It’s Christmas day, the chief delight of which, for me, is that Christmas is now practically over. I can finally stop stiff-upper-lipping it and settle in to enjoy my actual favorite time of year: New Year’s.
New Year’s has been my preferred holiday since 2010, when I made a resolution for the first time (finish my novel by May) and succeeded in keeping it. Also, my birthday is on the 22nd. Having a January birthday kind of reinforces the sensation that everything starts over fresh in the first month of the year.
(The author’s mental image of January, as a concept. Peaceful, no?)
2014 was a strange year for me. I remember it starting off well. I did a lot of reflecting last Christmas, and I came to some sobering and potentially useful realizations about myself. It felt like the beginning of a new period of sanity. I was optimistic about what the next twelve months would bring.
That didn’t last.
Around my birthday, things began to unravel. I discovered I was going to have to find a new place to live, which I didn’t handle well at all. Then, two weeks later, I suffered a violent sexual assault. The fragile courage I’d found in late December withered on the vine. Resolving to get back on my feet had been one thing when I believed the worst was already over. Once it started looking like work, I wasn’t really interested in rising to the challenge anymore.
I read this article recently about Japanese novelist and Shin Buddhist nun Jakucho Seoutchi, discussing her experience with mental illness and psychotherapy. I was struck by the fact that she characterizes the chief symptom of her illness as a “total loss of her power of judgment”. When I read that phrase, the bells went off in my head. I’d never thought of it in such simple terms before, but there is no more accurate way to describe what happened to me—what, in part, I think I allowed to happen to me—between the summer of 2011 and the summer of 2014, which was the turning point in my recovery.
My initial breakdown in 2011 seemed to come from nowhere; I didn’t identify the trigger until after I was already living in my car for the second time. Obviously, these weren’t ideal conditions for coming to terms with newly remembered or newly occurring trauma. My coping strategy was to become completely passive: to embrace what I called vulnerability. Vulnerability, as I saw it, was what I’d been missing in my life—its absence explained why I had so few relationships, why it had taken me so long to understand the source of my repeated breakdowns.
This was a good and healing thing, as far as it went. But at some point along the way, I began to over-correct. I’d been in denial about having been victimized as a child my whole adult life; the solution, I thought, was to make up for lost time by turning victimhood into my identity. My pathetic fragility was the only important thing about me. It was the currency I exchanged for affection, kindness, and compassion—and I was depending on those things to keep me alive, in the most literal sense. If I acted for a second like I could take care of myself, I was afraid people would stop being kind to me. That’s the difference between victimhood and vulnerability, I think. I thought I was being vulnerable, but vulnerability requires trust. Victims, on the other hand, can be notoriously manipulative.
It’s very difficult, looking back, to sort out how much I was really in control of myself during this period. How can I judge the extent of my failure to take personal responsibility when I had lost the power to make sound judgements? I know for a fact that I was guilty of intentional exaggeration, of playing a role. On the other hand, I was ill. I insisted I wasn’t suicidal, but I wasn’t willing to take any steps to keep myself alive. I don’t know what the answer is. I have a lot of regrets, and a lot of guilt (and some guilt about not feeling as guilty as part of me thinks I should.) But I have something much more important now; my judgement came back, haltingly at first, then at a steady pace. I am tentatively prepare to declare myself of sound mind, maybe for the first time in my life.
I know I’m better now because the restrictions of convalescence are beginning to irritate more than they soothe. There are still plenty of days when I have to take extraordinary anxiety management measures just to go to the grocery store for half an hour. But I’m having more and more days when I’m restless and bored with my narrow existence; I start visualizing myself being out in the world again, and it doesn’t always terrify me. I no longer feel as if I have to declare my trauma to strangers like I’m passing through customs into the land of healthy people. I’ve found my anger again; maybe too much of it. I feel, in short, like I’ve been glued back together.
In 2014, I lived at six different addresses, in three states, and four cities. I was taken in by three different families who gave selflessly of their time, resources, and living spaces. I wrote most of a novel, got into therapy, started a support group, and became a better friend. Despite everything, I think I’m a very lucky person. I started 2014 feeling optimistic, and I’m starting 2015 the same way. I hope you can say the same.