anxiety ; the further problem

I've been trying recently to find a therapist in San Diego, by which I mean I have been saying I'm trying while in reality not looking at all and just knowing that as each day goes by I am aiding and abetting my anxiety rearing its head at ever more inopportune moments.

The main reason I have been so not at all doing the looking for a therapist is because my therapist back in Madison was just literally the best one and probably one of the best people in the world. I wonder if it's breaking some kind of reverse doctor/patient confidentiality to say his name here. Meh. I guess I'll avoid it for his sake. It's just really hard to look for a therapist when I know that it will be pretty much impossible to find one like Dr. Franzen (get the joke, because Jonathan Franzen is my emotional life spirit guide) and that even accepting that as an inevitability, I then have to remember that all the other therapists I've seen I've either mildly disliked or downright hated or almost worse, seen as just such a boring human entity of nothingness.

I'm not going to go through and list the flaws of every therapist I've seen aside from Dr. Franzen but they can probably boil down into the same trait that I find most deplorable in the average person I meet on the street, which is being simple. I'm not going to explain this in any depth whatsoever because if you understand what I mean you already know how horrible I am, and if you don't know you're better off not knowing and keeping the illusion that I'm a good person.

It's not that I think that everyone has to be difficult and/or complicated. I just don't want to associate on a more than friendly level with anyone who isn't. I think it's at the same time too boring and too challenging. It's boring because, well. And it's not challenging in the fun way, it's challenging in the way where it takes too much damn effort for me to have to explain every single thing I say and/or do and how it relates to my greater life and personality.

And now imagine therapy, where you're talking to this person who is supposed to be helping you understand yourself, so you're telling them everything you already know about yourself and how it relates, and they try and explain it back to you in ways that you seriously wish were true because they would have made your whole life from age 7 until present (24) a heck of a lot easier, but you know they aren't true because or else you might have been able to go to traditional college instead of absurdist alternative school or ever been in a serious relationship or been able to major in something semi acceptable that would have gotten you a career path job and your main talent wouldn't be something that is pretty much synonymous with neurotic – because no matter what anyone says, nobody chooses these things if they have another choice. If I could have taken those simple paths I would have. Being complex certainly has an aura, but at the end of the day nobody would actually pick that aura over how much easier it is to relate to the world the same way normal people do, because it is hard, and it's not something you would do if it wasn't inherently who you are.

And I know that many therapists are not simple, and that given the perseverance I could certainly find one who, even if he or she is not Dr. Franzen, might suit my needs, but it's kind of like dating. If it's just fucking tiring to think of going to dinner with so many idiots, imagine my exhaustion at thinking about spending money to speak to them.

Then there's also the factor that my successes in therapy in the past haven't even fallen on the traditional scale of how a therapist helps you. I've never been on medication and don't exactly want to be, because I strongly suspect that the processes my brain goes through in formulating endless anxiety are the same ones that give me creativity and alas I am not willing to stamp down my creativity for my sanity. But even more than that, Dr. Franzen never exactly analyzed my personality, and although I do think that would be interesting, I think that the biggest takeaways I got from him are more helpful to the way I operate in the long run. But they won't sound that way when I list them. Actually I don't remember most of them.

  1. Him calling me out on some of the absurd bullshit that I have been known to pull:

  • “It's fine, Dr. Franzen, I'm not going to worry about [X] anymore, because I know that even if one day our fine friendship did progress somewhere else, I'd always be thinking about if there was like some other perfect person/soulmate out there.”

  • “That's [some nicer word for bullshit] Becca, you can't do that. You can't just decide how you'd feel in a future situation and escape from doing things because of it. You just can't. You have to live it out.”

  • Him teaching me the 'shrug,' where when people like me spiral out all the ways everything in your life could go wrong or all the possible scenarios, a practice inherent to my anxiety, he says that sometimes you just have to shrug.

  1. Accepting that all of our thoughts are just thoughts and they have little to no bearing on reality and to not be the thought police on ourselves.

  2. Being a generally sane and calming presence who made me feel okay about life and my role in it.

  3. More things that I can't remember because then I got old and moved to California and it was stupid.

(Sry about that horrible list format, I fully blame Squarespace because it was FINE in OpenOffice)

Basically what I'm trying to communicate here is this guy let me just kind of talk to him about my shit and gave me advice that felt real and relevant to my life. I know that is probably the goal of all therapists, but now I'm just imagining everyone who said they were majoring in Psychology at Redlands sitting across from me in a therapists office, and crying. Because icky and boring and simple.

But I know I need to do it, because today as I was eating two different cheeses and beet chips and the only kind of salsa I can ingest from a jar, because every other one is inferior, I realized that I haven't made a meal for myself in over a month. We can certainly blame a lot of this on the fact that I work in a restaurant where I not only eat all day but also spend far too much time around the preparation of food, but that has not stopped me in the past almost-year I've been a server from eating everything in sight.

I can't cook or eat because I'm anxious. Food literally seems unappetizing. I thought it was pregnancy for a little while, which although not entirely unrelated, turned out not to be the case. I still force myself to eat things of substance to fill my stomach, or I go out to eat because even my anxiety cannot overtake my desire for aesthetically pleasing food and the joys of eating in a restaurant, or I stand at the counter and rotate between cheese / salsa / sauerkraut / dip / etc until I feel that I'm full enough to last me until I'm back at the restaurant, but none of these things are the same as actually cooking meals or even just making a sandwich.

Why am I so anxious, you may ask? Well, various theoretical reasons, but it all boils down to the fact that pretty much all parts of my life are very uncertain right now, and uncertainty is the well from which my particular brand of anxiety springs. Most people just accept this and assume that things are going well and then are sad when they do not, but alas I am not most humans. I instead analyze every way in which things could be going wrong at any given moment and come up with every negative scenario until I've driven myself to a panic attack / crying / sleep / etc etc.

I guess I'm just very sensitive to other people / jobs / home situations. And I've been fucked over by them enough to have a laundry list of horrible things they could say to me, and it's come out of the blue enough times that I'm prone to suspect that even when things are hunky dorey, they are secretly plotting all the ways in which they hate me.

This is no good! I know! And all my friends tell me this when I do the coping mechanism that my anxiety manifests in, which is seeking reassurance from other people, and since I'm obviously too anxious to seek reassurance from the people / jobs / situations I'm anxious about, I seek it from my friends and family, which beyond the obvious flaws of annoying your loved ones by boring them with every tiny detail of your interactions with a person / job / etc is also feeding directly back into the disorder.

And seriously, I already know all this. I've read all the books. I know that to stop the anxiety you have to stop engaging in the behaviors that you engage in when you get a negative thought, which include the aforementioned seeking reassurance from friends and family as well as reading articles on the internet about whatever issue one is having.

But then it leads back to the thing that even if you stop being anxious, you still have to deal with the fact that you're trying to grow up and become an adult and know how to act when interacting with other adults, and anxiety or not you don't know how. You don't know what the right thing to do is with the person. You don't know what is okay or not okay with the job or the potential friends at the job. You don't know when the housemates are annoyed at you or when they're just being people. You don't know anything and that is literally the breeding ground for the anxiety.

And here we are back at Dr. Franzen. Because everything I know about my specific anxiety disorder I pretty much got from books/the internet. He taught me a lot more about interacting with the world in a way that acknowledges how different I am but also helps me be normal enough to have functional relationships with other people/institutions/the world. Which is precisely what I am struggling with right now.

How do I find one of those again?   

A Portrait of the Waitress as a Young Artist: Empathy, Judgment, and no we don't serve 'green juice'

 Miguel has been sassy lately, for my last two shifts he has refused to make my breakfast – normally a morning routine – and passed the duty on to Adan, who all the servers hate for a reason probably similar to the reason I started saying only Miguel could make my breakfast, which is to say, none at all.

The daily spin of eggs with jalapenos, avocado, and peppers doesn't taste as good as usual, I can't tell if it's Adan or the egg whites I chose over my usual real eggs in fear of cholesterol – since I eat between 6 and 9 a week, working at breakfast restaurant.

The eggs/veggie combo is on of the last things I'll eat at my restaurant, the others being red potatos and discarded blueberry cheesecake waffles. Soon, it will be nothing – well, I'll probably never fully give up the discards. Miguel was really the only reason I still ate at work, having a personal chef who will make you anything you ask for was too good to pass up. Now that our flirtation has turned to everyone from bussers to other cooks asking if I like him, and him refusing to make my food, I don't have a reason to keep eating on my breaks. I'll just as soon fall even deeper into my Californism and wolf down some of my fat-free Greek yogurt or make a kale smoothie before work.

This will represent the last visible severing of ties between my life and the lives of my customers as they eat at my restaurant – not that me eating two eggs with veggies cooked inside, 'omelet style' (the cheaper way to get an omelet) bore any similarity to 90% of the menu items.

It didn't used to be like this. I didn't used to be like this. I used to go out for brunch at chains too, I used to eat out on holidays. I never went to the gym, I didn't buy or cook vegetables – I barely prepared my own food at all. I'm pretty sure my diet in college consisted solely of eating out, shitty commons sandwiches, green salsa, quesadillas, goat cheese, and beer.

Some of this is adulthood. Perhaps some of it is being a snob, but I think it must be fairly universal that waiting tables is a many months long class with daily coursework in “Who I do not want to become.”

I'm not talking about eating at chains anymore. That is convenience, and the fact that I never go out to breakfast because I'm working breakfast.

What I'm talking about now is the grander themes of the people we become while we're not paying attention.

I'm sure it's easy, with the media on child rearing the way it is, to become a parent who scowls when I say we don't have skim milk or snaps at me to not put any butter near their child's plate, but apparently has no cognizance of the fact that they're teaching their children to be rude to people of lower social classes working in the service industry. Or that they're teaching them that chain breakfast food is a fun reward, a habit they'll spend the next ten years trying to break.

I assume it's painfully simple to become a person who complains about hash browns under another table, a syrup smudge in front of you, or a piece of avocado on your waffle, but doesn't give a single thought to the factories the meat you're so happily consuming was prepared in. It's hard to research how the food you're consuming is produced, hard and scary. It's easy to complain about something meaningless that's right in front of your face, and it's easy to tell yourself that you are important because you can tell a waiter or a busser to clean it up for you.

It's hard to be a service worker and realize that you can no longer use putting other people down to justify your existence, because it's done to you so many times a day that you lose count, and all you know at the end of the day is that you never want to be that person, and you're going to have to figure out some other way to give your life meaning. But that kind of hard can't just be thrown away like a pamphlet on meat consumption, that kind of difficulty must be confronted every day when you go into work and another person tells you to “go get someone to clean this up,” and you have to turn around, go to the kitchen, grab a wet dish rag, and watch them avoid your glance as you stand in front of them, cleaning the tiny 'mess' that they presumably thought you were going to go grab someone of even lower perceived social status than yourself to deal with.

Unfortunately, waiting tables hasn't only given me perspectives that make me want to live a more intentional life. It's also made me impatient. When I'm in the weeds with two new tables and someone tells me they're ready to order and proceeds to spend ten minutes looking at the menu and saying 'hmmm' as I watch my manager glare at me from across the store, I don't feel sympathy. I resent every time in my life that I've been this person, I resent this specific person for having no awareness of their surroundings, but mostly I just want to tell them that it's basically all the same.

It's made me a worse person in some ways – I shamelessly laugh at people who ask if we have mint lemonade – “Oh yeah, let me just go pick the mint out of our in house herb garden.” Someone once asked if we had green juice. Or my personal favorite, when a woman asked if our tilapia was wild caught.

I'm afraid that it's making me more judgmental and rude, because of the way I regard these idiotic questions. At the same time, it's making me less judgmental in an entire other way. There was certainly a time in my life when I couldn't have named a single person in my day to day life for whom English was their second language. Now, the lack of him cooking my recent breakfasts nonwithstanding, I consider Miguel to be one of the pillars of my everyday life. You can laugh, go ahead, but name how many people you spend 25-30 hours of your week with. The people who you'd call screeching to them “Where were you today! I was so worried about you! I thought you were dead!” when they don't show up somewhere they're supposed to be. The people who you look forward to seeing every day, who you shoot glances at when other people are being crazy. Not only are Miguel, and all my coworkers – servers, bussers, cooks – my support system in that context, they've also taught me something incredibly important about all those words I've been throwing around – judgment, sympathy, empathy, compassion.

The reality of the service industry is that you're forced to acknowledge that every person, from 16 year old bussers to hosts going into the air force to servers with three kids to the divorced cook that you actually find yourself with a real crush on, has just as dynamic and complicated a life as your own. You don't get special privileges because you made your own degree or read five books a month or don't want kids because you hate the prioritization of the American family unit. Everyone's life and excuses for missing work and hangovers are equal, if anything yours are a little bit less equal because your problems are usually more selfish, you have parents who can bail you out in an emergency, and you have no mouths to feed but your own.

And it just may turn out that when every man you meet is a jerk and you've told some of the regulars in your life the same story three times before they remember it, Miguel asks you questions about your old roommate going crazy and your new house, things you barely remember telling him. Your coworkers remember every story of a man wronging you and curse them just as vehemently as the friends you've had for five years. You stop in to see your old manager and you wonder why you feel so great after the long talk you have, and realize it's because it's the first time you've sat and talked to someone for over and hour without the conversation halting because you're doing an activity in weeks. It makes you understand their lives and the legitimacy behind them with a love and urgency that you hope one day, you may just be able to extend to the next rude customer.

 

Hey Former Self: This is How to Survive the First Year

I was reminded when I inadvertently made a noise in the back of my throat the other day when I read the words “April 2013” that I still have emotions about graduating college. This doesn't come as a surprise; I frequently speak with one of my college friends who also lives in my new city about the fact that we believe we will always miss it, or at least miss parts of it: the friends at constant easy access, a stimulating environment in both academia and friendship. Going to dinner with professors, hosting our own social experiment parties, skipping class to go on a walk with your best friend.

As much as I miss these things, I think about them a lot less than I used to. The images of the life I loved so much are no longer on repeat in the back of my brain, every hour of the day. I no longer find myself crying while hiding scrunched on top of a hay bale in a shed that does not qualify as a barn, and not just because I no longer live in any proximity to hay bales. For a long time after that I didn't think I would ever stop being sad every single day.

Over a year after graduating, I am doing far better than just the simple baseline of not being sad every single day. So here's what I would say to my year ago self, and to my current and future self on how to survive in this here world without all of my friends at arm's reach, without professors to tell me how to live, without a life that is so easily surrounded by art and literature:

Read books, read so many books. Read all the books you didn't have time for because you were scamming free wine from academic events, gossiping over hangover breakfast in the commons, writing scorchingly honest essays in twelve hour periods, unable to read anything but the occasional assigned essay because you passed out the moment your head hit the pillow.

Read books to catch up for all the time missed, read books to fill up the time, read books to regain emotional stability. Reread books, buy more books than you can read, buy books for the future home library, because now that you're not in a place you're afraid of leaving you can think and dream about the future again.

While you're busy missing the wonderful people you loved so much and had the privilege of being surrounded by for four years, meet people who haven't had the privilege of such incredible luck.

Some of these people will be boring backpackers who make you realize that traveling and meeting new people isn't as idealistic as people make it out to be. This will be frustrating at the time, but it will only make you feel so much more grateful for who you were given.

Some of them will be friends who carry you through one of the worst weeks of your life even though they've only known you less than two months, and you'll be thankful that Johnston made you into a person that these people would love.

Some of them will be cruel to you, and they will remind you of your luck once again because you were raised by people who trained you in the art of empathy.

One of them will be a German twenty something named David Pastorias who will talk to you for hours outside a club in Nice and show you that not every traveler is just looking to drink. One of them will be a rapper from New Jersey who will fall in love with you for three days in Budapest. Four will be distant family members you've never met in the Czech Republic who will selflessly take you into their home for a week and make the traveling feel a hundred times easier. One will be your best friend's best friend from studying abroad who will remind you that you and your friends are not the only thoughtful, engaged twenty-somethings out there. One will be a fifty year old man who you will room with for three months who will teach you how to clean a kitchen and give you great dating advice and have you test out his hangover bars made of spirulina.

And ten or so of them will be your coworkers, who will shepherd you into the world of adult employment and teach you that not only is waiting tables a real job, it is a more real job than many of the 'real jobs' you fantasize about because it is held by people who are chiefly concerned with making a living in a way that you and many of your college comrades have never understood. They will put up with every mistake you make in your first two months, they will say they love your humor and sing You Can Call Me Al with you when it comes on the stereo. But most importantly, they will teach you just how privileged you have been to have a mostly-free education in things you loved fiercely, and that the world owes you nothing. You will become close friends with these people who you'd have never encountered if you'd stayed in the sheltered world, and they will make you realize things that will make you hate the unfairness of the world but also laugh at the beauty of it. You will come to love people who are your opposite: a recent high school graduate republican going into the Air Force, a 40 year old Mexican cook who makes you eggs every morning and who you will defend with ardor when the new waitress says he's 'mean,' a man whose husband is in the army and is working his way through nursing school.

I know that you are afraid of never seeing the friends who you cherish, but you will. You will spend a glorious week with two of them in Palau, you will ring in the new year in Seattle with two others. You will lie in bed with one of them and 'play Tinder' and laugh until you can't breathe. They will send you messages about how they know they shouldn't still miss school but they do, and you will say me too, me too. You will see them less, and you will not be surrounded by them, but when you do see them you will pick right up where you left off. That doesn't mean you shouldn't mourn that you will not be surrounded by them anymore, this is a great loss and it should be treated as such, denying that it is a loss will only hurt more in the long run.

You will reunite with a large majority of them at renewal, and it will be more beautiful and more terrible than you could have imagined in only the way that Johnston knows how. It will remind you of why you are alive and it will also tear you apart. You will sit in a dark room with fifteen people who seem like versions of yourself in other bodies and you will laugh and speak nonsense that somehow you all understand and you will lie with all your body parts entangled with theirs and wonder how the hell you are going to survive without them.

But you will.

Don't compare yourself to any other recent graduates, any soon to be graduates, or any adult in the history of the world. Everyone's journey is different, and you have no idea what privilege or horror someone has had to get them where they are. Anyone who seems happy all the time is either lying or insane. When you admit your weaknesses you will find that your true friends admit that they spend just as much time being miserable and not knowing what the fuck is going on as you do, no matter if they are in relationships or have great jobs or any other seemingly great situation. Everyone is confused and trying to find their way through the thicket of shit. You will be closest with the people who acknowledge this and embrace it, and together you will build a long distance raft which will help you navigate the churning sea of this thing they call 'adulthood.'

You and the other on your raft will connect with the rafts that set sail before you, and learn just how dumb you were while an undergrad and how ungrateful, and it will come as a small consolation prize that you now get to join the adult club of real life. You will find a strange camaraderie with that Paramore song about being on your own in the real world. When people still in college tell you about all the ways they're going to do it differently than you and your friends when they graduate, you will smile, nod, and think in your head, “tick, tock, tick, tock,” and wait for them to join the club.

You will wonder countless times how the hell it is possible to live as an artist and an intellectual while you're working at a cheap breakfast restaurant. And you will learn that the answer is both more simple and more challenging than you would have expected. The simple answer is that you do. You live. You do it. You manage. The challenging answer is that it's a lot harder to live and define yourself as an artist while working for minimum wage plus tips than it was when you were in college. You no longer have the luxury of lying in bed until five pm with a hangover, or skipping obligations to take a bath with your best friend, or having ten people who will faithfully read your forty page experimental essay. You certainly won't have three days you can disappear from the world for to write said forty page experimental essay.

Instead, you have to go to work. You cannot skip work, so you learn to get up at six or seven am and go. And when you are not at work, you learn that you have to go back to work, because this is how you live as an artist who is also a waitress. Your day off waitressing is your day on writing and painting and reading. You learn that you must read and write every day, and save your tip money for oil painting supplies and used books instead of new dresses and craft beer. (Okay, oil painting supplies and used books AS WELL AS new dresses and craft beer.) You learn that you are the only person who can define whether or not you are an artist, and that to live up to that definition for yourself you must write and read instead of sleeping in and watching television and drinking on weekdays. There is no immediate pay off for this other than the fact that it makes you feel alive.

Every morning when you get up to go to work which you cannot skip, you will regret every single time that you skipped a class, because you love learning and you do not love waiting on strangers. You must learn to forgive yourself for this, for no other reason than you were happy and free while in college and you never want to bemoan yourself for having relished that freedom which you no longer have.

As much as you hate going to work every morning, you will love going to work every morning because it gives you a purpose. Being settled in a routine will make you feel calmer than you have felt in years. This is the first sign that although you still miss college, you are perhaps healthier without it.

On the subject of health, your diet will stop consisting of commons food, leftover commons food, Cuca's burritos, Tecate, and hot plate quesadillas. For a long time your diet will consist of the food one eats while traveling, but once you settle you will realize that you actually do enjoy cooking for yourself and eating vegetables. This may not be worth as much to you as going to Hangar with different sets of friends two times a week, but your body will thank you for it later. You will learn to not 100% hate exercise, instead to only slightly dislike it and treat it like an entertaining but slightly unruly classmate. You will feel better about life while doing Zumba than you do while sitting around complaining, and for now, that is enough.

Another gift that life out of college will give you is time. In college, you felt that there was never enough. You were always worrying about how many/few weeks were left before the next break/the end of the year. You were trying to fit in every new friend and every party and it all left you with a frequent sense of high strung anxiety that there just wasn't enough time.

Now, all you have is time, which will prove to be a blessing. Use this time to find new music, which you haven't done in years. You'll hear songs that help you understand exactly what you are feeling about the past and how you want to feel in the future. You'll have enough time to make a balance of your life that feels correct rather than jamming in every possible thing that fits. With this time, get enough sleep and learn to cook and balance a social life and a creative life and a working life. You will have time to do laundry, but you somehow miraculously will still not find the time to clean. Go on dates with all weird kinds of men, discover new bars and wonder how everyone got so hip. Find a favorite stall at the farmers market, where the man always slips you an extra bunch of kale. Learn to like kale and actually discover which way you want your meat cooked and which types of beer you like best other than 'an IPA.' In other words, you will start to become an adult.

But the most important thing about time is that you will no longer feel like your life is a race against the clock. As much as you miss every day of your life being a grand adventure with another party to plan and another professor to go to dinner with, you understand that this is an exchange for your long term mental health.

Of course, there will be moments in this year that you will still cry, and not every moment, not even close, will be one of enlightenment about the beauty of the world and the shine of the future. Thoughts like these will threaten to cripple you:

“The only constant of the rest of the life is that I will always be missing my friends.”

“Every year that passes, every day that passes, I will be farther from the place that I loved.”

Sometimes you will be falling asleep and songs that you listened to in that last month will come on and you will have to rouse yourself to turn them off because it hurts too much to feel like you are falling asleep in your old room. At the same time, you hope that you have moments like this for the rest of your life.

Every day you will wonder if it will all work out. If you will eventually get into grad school. If you will be a waitress for the rest of your life. If you will ever have a place in the creative world. You will wonder if any of the boys will ever not suck, and if you'll ever find people who you love as much as your friends. You won't find the answer to any of these questions, not in the first year. But every day it gets easier to live with the uncertainty. And for now, that is enough.

So the short answer to how to live? You do. You make things. You talk to old friends who are far away and create a new life with the friends who are nearby. You find yourself talking about college less with the near friends and instead talking about your jobs and what you're doing this weekend and the boys you meet. You have new inside jokes. You come up with a hundred ideas a week about what to do with your life and you research ten of them and you accomplish one of them, and all of it counts towards something.

Last year, you were terrified of the fact that you didn't know where you'd be in a year. Now, you still have no idea, but it's a joyful sense of wonder, like when you got a geode split open for you at the cave you took one of your best friends from college to in your home state, and the rock that started out as a brown dirty mass split into five sections of crystal, shining in the still air, with countless tiny pieces falling down to the ground.