Growth is an upward spiral

It never ceases to amaze me the way this whole “making progress and growing up” thing tends to go. The way it circles on itself, keeps bringing me back to the same places, except not quite. I’ve circled back, but I’m on a different level.

Because here I am again, saying “hello friends, it’s been too long.” Saying “I’m sorry.” Saying “how did I manage to forget how good this writing thing is for me, how much I need to make words flow out of my fingertips and into the world, how it makes me feel whole and real?”

I’ve found myself struggling against other familiar patterns of late: taking on too much, being too accommodating of demanding employers, undervaluing my work and getting myself into binds, until one day I look up and I haven’t had a day off or written for myself in weeks, and have entirely stopped making my own plans, instead drowning in survival mode–must get X, Y, and Z done by tomorrow, rinse, repeat. I’ll worry about the future… later. Eventually. And then the stress and the overwork wear me down, physically and mentally, until someone asking me to make plans a few months out sends me spinning into an unexpected panic attack.

And at this point I always start to wonder. Haven’t I been here before? Am I actually getting anywhere, or is all of my hard work just me kidding myself? Aren’t I just the same sad, struggling, broken human I’ve always been?

But though I’ve said these things many times before, it’s also different this time. Because this time, I haven’t been brought to this point by a soul-crushing desk job and futile attempts to get my shit together and leave it, or by attempting to impress a lab supervisor who is literally incapable of valuing my efforts unless they give her the exact results she wants. This time, I’ve been off trying to make a living doing my own thing. Writing. Teaching. Throwing myself into the things I love.

And that’s bravery. That’s growth. That’s progress. Even if the view from here is familiar, I haven’t actually been exactly here before.

The “demanding” boss that I have been too accommodating of is not the same as many entirely unreasonable and uncaring supervisors of my past. He’s not a saint, but it he is actually entirely capable of respecting boundaries and listening to reason, when I actually get around to speaking up for myself. Working myself into illness is actually not, in fact, something that he is demanding of me–it is something I am doing out of habit, and though it’s hard to believe, I actually can talk to him about that. Much of the panic I am feeling about being in this position is leftover–remnants of a time when I was much more at the mercy of employers and circumstance.

I feel much the same about my personal life. I am retreading what feels like familiar ground in therapy and in my relationships, but this time I come in with a different perspective that changes everything. I started dating a new person recently, for instance, and out of habit, I gave him the same old rundown of Things He Should Probably Not Do Because They Trigger Memories of EvilEx. But I’ve since realized that many of those things no longer bother me at all. Their power is just… gone.

I even, recently, unearthed the treasure trove of Evil Ex’s sad/mean/angry emails and voicemails. This used to be something I did to punish myself–I would go looking for the most horrible and deeply personal insults that had ever been flung at me, so that I could remember what a piece of shit I was. But this time, I went looking because I had a hunch: I believed that these records, gathering virtual dust for more than two years now, would mean something different now.

And boy did they ever. I read the same bitter, anger words that once felt like a punch to the gut, and now felt nothing.

Even more powerfully, though, I read my replies. In the space of an hour, I skimmed nearly a year of correspondence. And while I did feel a shadow of my familiar self-loathing–how could I have ever been this pathetic human?–what I felt most strongly, as I reviewed this record of my slow transformation into a human with boundaries and self worth, was pride. 

It’s an incredible gift, really, to have those emails now. Because I remember that part of my life as a time of pain and confusion, of sneaking away to cry in bathrooms, of people avoiding eye contact with the hysterical girl on the bus. I remember weakness. Because when I was in the middle of that storm, that is very much how it felt. Sure, I dutifully fed myself, exercised, showed up to work and therapy and social events, wrote nonsense in my journals and read stacks of books with themes of loss and recovery, clinging desperately to the idea that if I kept doing those things, I would find my way through–even though most days, I didn’t really believe it. Because in the thick of things, how I really felt was that I was stuck, running in circles.

But when you zoom out, when you look at a year in the space of an hour, then you can see it. I was going in circles, yes. I did have many, predictable setbacks. I gave in to the same self-destructive thought patterns and impulses again and again. It is entirely understandable that, from the inside, it felt like I was going no where. But as it turns out, I wasn’t. It was slow and hard and disheartening, but for fucks sake, I was climbing.

It’s a frustrating thing to accept, but I believe that this is simply how human growth and learning works. We have to learn the same lessons over and over before they start to stick, and even then we’ll need a refresher now and then for good measure. 

Being the person I am, I’ve been inclined to see this slow circling as a personal failing. If only I were better, stronger, I think… then maybe I could learn the first time. Maybe then I could have bounced back after dropping out of graduate school in weeks, not years. Maybe then I could declare that I Will Write On My Blog Every Single Week Goddamnit, and this time stick to it without struggle or panic. Maybe then I’d be doing something more Impressive by now. Maybe then I’d be living up to what everyone expected out of a smart kid with so much “potential.”

But I’m starting to see that this is just my path. Maybe it isn’t the most inspirational or the most impressive. Maybe I still have a long way to go. But I’m learning to take a deep breath and give myself credit for the climb, to take in how the view has changed instead of merely wallowing about how it hasn’t.

I obviously still haven’t figured out the how-to-write-here-reliably thing yet, but once again, I’m recommitting to trying. And this time, here is how it is different: I’m not going to be ashamed of the fact that this is hard for me, that I’m prone to setting unrealistic goals for myself and then drowning in shame when I cannot meet them. I’m just going to acknowledge that and try again anyways, and keep trusting that progress is being made, even if I can’t always see it.