I went to a Natalie Diaz poetry reading yesterday, and it was – apart from being amazing, obviously – the only good thing that has evoked an emotional response from me in months. I mostly cry when someone catches me doing something mildly terrible like checking my email in class or when I have to reckon with the mountain of work that causes me extreme existential distress while simultaneously requiring completion in order to keep me on a trajectory toward a future I am preemptively resenting. Objectively stressful tasks like job applications and finals cause me exactly 0% of my anxiety, or if they do contribute to my anxiety, it’s in an indirect way.
Like, “this job application is asking for my strengths and weaknesses. How do I tell them that my potentially good attributes have become a liability for my mental health because they contribute to the cognitive dissonance of the pressure and expectations to fulfill a role in the capitalist hegemony I so actively despise? Huh. Okay, anyway. I’m a fast learner, but I’m sort of disorganized. Maybe that’s more in line with what they want.”
Or, “I refuse to study for this final because grades are super arbitrary and also I am scared of failure, so I never put 100% into anything; thus, setting myself up for failure through self-sabotage so that I can further express my contempt for one-size-fits-all intelligence rubrics, while simultaneously deriving a deep sense of self-hatred from my self-inflicted failure to measure up.”
But like, the actual tasks themselves cause me no stress because depression is all “lol what future?” and mania is all “lol caring about the future is for squares” and OCD is all “lol to ensure future success, carefully adhere to whatever ridiculous shit I make up instead of the conventional guidelines everyone else uses to achieve some semblance of financial stability.”
And I’m just like “POETRY.” So clearly, none of this is really conducive to channeling stress into a constructive or productive activity. And lets just say that Natalie Diaz’s poetic advice was of no help.
She said, and I quote, to “lean-in to your obsessions.” Thanks for the very Sheryl Sandburg-esque tip, but I’m already constantly looking over the event horizon of my obsessive void into the concentrated mass of unimportant tangents that actively threaten to stretch me into nothingness at any given moment. So leaning-in sounds a lot like succumbing to my lack of control over the things that create an internal illusion of having control. Fun.
Yet attempting to combat obsessions is basically tantamount to giving in to them. Trying to pull a thought relevant to reality out of my brain without dredging up a scenario that will literally never come to fruition is impossible. Obviously, the unreal scenarios are more appealing, and with manic grandiosity telling me anything is possible or depressive hopelessness telling me nothing in the real world matters anyway, whatever obsession my brain dug out of its recesses can fester endlessly.
Obsessions include but are not limited to poetry, eyebrow plucking, eating only 1000 calories, other weird beauty rituals, hand washing, showering, texting, some boy I met once and have now romanticized into the impossible, streamlining my closet, optimizing space in my room, drinking, how the world alternates between gray scale and Clarendon, and my oscillation between god-complex and self-loathing.
None of these things seem that detrimental on their own, but combined and given the power to relentlessly derail any remotely productive train of thought I have, they’re the WORST. My brain is one massive detour, but I’m unaware of this until I see other people’s brains leading them to some tangible destination. You know, like a job or a grad-school or whatever. And mine’s just over here like, “count the number of ripples when a raindrop hits that puddle, and if it’s more than five, that’s a sign you should talk to the next guy you see” or “hear those song lyrics? Do exactly what they say.”
Obsession combined with either a surplus of energy or feverish lethargy is disastrous. The former ensures the broken record can keep twitching well into the night, and the latter propels me into a state of obsessive inertia because I’m too exhausted to try to move.
When either of those instances reaches its peak, what was once an impossible idea is no longer distinguishable from the possible. I’m not out of touch with reality, per se, but it does become extremely difficult to know what’s an emotion/thought vs. what’s a symptom. And suddenly I’m just like, “WTF? MAYBE I AM ONE GIANT SYMPTOM. I AM MENTAL ILLNESS INCARNATE. THIS IS A CONSPIRACY. MAYBE.”
Like, I want to think my obsessions are as simple as me trying to cope with all those pent-up emotions that periodically get released in inopportune and seemingly minuscule instances, but that implies I have more control over them than I actually do. If I could just be like, “okay, brain. DISSOCIATE through obsession, then maybe I would actually enjoy it,” but it’s more like my brain being like, “time to obsess over things that simultaneously represent your nameless emotions and allow you to project your emotions onto them so you can not deal with but still be affected by your emotions in a really roundabout way aka dissociation.”
Even though obsession feels overwhelming, unpacking the emotional baggage I carry with me everywhere – be it from mental illness or anything else – would be exponentially more overwhelming. My brain obviously has some passive awareness of this because it does the obsessing with no oversight from me. Zero work is involved in making my brain work overtime at being unproductive. It’s its default setting apparently.
I don’t lean-in to my obsessions. I fall into them headfirst and involuntarily.
A shortened version of this post was also published on The Mighty.