My Therapist’s Awkward Smile

I’m sitting on a stiff couch across from my therapist where I’ve just finished disclosing the reason my posts on the blog have been slacking lately. She’s sitting cross legged on her chair, peering at me through her stylish glasses (I swear, she has a different pair for each outfit. Ok, she only has three pairs, but still) and suddenly a smile creeps across her face. She maintains eye contact with me until I squirm. I know this look well. This is the “I, as your therapist, know what you need to do that you probably aren’t gonna like” smile. And let me tell you, she has mastered it.

This is my fourth month of treatment at this ED program, and I have had session with my therapist- we’ll call her Nikki- twice a week (sometimes three) and countless groups with her during this time. Nikki knows me pretty well at this point, and I like to think I know how she operates. At least on a professional level. Suffice it to say, I see her awkward smile a lot. Just as she has seen mine when I hand it right back to her.

I had just finished discussing the LA Times Festival of Books’ impact on me, which went something like this:
“I loved my experience there, and it was incredibly inspiring and motivating, and I feel like ever since I have been putting fifty shades of pressure on myself to be the best. I’ve been comparing myself to the authors I was meeting- even comparing myself to the other young adults around me- so much so that nothing I write now seems good enough.”
I don’t even know if the others in attendance were writers! But suddenly, they were better than me, and everything I’ve produced since has been hot, wet garbage.

Cue the derpy smile on Nikki’s face. I gave her an awkward toothy smile back as I braced myself for her feedback.

“That pesky perfectionism, am I right?”

Ugh. Of course she brings up my perfectionism. And double of course that she instantly tells me I need to blog about the experience. Cue the Tina-esque groan on my end. (Any Bob’s Burgers fans in the house?)

I spent most of the day simmering about how I was going to frame this post. My only instruction was the write about my experience, authentically. What I landed on wasn’t the idea that thrilled Sasha. In fact, she’s a bit pissed. But I know that in order to truly be authentic, I should share the lies she’s been telling me.

Most of these stem from my experience at the Festival of Books last week (and beyond). As I mentioned above, while it was the most amazing event, I also left with a new load of worries. Particularly in Sandy and Michael’s panel, where I gloriously soaked up every ounce of insight they offered, I left with a fun little distortion filter Sasha slipped over my memories. I could now only focus on the insecurities that sprouted out of my mind, like weeds.

It’s a vulnerable thing to be sharing, and I know it’s the elephant in the room Sasha and I are crammed in together. Once one lie begins, shit begins to spiral:

My writing isn’t pretty enough. I don’t write in an eloquent way that commands attention, or in a way that stirs people when they read it for the first time. Or the second time. Or the eighth time.

My writing doesn’t use a lot of frothy, figurative language or intelligent vocabulary. I’m a literal person. I’m not great at writing anything worthy of formal publication.

My writing doesn’t delve deep enough, it merely scratches the surface. I’m not good at the whole “underlying meaning” thing. “Profound” is not a word you would use to describe my writing.

I don’t write in a compelling enough way; people read the blog out of pity or because of a flashy title. They think my writing is trash.

Super fun, right? Let me tell you, it’s a lot easier to ignore posting on your blog when you’re convinced anything you write is utter crap.

Hence, Nikki’s awkward smile. With one look I knew she was staring down Sasha, trying to kill her with the kindness of a too-wide grin. And when all was said and done, I knew I had to believe Nikki. She’s one of few who can see through Sasha’s mental filter to snap me back to reality, where my only worry is when I’ll have time to post on any particular day.

Because, after all of these toxic thoughts that have been flooding my brain lately- listening to Sasha’s lies and staying silent on this blog- has caused me to go against the entire reason I created the blog in the first place! To challenge my perfectionism, my social anxiety, and to put down the rope. Not only that, but to do it in a way that makes sense to me. That fosters creativity and allows me to run free amongst my thoughts, without abandon.

It may make me squirm, but Nikki’s smile is what pushes me to be effective. She knows exactly what to do to point out the elephant in the room that I share with Sasha. After all, I created this blog for me. And I don’t remember typing anything on the About page about succumbing to insecurities. Putting Down the Rope is mine, and I am here to stay.

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Nikki may have mastered the awkward smile, but no one can top Tina Belcher.

Let’s talk about the fact that I had completely finished this post and then it all got erased and I had to start over. Talk about challenging perfectionism. (Still fighting those thoughts Sasha is feeding me about the post currently sucking in it’s new iteration. SHUT IT, SASHA!)

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Writing, Perfectionism, and the Author Who Gave Me Permission to Take Breaks

If you read my post about my experience at the LA Times Festival of Books this past weekend, you know that I went to an awesome panel about writing memoirs. On this panel was author Sandy Allen, who discussed at length what it was like to write their book. Despite my belief prior to the panel that I would exclusively be excited by Michael Ausiello, Sandy definitely changed that for me. When they spoke, I dove head first into their words, eating them up hungrily.

Many things Sandy said stood out to me, but there was one comment in particular that I clung to. They mentioned how, in graduate school, their peers and friends would spend every day writing. Sandy wouldn’t understand, exclaiming “What do you even have to write about?!,” not able to figure out how they came up with content to write every single day. Unlike their peers, Sandy had a different writing method.

Their approach is different than the one I’ve heard over and over about the writing industry; that you must always be writing. Sandy, instead, takes breaks (imagine that!) and writes when there is content to write about. And not all days are spent hunched over a Word document; some days are spent researching or interviewing subjects, and are just as productive as the days spent writing. Hell, some days are for going to the beach and stepping away from your project for a little while.

 

In case you all forgot, or just haven’t been paying attention, I am a perfectionist. I made this a daily blog to help decrease my perfectionistic tendencies, like spending weeks on the same essay, and allowing myself to post even the smallest of posts. However, lately, that has equated to me pushing myself to generate worthy content every day, which isn’t always easy. Not only that, but I fight my perfectionism on what I post. Some days, I think I have to continue to write pieces that will continue to captivate my audience and increase my blog views. Which, of course, goes against why I created this blog in the first place.

So, when I left the Festival of Books this weekend, I came home and reread the “About” page of my blog. Because it’s all about how I created this site for me. Not for the audience, or for a certain number of daily page views. Sandy had reminded me that it is ok to go at my own pace, and take breaks when I need/want them. The blog won’t vanish if I don’t post every day, and people won’t stop reading if every once in a while I post something that isn’t exactly profound.

This post is for me to remember that my worth and my perfectionism do not go hand in hand. In fact, my worth is so far from what my perfectionism tells me, it’s absurd. This is also a reminder to you, that it is perfectly ok to take breaks and not beat yourself up over the small stuff. Stress and pressure will come and go, but you want to make sure you are doing what you are doing for the right reasons. Don’t let the thing you love take your mind for a ride without your permission. Nothing is perfect. Neither are you.

 

*If you are a reader (and even if you aren’t), I encourage you to go pick up a copy of Sandy Allen’s book, “A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story About Schizophrenia.” I’m only a few pages deep and I’m hooked. 10/10 would recommend.

For the Nerds & the Newbies: My Experience at the Festival of Books

This weekend I was in Los Angeles attending the LA Times Festival of Books, aka, my own personal heaven. I attended panels by beloved authors and poets, met new people, took many pages of notes, and peed in a hot port-a-potty. It was a weekend fueled by creativity, coffee, and the desire to learn as much as possible.

In a way, this weekend was both terrifying and exhilarating. I felt drawn in to the high of art and writing and creating; the authors before me had been successful, why couldn’t I? Each panel delivered unique advice that I scribbled in my notebook as fast as my hand could move. I felt prepared in a way I hadn’t before; reassured that I was doing everything “right,” even though art knows no right or wrong.

At the same time, I felt like a grain of sand at the bottom of the ocean. There was so much talent surrounding me, and the eloquence that poured off of the lips of these writers intimidated me. How could I write something as profound as them, or even come close? As I listened to them describe their writing processes and meeting deadlines for their editors, I was overwhelmed. My head swam with toxic thoughts of incapability and impossibility; how would I ever be able to do anything like this?

Like waves lapping on shore, my stress ebbed and flowed. One poet during the first panel of my weekend adventure mentioned that he was not “a sophisticated thinker” like the others he was sitting next to. And yet, I was captivated by his perspective and story, and felt more connected to him than the others. I remember thinking, “Well he claims he’s not a sophisticated thinker and neither am I. But if he can get this far, maybe I can, too.”


The panel I had been waiting for all weekend arrived, and I was fighting through some gnarly GI symptoms that I had woken up with that morning. I’d be damned if I let my chronic illness stop me from being in the same room as the author of one of my favorite memoirs. I popped some Pepto, took a deep breath, and braced myself for “Memoir: The Unexpected Hard Stuff,” with authors Sandy Allen, Michael Ausiello, and Meaghan O’Connell. With my notebook in my lap, and my pen poised, I was ready to absorb everything they had to offer.

I ended up not taking notes at all, too enthralled with what each author was saying to bear ripping my attention away, even for a moment.

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iPhone realness: L to R, Sandy Allen, Michael Ausiello, Meaghan O’Connell

Each panelist spoke beautifully about their process and challenges they faced while writing their respective books. I was fascinated by Sandy’s story; their book was written over a period of 8 years after their uncle had shipped them a messy manuscript of his life and his schizophrenia. Sandy spoke beautifully about what it’s like to write nonfiction, and all of the hard work that is required to do justice to a person’s life.

Michael spoke next about how difficult it was for him to write about something so tragic, so traumatic, so soon after the death of his husband (which is what his memoir is about), and yet, how writing helped him make sense of the tragedy and how he felt his late husband’s story deserved to be told. He wanted to introduce the world to the man he loved. How powerful stories can be that each person who approached Michael that day, hands slightly shaking as they handed him their own precious copy of his book to be signed, had (or will have) their own experience while reading it. Each took something different from each page compared to myself or anyone else waiting in line, waiting for the author to crack open the cover and write them a message on the title page of his book.


Never would I have thought that at the LA Times Festival of Books, in front of a panel of esteemed writers, I would overcome a major social anxiety exposure. At the end of each panel, there is time for a few questions from the audience. As I am always fearful of how I will be judged or perceived, I usually keep my mouth shut in situations like this. But three brilliant writers were sitting across from me, having accomplished what I strive for in writing about my pain. I couldn’t leave without speaking to them directly.

I had my question ready the moment the moderator sent the first question down the line; each author responded very differently to how they crafted their work, and how long it took them to write about things that are painful. My perfectionism kicked in, as I realized my question lacked form in most respects, but I let go of that judgment so that I wouldn’t miss any of what was in front of me because of the chatter in my head.

I found myself fully present in listening to each author’s response, though my heart would skip a beat when I thought about my question. I was worried I would forget it and make a fool of myself. In previous panels, audience members who wanted to ask questions at the end of the panel were brought a microphone to their seat by the volunteers of the festival. You could stay seated or stand, and I was comfortable with this. I could ask my question while still remaining “safe” next to my friend, in my seat. I was still blended into the crowd. But of course, the universe knew I was working through an anxiety exposure, so when it was time for the Q&A, those who had questions were asked to step down to the very front to whichever microphone was closer- there was one stationed on the left and right of the stage.

Hell no, I thought. I was not about to embarrass myself by standing in front of everyone and asking my not-yet-fully-formed question. How would I stand? Would I cross my arms as I waited behind the other woman with poofy blonde hair who had already positioned herself at the mic closest to us? Would I draw my hands together behind my back, or should I let them fall by my side like limp noodles? Seeking final reassurance, I leaned over to my friend as the woman on our side addressed the panel. “I want to ask a question, should I go up there?” I whispered, as inconspicuous as I could manage. I didn’t want to come across as disrespectful by talking in the middle of the Q&A. My friend smiled and nodded vigorously as the poofy-haired woman wrapped up her question and stepped away from the microphone. I slipped out of my seat and down towards the stage, praying that I looked confident despite my strong desire to become endowed immediately by Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.

I wound up being the last question of the day, an honor I received anxiously, as I peered around to make sure someone with a more eloquent or pressing question was waiting in the wings behind me. There was no one. All eyes were on me, and I was the only one in the room standing. I smiled awkwardly, leaned in towards the microphone, and began to speak.

The mic wasn’t working. No one could hear me. Of course the microphone wasn’t working! Michael looked at me and said, “Use the microphone!” to which I nervously called back, “I don’t think it’s working.” So, naturally, the moderator had the girl with social anxiety cross in front of the entire audience, directly in front of the panel (including the author she admires), to the microphone on the other side of the stage. When I had finally obtained a working mic and the audience had died down after the laughter that ensued my impromptu runway walk in front of everyone, I cleared my throat and began to speak. This time, my voice echoed through the lecture hall, and I made eye contact with Michael.

I definitely rambled, but managed to form my question in a way that could actually be responded to. If memory serves, it went something like this:

“I’ve heard before that when writing about trauma, there is a Three Year “Rule” to abide by; you should wait three years after the traumatic event to begin writing, to give yourself some distance and perspective on the experience. I was so interested in the time it took you and Sandy to write your respective books, and how different each process was. I’m curious, do you think if you had waited until after you had gotten some distance from the tragedy, you would have produced a similar result? What is your opinion on the difference between waiting or writing during the grieving time?”

With quivering legs I waited for his answer. The moderator jumped in by “correcting” the Three Year Rule I had mentioned; “That’s not really a ‘rule’ necessarily,” she said to me, causing me to blush and my anxiety to rise. Of course, I had not planned on following the so called “rule” that I had heard the day before, but was merely curious about how writing about personal trauma is different for everyone. I pushed away the thought that people in the audience were judging me for mentioning this Rule, and focused on what Michael had to say.

First, he thanked me for telling him that I had loved the book (I wasn’t sucking up, I genuinely loved it. Everyone go out and buy yourself a copy.) and then dove into his answer. He mentioned how he wouldn’t have written the book had he waited. Writing it so soon after his husband’s death gave him a fresh perspective; the memories were still vibrant in his mind, and he knew that if he waited, he wouldn’t get the opportunity to tell his husband’s story the way it deserved to be told.

This ended up being the response that catapulted me into a discussion with Michael at the signing afterwards. I expressed how writing through pain and chaos is a way for me to make sense of what I’m going through, and ultimately, helps me get through it. I ended up telling him I’m in treatment for an eating disorder, and if I didn’t write about it, I would be in a very different place. I was able to tell one of my favorite authors that his book helped me through a very difficult time, and that I was so grateful to him for writing it. It was a great ending to a phenomenal (albeit, stressful) morning.

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Meeting Michael Ausiello

This festival as a whole was so brilliantly designed. Each panel audience stocked with seasoned readers and writers, as well as those who didn’t know who most of the authors were, but were curious about their topic at hand. (Except for the man who fell asleep and started snoring during the Poetry: Trauma and Beauty panel…maybe he had just had a long day.) From the nerds to the newbies, there was something for everyone; some piece of advice or line from a book or poem that someone grabbed onto and will keep in their memory bank forever.

That is what great art is about. Everyone will interpret experiences differently, and that is the beauty and power of great literature, art, poetry, theatre, film. The world is endless, and I am small in a sea of stories waiting to be told.

 

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My contribution to this wall: “The School Story,” a children’s novel by Andrew Clements. It was the first book that gave me hope as a young girl that I could be a writer.

PS- I originally wasn’t going to disclose the book I wrote on the wall above for fear of being judged for it (#socialanxiety) but my copy of this book is worn with pages falling out because of how many times I read it growing up. Hell, I read it a few weeks ago to find some inspiration, and it was just as good as the first time I read it. The book that changed your life doesn’t have to fit a certain mold or be any profound piece of literature. It can be something as simple as a children’s novel that sparked inspiration and power within you.

 

Books You Must Read:

Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies Michael Ausiello
A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story About Schizophrenia Sandra Allen
And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready Meaghan O’Connell

Social Anxiety: The Spotify Challenge

I remember in junior high a friend of mine was in the car with me as we listened to a CD I was really excited about; I probably got it as a gift, as I have the tendency to listen to the same thing over and over if I’ve just discovered it. We reached a track I loved, and I turned to my friend and said “This one’s my favorite!” She gave the first few seconds a listen and then replied “You really like this type of music, don’t you?” with a judgmental, mocking tone. That’s the first memory I have of feeling ashamed about my taste in music.

And then came school dances, when I was the only one who wasn’t singing along to most songs blaring over the loudspeakers. College parties were worse. And post-college. And…right now.

In program today we were discussing how to establish relationships with people we encounter regularly, like folks in program or work or some such thing. Someone asked how we get the conversation going, which is how we got on the topic of music. I had a bit of a revelation sitting there while our therapist discussed how music can be an incredibly vulnerable thing.

I had made a Spotify playlist for the new year, and I realized 2/3 of the songs in the playlist I had chosen because I thought that’s what I should be listening to, but not actually what I wanted to be listening to. In fact, when those songs came on and I was alone in the car, I would skip them. And skipping 2/3 of a playlist leaves you with very little. But on the off chance that I would be driving someone around in my car, I wanted to make sure my music was good enough; I didn’t want to be judged or mocked or told I wasn’t cool because of the music that I listen to.

When I admitted this revelation to the group I felt shame, but also a bit of relief. I had buried this inside of me for so long, it was nice to share it in such safe environment. Not only that, but to get validation from others that I’m not alone in that, because music is a very vulnerable thing. One of my friends mentioned, “It’s like having someone read your diary.”

This revelation got me thinking about how often I am in my car and how I listen to music every time I’m driving anywhere- even if it’s two minutes away. Why should I let my social anxiety get in the way of something I enjoy so much?

That said, I decided to make myself a challenge in group today to create a new Spotify playlist that is 100% for me, and not for anyone else. Another friend of mine chimed in and mentioned that I should blog about the experience. So, here I am.

Let me tell you, this mental filter I’ve got with music runs deep. I had to think very mindfully about the music I was adding. And, of course, my perfectionism kicked in and fed me all kinds of lies about how the playlist looked, and how long or short it was, and certain artists I was including. I still think the playlist is far from perfect, but I realize that it’s not something that’s permanent. I can constantly be switching things around if I want to, and I’m allowed to be bored with certain songs. Just because I find it boring, doesn’t mean I’m forced to keep listening to it.

As promised to my accountability buddy (you know who you are), below is my playlist. Love it or hate it, I don’t care. This is mine.

 

Perfectionism and the Creative Process

Nothing is good enough.

Too much punctuation

Not enough punctuation.

lowercase adds to the poetry

But looks wrong.

Stop.

Backspace

Not good enough…

Will people want to read this?

Of course not

they don’t care.

Change it so it appeases my

friends*

on social media who I don’t really

Know.

Wait.

Delete.

Distract.

Delay.

Wait for a better idea

something that is profound

that will get a thousand likes and

hundreds of shares.

What do my friends and family

want to hear?

Will they be proud of me?

[no]

Not good enough…

Wait.

why am I trying to appease

everyone else

but me,

the author

poet

writer

[fraud]

Move those words around.

They don’t make sense like that.

[Stupid}

Too many judgments

I can’t catch them all

They’re heavy

I’m

 

falling.

 

 

The weight

 

 

is too great

 

 

 

 

endless.

the pit is endless.

i can’t get back up.

too much self

judgment.

I’m tired.

Too tired

to try again.

 

put down the rope.

 

Her voice is in my head

Like a lighthouse

swinging it’s light

round and round

to bring ships home

to safety.

Put down the rope.

Let go of the judgments.

 

It’s ok

I know you can do it

[artist]

It will be messy

Art is messy

Art is not just for everyone

else.

Art is for you.

Put down the rope

Your hands are raw and bleeding.

There’s no need to be perfect.

[no one is perfect]

No.

No one is perfect.

Time to be messy

Put down the rope

and smear those bloody hands

on your canvas.

Delete the punctuation

do what is unconventional

do what is joyful

do what is creative

for you.

 

one by one

I let the judgments go

and I float

back to the start

the blank page.

open mind

open heart

open soul

 

I rise.

putting down the rope

I want to elaborate on the title of this blog, because I obviously chose it for a reason. So, I want you to picture a room. In one corner, there is a rope. In the opposite corner, there lies your passion, creativity, career, hobbies, relationships, etc. You can’t get to the opposite corner because you are always busy tugging on that rope, in a constant tug-of-war with whatever holds you down and tells you you’re not good enough. And when you’re busy yanking on that rope, you don’t have the freedom to do what you want because you’re so hung up on what others want, or how you might be perceived. Well, I have a lot I want to say, and I’m tired of fearing judgment. My arms are getting tired.

I am a queer woman who has more than one passion; speaks more than one language; has a diagnosed anxiety disorder and depression; is recovering from an eating disorder; has a chronic illness; is a daughter, sister, cousin, niece, friend; yearns to travel; loves to roller skate; doesn’t regret the past. I am so many stories held together with skin, muscle, and bone. Much like you.

In the past I’ve often felt alone in my stories- I write to connect with others. To you. Human connection is the most important thing on Planet Earth, and I want more of it. I want others to not feel alone, as I did. I want others to find something in my stories they can relate to. I want you to put down your rope and live your life pursuing your passions. All of that can start with some words on a page.

I will be honest on this blog. I will share the successes and the challenges of my life. It won’t always be pretty, but life isn’t always peaches and roses. I value ending the stigma surrounding mental health, so that is the approach I will take here. Most importantly, I strive to make this blog unabashedly, and unapologetically me. I have fought social anxiety and perfectionism for a long time; I constantly worry about judgment from others, or how I can put others’ happiness before my own. It’s time I put down the rope, end the tug-of-war, and write for me.

 

 

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