May 26th, 2016:
Melissa: I just want to get an A+ at life. I want to be perfect at everything and for everyone.
Me: I’ll give you an A+ when you can accept yourself in the moments where all you’ve got is a D-
Melissa, if she knew me better, could have retorted with the cliche, “you should practice what you preach.” But since she doesn’t, I let her assume that I do imperfect, perfectly. It’s fun to pretend. In reality, just a couple of days earlier, I was shaming myself for my own D-. I was getting my IVIG infusion. I forced myself up to pee, wheeling my IV drip into the bathroom with me, strategically shuffling to avoid tangling the tubing. I sat on the toilet which leaves me with nowhere to look but at my reflection in the mirror. I instinctively wanted to shatter what I saw. Defenseless against my bullying brain and my morphed perception, I saw dark eyes swallowing the blue sparkle I once loved, pale skin dully planted on a bony face, dirty unbrushed hair, eyebrows that needed tweezing, chapped lips, and sun spots. I saw a jaded, and imperfect face convicting me of a broken, worthless life. I started wondering where I went wrong- how did I end up so sick for so long? Then rapid-fire: I’m not drinking enough water, maybe I’m drinking too much water, what if I’m taking the wrong supplements, did I eat the wrong foods, did I take a drug that interfered with another, did I stay on antibiotics too long, should I have stuck out the Cowden protocol, should I have used more money for x instead of y, I don’t meditate enough, exercise enough, I’m not positive enough, maybe I didn’t rest enough, or maybe I rested too much. What is it about the “fucked-upness” of me that is keeping me sick? STOP. I know this voice —it’s been a lifelong enemy of mine that I can’t shake; it’s always finding new ways to attack me. But what a pussy it is—attacking me at my most vulnerable. This voice doesn’t have the same power it once did because after a year of being sick, I raised my white flag and I stuck it right where the enemy dies: in the acceptance of my own humanity.
In 2006, I lived in a Single Room Occupancy at the Y on 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue. It was depressing; the walls were bare, and each corner held a pitiful piece of furniture: a twin bed, a desk, and a dresser. That room reeked of a stale, lifelong loneliness. I tried to stay out as much as possible. I was in school, and I worked long hours as a waitress, saving money to pay my brother back. Apparently, I had been stealing from him. As it turns out, when you use someone’s debit card without asking (“for emergencies only”), you’re actually using their money and that’s considered stealing. Who knew? And what IS the definition of “emergency” anyway? I sat at my desk, counting the money I had saved AGAIN, stuffed it back into its white envelope, and looked at my bulky computer screen. BLANK. I had to write a paper, but I was overcome with a paralyzing embarrassment. I rested my elbow on the desk, my head to my fist, and I heard a sudden burst of laughter outside my door. I blushed from an increasing disgust in myself, and that’s when it hit me. I’m ashamed of my own existence, I thought, I don’t deserve to be alive- even the way I breathe- it’s pathetic. I feel guilty just to be taking up space, breathing in fresh oxygen. I was having a revelation- I knew exactly where that feeling was conceived. I felt the same in that moment as I did in 1996, Seven inches shorter, and about 95% more innocent, I sat in my bedroom alone- enduring my punishment for being a burdensome human who couldn’t do anything right. Thanks, Dad. That’s where I started unconsciously thinking: how could I make myself “perfect” so that I could prove my worth and avoid trouble? I didn’t want to be too needy, too independent, too obnoxious, too quiet, too sparkly, too dull, too smart, too dumb, too sick, too healthy, too happy, too sad, too pretty, or too ugly. I wanted to land right where everyone would HAVE to keep on loving me- right in the sweet spot of super cool but not cool enough to provoke jealousy. Wow. I assumed that the self-awareness in itself would act as a cure. Knowing where my need for perfection came from would surely evaporate the need itself. My self-awareness would be a short-cut around all of the pain. That theory proved to be wrong as I stumbled through the next 8 years, torturing myself- taking little steps forward but continuously seeking a way OUT of this whole human being business.
I started reading the spiritual books, meditating, going to therapy, journaling, doing yoga, and chanting -not to accept myself but to FIX myself. I stayed IN ACTION all of the time, soaking up every opportunity to “better myself” with the ultimate goal of finding a formidable plateau exempt from a vulnerable and fragile life. But life, by definition, is growth. So hanging in some euphoric plateau would actually just be heaven (aka death). I know, it’s super unfortunate. The whole “we’re on Earth to grow” business can be such a BUZZKILL. But why is it so scary to accept ourselves as imperfect? I mean, all magnificent art is built around imperfection. I remember doing a short study with an acting coach here in LA. We were talking about being in the audition room and how all of us actors want to go into the room and do a perfect job. She said, “ No one wants perfect. We watch movies and TV to watch other humans’ flaws and imperfections. It’s your flaws that MAKE YOU INTERESTING TO WATCH. You’d never watch a movie, read a book, or listen to a song about someone who is ‘perfect.’ What a snooze.” That inspired me- what if I could just let myself be, accept myself, and stop obsessing over every little mistake I made?
After all of that work I did to avoid my own humanity, I got sick. (I feel like this is the correct time to say, “isn’t it ironic,” but I’d hate for a bunch of controlling assholes to attack me with, “that isn’t what ironic means” after I write a whole essay on imperfection. OH, that would be ironic too, wouldn’t it?). Illness: the thing you think will never happen to you until it fucking does. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t fall prey to Lyme Disease like all the other weak people did; I’d be better in two months, at most. As time “ticked” by (see what I did there?), and I wasn’t getting better but getting sicker, I turned back to my favored tool: shame. And I used it to beat the shit out of myself. I blamed myself for the illness. I must be manifesting it, I thought, I’m weak, what’s wrong with me? I tormented myself for months, maybe even a year. When my beat-downs were getting so powerful that they became life or death, I started to aggressively seek a new way. That’s when I came to the conclusion that I had wasted my life trying to outsmart my humanity. I was on a scavenger hunt for something that never even existed. Talk about a buzzkill. I didn’t need to be healthy to be worthy. I didn’t need to look pretty or be sparkly or always have my wits about me. It has been through my battle with illness that I accepted myself as a flawed human…sometimes.
I didn’t LEARN; I’m learnING. The desire to outsmart my humanity still creeps in on me in unarmed moments—like last week during my IVIG, and even this afternoon when someone mentioned that I looked tired, and I heard, “you look pitiful and weak. You’re an embarrassing disgrace.” Why do we always get so offended when someone suggests we look tired? Why is it such an insult to be human? Today, I’m capable of recognizing those thoughts as unproductive, calling a loving friend, and forgiving myself for whatever mistakes I may have made. I’m capable of allowing myself to be tired— to love myself anyway. But sometimes I spiral into the darkness, anyway. I’m failing…better.
When I was like 19, I was having one of many heart- pounding tantrums about a boy. I stood in a circle of girls on a street corner in NYC puffing down cigarettes. I was in the quick sand of obsessiveness, talking in hysterics about whether or not he liked me, when he would call, or how to make him love me again- who knows – all of those big deals were such a blur once the next boy showed up. I looked at my 3 girlfriends around me, embarrassed, feeling like I couldn’t escape my own insanity, and said, “I know- I need to get over this.Oh God, I’m being so annoying.. who would ever want to be friends with me like this.” One of my friends smiled and said, “What? No, Jackie, I love you. And I don’t love you in spite of your ‘crazy’ I love you for it.”
I had never heard such an idea expressed. I try, and sometimes fail, to love myself and you for our collective crazy- our humanity. And when I fall short, I remember what Samuel Beckett said, “Try. Try Again. Fail. Fail better.”
With Fun and Love,