Slow Change And Matters Of The Self

There are moments in a day, as I pursue my usual routines and common pastimes, that I find my mind at rest and my head empty of thoughts. These moments frequently arrive on the tail of simple thoughts, small ideas bouncing around my head as I direct myself toward some goal or task. A reminder to thoroughly scrub my scalp in the shower. An errant consideration about skipping the current song on my playlist. Some spark of imagination or creativity ignited by the podcast or audiobook I’m listening to. A recollection of something I meant to do earlier in this room I just entered but had forgotten until just now. As my body responds to the thought, taking action, or my mind files the spark of creativity away until I can focus on it, I become aware of the sheer size and emptiness of my mind in those moments.

The constant churn of anxiety. The echoing traces of self-doubt. The ringing remnants of unhealthy self-images. The unceasing alarms of constant vigilance. The constant chorus of sensory input. My mind is full of so much, I sometimes feel like there’s no room for me. So when I finally get a moment of silence, a moment of emptiness, I cannot help but appreciate it. As these moments fade, as my life and the input of living crowd in once more, I find myself wondering what my life could be like if I didn’t spend so much time and energy managing the pieces of my self.

In some ways, all of this mess feels like it is external to me. I do not think I am my anxiety, or the linger symptoms of my trauma, or my obsessions. “I” am something else. A different part of this mess, maybe. Perhaps not external to it, but definitely not merely the sum of the mess itself. After all, how could I recognize an unhealthy bit of anxiety versus a healthy bit if “I” wasn’t separate? I can’t deny that the mess is still a part of me, though. After all, one of the most important steps toward healing and healthy self-management is acceptance. Which means that I spend a lot of time noting the distinction between “myself” and my “self.” I am the space inside my mind, an alternating mess of thoughts and emotions that sometimes falls entirely silent, but I can exist within that space as well. I can comb the tangles until something emerges that I am capable of working with. I can let the storm rage and take shelter from it in safety and warmth.

All of this increasingly convoluted bullshit that I’m so incredibly found of turning over and over in my mind as I contemplate the difference between “I” and my self is really just a distraction. It feels productive even though it really isn’t most of the time, because it doesn’t matter if it’s external or not. Whether it is all “me” or if there’s an “I” beside my self doesn’t matter because I ultimately recognize it’s all me in the end. That’s where the acceptance comes in. It’s a way to avoid the sometimes horrible, mostly bittersweet thought of what I might be like if I could just focus for once. If I didn’t need to, say, swipe aside five notifications every time I wanted to read a text message or even just open my phone. I recognize that being able to refer to the noise and mess of my mental health as notifications I can swipe away is a vast improvement, given that they used to be like emergency alerts that brought everything else I was doing to a halt until I viewed the alert and dealt with it as appropriate. To continue the metaphor, imagine if an Amber Alert on your phone had some kind of lock on it that required you to go outside and spend five minutes driving around before you could use your phone again, regardless of how far away the alert came from (and in this metaphor, you get those alerts from entirely different continents on top of your country and city). It would be incredibly difficult to use your phone when something came up and something would ALWAYS be coming up.

It is this degree of improvement that makes me wonder what “I” might be like if I hadn’t spent most of my life trying to deal with all of this mess. I can’t read other peoples’ minds, I have no idea what it’s like in someone else’s head, so I don’t know if someone without all my trauma and mental health issues would live more peacefully. I can only guess that I’d be better off if I didn’t have so many hurdles to clear every time I think a new thought or look at myself in the mirror or spend any amount of time reflecting. I mean, this short (well, short-ish) piece took almost two hours to write as I wrote and deleted a dozen different drafts until I arrived at this mostly sensible and not self-critical version and that’s an improvement! This was not only mentally healthy, it also didn’t take multiple days to write!

Idle speculation about a life I’ll never live aside, it’s nice to be able to note the change and growth I’m seeing. It’s difficult to track, given that changing yourself is usually slow and happens one indiscernible bit at a time until one day you wake up and realize you’re different. I didn’t wake up and realize I was different today, but I did go to therapy and realize I was different, and that’s pretty much the next best thing.

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