt the circuitry of calamity hardwired into my brain. And writing provides some relief for this because I can live out my fears and experience emotional highs and lows in fiction rather than real life.

I still contemplate my death these days, but instead of jumping, I picture myself lying on a cement slab, slitting my chest open, and taking out my organs. I don’t want to die this way any more than I wanted to jump. I think this vision is about my desire to excise the pain caused by years of anxiety and reveal this part of myself to others.

This vision reminds me of a quote attributed to Red Smith about the difficulty of writing a daily column in a newspaper: “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

I like this image because this is what writing and storytelling feel like to me. It’s why I think they’re worthwhile ventures even if they cause me a great deal of anxiety. Stories help us to relate to one another as human beings. They help to reduce stigma.

But part of me worries that this exposure is self-indulgent, an unburdening of my own pain at the expense of others who must then bear some part of it. I was at a math conference dinner this past April when the subject of my public reading about my suicidal thoughts came up. I’d had a couple of gin and tonics in quick succession prior to this, and someone commented: “What will you tell us after three drinks?”

The implication his statement was clear to me: suicidal thoughts are not to be discussed in polite company, even if I’ve made them public in the past. (Sidenote: if you’re buying, there’s a lot I’ll tell you after three drinks.)

I know not everyone enjoys opening the emotional vein and riding the circuitry of calamity as much as I do, and I hesitate to make people uncomfortable or to unload my burden onto them. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge that I deal with these thoughts in order to reduce the silence and stigma around mental health issues. Even though, like most things in life, sharing my struggles scares the shit out of me.

I guess it’s a good thing my therapy appointment is this afternoon.

Worth the investment: therapy

I have a pet peeve. I hate it when people characterize an activity that provides an emotional release or comfort as “cheaper than therapy.”

This bugs me because I avoided going to therapy for a couple of years in my mid-twenties when I needed it because I thought it would be too expensive. It bothers me because going to a therapist was the single most important thing I did when I was trying to decide whether to leave academia.

I was fortunate to have mental health benefits as a graduate student and as a postdoc that covered most of the expense of seeing a therapist (co-pay of $20-25 per session). I went weekly for about a year and a half leading up to my departure from academia. It wasn’t cheap, but my therapist helped me to reframe the way I think about things. While I would have once characterized my internal panic as a raging river, it’s now more like a bubbling brook.

In terms of deciding to leave academia, my therapist helped me to distinguish my “shoulds” from my “wants.” Given the investment I’d made in my career and the prestige of the position, I felt a strong compulsion to keep going with it. However, I didn’t enjoy engaging highly emotional issues (death and violence) from an objective, analytical viewpoint. Although I felt like I should do it, I didn’t want to pursue my own research agenda. Before I accepted that truth about myself, though, I had to confront my feelings of failure and make sure I wasn’t motivated by impostor syndrome. My therapist helped me work through all of this.

If you’re considering going to therapy, many student and employee health plans provide mental health benefits. For those who don’t have coverage, there are other low-cost treatment options. Remember that therapy is both a short and long term investment. It provides relief for the issues you are experiencing today and gives you a set of tools to maintain your mental health in the future. Like a 401(k), I wish I would have started investing sooner.