Taking a cold, hard look at my life

I did something personal today that it seemed like I haven’t done in a while, so I checked my calendar, and the last time had been exactly a month ago. This realization was scary to me because it reemphasized what I had written about two days ago. My life is slipping away from me.

I’m realizing now that this is a much bigger problem than I had originally implied. I’m so detached from my life that I’ve lost my perception of time. I was walking home from lab the other day and had a sudden, overwhelming sense of dread that I had forgotten my mom’s birthday. (Her birthday is in November.) Sometime I’ll frantically worry that I forgot to buy my plane ticket to go home for Christmas, when I had been back from that Christmas vacation for almost 4 months now. I’ll step outside in the morning and think Ah, summer is almost over, when it’s fucking April right now.

The ideas of the absent-minded academic, the overworked grad student, the whimsical manic pixie dream girl are all adorable clichés, but in reality, it’s terrifying. Until you’ve experienced it, you have no idea how disorienting and traumatic it is to completely have no idea how old you are, only knowing that it’s somewhere between 21 and 27. I’m not exaggerating. I think I mentioned before how this happened to me, and it really did happen.

I think what’s happened is that I mistook my new routine as self-care. On paper, it looks like my life is put together and I’m on the right track. I’m exercising, I’m cooking healthy, unprocessed meals for dinner every week, I’m waking up and going to bed early, working productively, attending therapy, and engaging in a baseline amount of social interactions without relying on alcohol. I thought that by establishing good habits in myself, I could correct my destructive behaviors and develop a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle. The truth is, a routine is nothing more than a rut.

Now I’m realizing that I have just been going through the motions, which is why I’ve felt so dissatisfied with my life. I’m completely apathetic to everything happening to me. I’m a zombie stumbling through the events happening to me. And that’s exactly what the situation is. Life is happening to me, and I’m accepting it. I’m a passive entity being led through everything.

I wake up every weekday morning between 7 and 7:30. Mondays I leave work at 6:30, go grocery shopping, and make dinner. The rest of the week, I leave around 7:30, reheat leftover dinner, read a book, sometimes do some sort of exercise, sometimes watch a movie with my roommate or sit on the couch conversing with them, then go to bed at around 9 or 9:30, read for an hour or so, and then fall asleep. On the weekends, I wake up sometime between 8 and 10, make the same thing for breakfast, read or watch movies until noonish, go into lab for a few hours but accomplish nothing useful, come home, order food with or without my roommates, watch a movie with them or do obligatory social thing with friends, then go to sleep. Once a week I go on a date with one of two people, stick to a strict schedule (e.g. dinner and movie, two drinks at bar, or brunch), we have enjoyable but shallow conversations, engage in zero physical contact, and then drop me off at my house at a reasonable hour.

How utterly distressing it is that my entire life can be summed up in that small, sad paragraph.

Every once in a while, I’ll stare at myself in the mirror and whisper in a meek, noncommittal voice, “I need to find a hobby,” or “I need passion in my life,” or “I’m not happy,” or “I can’t go on like this,” but that voice is so weak and embarrassing that it’s practically begging to be ignored.

I need to fix this because what I have now is comfortable and easy and it would be too easy to continue life this for years and years, and the longer it goes on, the harder it will be to change things, and before long I will just be an empty wrapper of a human being.

I’m convinced that going back to writing and actively dissecting parts of my life will be the driving force that will get me out of this rut, and if that’s not motivation enough to continue writing, then I don’t know what is.

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Just checking in while I get my life sorted out

I have to acknowledge three things right up front:

  1. It’s been a while.  (WordPress looks different AND I DON’T LIKE IT.)
  2. I start 10% of my posts with that sentence.
  3. I made an unwritten promise to myself that I wouldn’t do this again. I failed.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to appreciate just how important it is to acknowledge failure, but also dissect it. It’s important to understand why something failed so that instead of beating myself up over it, I learn something about myself and can work towards improvement, instead of punishment.

So I had to think, how was I able to write every single day for the entire month of January (with the exception of the Lord’s day), but since then, couldn’t bring myself to write at all? What changed in those weeks that made the process so difficult that even just thinking about writing a post filled me with such dread and anxiety that I couldn’t even attempt anything?

The answer is pretty simple, and it’s the same thing that comes up over and over again. The more I write, the easier it is to write. Whenever I go a period of time without writing, the thought of picking it up again is so intimidating that the task seems unbearable. Even if I am able to force myself to attempt, it’s incredibly difficult to get words on the page. Even now, every single word I type is so difficult and feels incredibly unnatural. I feel like, instead of typing at my computer alone in my dining room wearing comfy pajamas, I’m in a brightly lit auditorium speaking to a hundred academics while someone videotapes and I have to make up my presentation as I go. Writing is supposed to be my release that relaxes me, helps me get my thoughts in order, and results in something I’m (usually) (somewhat) proud of. It’s so hard to get back to that point after a break, though. Even a break of a few days is difficult, especially when life gets in the way.

But I’m realizing just how incredibly important it is for me to write, especially pieces from my life where I transcribe my thoughts and then dissect them. It’s a nice way for me to check in with myself, understand what I’m feeling, and make sense of things. This year so far has gone incredibly fast (how the fuck are we halfway through April already?) and I’ve really lost sight of myself as far as my internal workings are concerned. It’s leeched into my outer body, too. I can’t take care of my body if I’m not in tune with my mind. It’s weird, but it’s so easy for me to become detached from my own thoughts. It’s scary because that’s when I start just going through the motions, every day is the same, and I get so apathetic about life. Writing is a way to sort of stay present and keep in tune with my experiences so that I’m continuously evolving as a life force and staying an active part of my own life.

There are a few things that I want to dive into once I can comfortable with writing again. I started seeing a therapist, something I foreshadowed in some of my last posts. I also started getting into seasonal cooking with whole, unprocessed ingredients (not a diet, just a hobby). I’ve reevaluated my relationship needs and I think I’m ready to break the cycle of dating that I’ve been trapped in. I’ve restructured the way I think about and conduct research to make myself feel less like I’m drowning at sea.

These are all things I’ve really wanted to elaborate on, but couldn’t because the task seemed just too overwhelming. So I’m going to do it. This post is my way of flushing the lines, so to speak, so that I can get back into it. It’s definitely just flushing the lines and not anything meaningful because I feel like I just keep repeating myself. It’s okay, though. As an act of self-compassion, I’m allowing myself to repeat myself because it feels right to me.

There was something else I wanted to say and now I can’t remember. And now I’m thinking about the writing process too much that I can’t really think freely. It’s like when you think about breathing and then you can’t get yourself to just breathe normally. And as I’m typing I keep saying to myself in my head “You’re going to delete this part, right? You’re not really typing that? That was just a thought for the two of us, a stepping stone into the real thought that goes on paper.”

And now I’m questioning my judgment about everything I’m typing. Should I go back and delete all of this filler that is jut me trying to relearn how to think? Or should I keep it because it’s raw, unprocessed Iris and this is who the fuck I am? If I delete it, this post will only be like 200 words, and then is it really even a post? These are the questions I can’t answer anymore because I’ve been out of practice for too long.

Anyway, this is me saying that I’m back, and hopefully I can keep it that way. Thanks for reading =)

Love,

Iris

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It’s not a downward spiral, it’s a fluctuation

It’s a regular pattern, but I can’t recognize that in the moment. When I start to feel it coming on, the irritability, oversleeping, lack of motivation, eating garbage, racing, uncontrollable thoughts, frequent panic attacks, I think, this is it. I ruined everything, and all of the stuff I’ve worked towards is meaningless. The strategies I tried didn’t work. I failed.

It’s awful enough just to have those feelings, but it’s even worse whenever it feels like all of the good steps I took prior amounted to nothing and ultimately failed. That’s how I view it. I see my downward spirals as signs of failures of whatever I was doing beforehand.

This thought seemed totally reasonable to me. If something works, it works. It fixes me, and I’m all better, and as long as I can keep it up, I’ll never have a rough spell again.

I’ve been thinking about it this time because I’m in the middle of a good period right now, and I’m on a new craze where I’m focusing on sustainability and only eating foods that are in season and unprocessed. This hype I’m on has given me more energy and optimism, so I’ve also been waking up early (willingly!), exercising, and reading more. I’ve felt great, and it’s costing me substantially less money, so I feel less guilt as well. I started to get worried, though, because I was wondering how long this was going to last. It seemed far too extreme to be sustainable, so there was bound to be a breaking point where I would sink back into my despair and abandon all of my new habits.

Then I had this radical thought. Or I should say, a very obvious thought that shouldn’t have even been a question, but for some reason seemed very radical and exciting to me.

I can just go back.

If I get depressed and lose control and turn into a sloppy puddle for a few weeks, I can just come back to what I’m doing now after the depression passes. Sure, it doesn’t help my coping in the moment, but it’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t have to reevaluate my life and come up with a new approach every time I slip up. I can just come back to what I’m doing right now.

So now I’m starting to think of my mental health not as an inevitable spiral into complete incapacity, but a sine wave. I oscillate between very good and very bad, and it’s flexible. I can’t prevent myself from feeling depressed, but I can come back from it. I know there will always be another down turn, but I also know there will always be another upturn as well.

Basically, it’s allowing myself flexibility and forgiveness for things that, as of right now, I can’t control. I’m taking steps to try to control it, but it’s a slow process, and I’m not going to be able to just flip a switch to make it better.

Three weeks ago, I went on another mega Dorito binge. A few weeks before that, I was eating well-balanced meals and exercising three days a week. A few weeks before that, I didn’t get out of bed for three days straight. A few weeks before that, I was meditating and practicing mind-body connection. It’s a sine wave.

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Well sorry if I don’t want to be your friend

This is going to sound very whiny and privileged, but I’m sick of people forcing their friendship on me. I’m sorry, but I’m under no obligation to be your friend. It’s one thing to be polite to people, to reciprocate kind gestures, and to engage in pleasant small talk while at work, etc. However, I shouldn’t have to hang out with someone during my personal time if I don’t want to and they’re not family. I don’t get a lot of free time these days. I barely want to spent it with actual friends, so I sure as hell don’t want to spend it with people I don’t even like.

Whenever I’m talking to a potential romantic partner and find out that they’re just looking for friends, I can’t just say, “no, sorry, I’m not interested.” I can say that if they want to be in a romantic relationship with me, but for some reason, I’m not allowed to turn them down if they ask me to be friends because then I sound like an asshole.

There is a group of people that I work pretty closely with in lab. We sometimes would go out to dinner to celebrate something, like when someone passed an important milestone in the graduate program, which totaled to maybe 3 times a year. That’s fun and totally reasonable, but recently, we’ve been hanging out more often, for birthdays, Galentine’s Day, and random outings. I keep declining invitations, but I have to keep coming up with excuses, and they know when I’m not working late (my usual excuse). Even worse, the one woman is my neighbor and our living room blinds are broken, so she can easily see in from the sidewalk and see me lying there on the couch staring at the wall. So I have to get really creative when I make excuses, and it’s exhausting. One of them just got married, and I was invited to the bridal shower and bachelorette party in addition to the wedding. Each of these requires a gift (and the internet tells me proper etiquette requires a $50 minimum on gifts), and the bachelorette party was in a completely different state 5 hours away. I had to hardcore brainstorm and strategically plan vital experiments to work my way out of these commitments.

Yeah, that makes me a terrible friend, but I don’t want to be her friend. I don’t even like her.

I don’t want to be any of these people’s friends. I like our work relationship because it makes lab more pleasant and I know I can count on them, but I don’t want to invest additional time into them.

And I shouldn’t have to. It’s my personal time. I’m incredibly intorverted, and I need time for myself. I have my close group of friends that satisfy all of the requirements I need to get by, and none of these other people fit into any of the categories I list for friendship.

So why isn’t there an easy way to say no. When I don’t want to be someone’s significant other, I say I’m not feeling a romantic connection or I’m not looking for a partner right now or I don’t think we’re a good fit. When I’m not interested in collaborating with someone on a research project, I say that I don’t need their tools at this point, I don’t think our projects are interdependent, or just that I can’t do what is being asked of me. Why can’t these lines work for friendship without turning me into a monster?

That’s my new mission. I’m going to figure out a way to say no to friendships. And I’m not going to feel bad about it.

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I need to rethink how I de-stress

I’m not used to dealing with stress because I’ve always thrived on stress. My greatest work came at times when I was the most stressed out, and it’s hard for me to get things done if I’m not super stressed out about it. I used to be able to put off taking care of my body and it will do what it needed to do for me. That isn’t quite the case anymore with my old age, and now I have no idea how to manage my stress and it’s eating me alive.

My first response was to buy a 5-liter box of Franzia and have a glass of wine (or several) every night to deal with it. I would also force myself to just not think about stressful things. That worked for a while, but it felt like I wasn’t actually dealing with the stress, I was just pushing it into a closet or something.

Well, now it’s coming back for me and I need a new approach.

One of those ways, as I mentioned before, was to seek therapy. That’s been taking care of, and I have my appointment made and I’m all ready to go with that.

Making an appointment to see a therapist has had a ripple effect on my life. It felt so good to take care of myself in that respect that now I want to take care of the other parts of my life. While I was on this self-care high, I finally went grocery shopping and I bought breakfast bars, which is a big deal because I usually skip breakfast and I usually feel terrible all morning as a result. I also bought vegetables and chicken and such to make a low-carb, dairy free dinner that didn’t have any processed ingredients (except a tablespoon of flour, if that counts?). I even bought a bag of apples (I never ever eat fruit) and so now I have a healthy snack option.

The whole time I was buying this stuff, I kept thinking “this is for me. This is for my body.” Instead of thinking that I needed this stuff to be healthy etc., I just kept thinking about how I was taking such good care of myself. I even bought a magazine for my roommate that I knew she would love (a Life magazine featuring Audrey Hepburn), so I felt like I was taking care of her, too.

The feeling then trickled into my romantic life. I made the impulsive decision to delete my Tinder account. As much as I absolutely loved using the app, it has become a major source of stress in my life. There would be the frantic swiping, trying to find my soul mate, the loneliness of not having matches, and then feeling completely overwhelmed when I did get matches and had to respond to everyone. Moreover, I barely had enough time for myself because I was always going on dates with nice people that I didn’t want to turn down but also were complete strangers. It felt so goddamn good to just delete the bastard. I’ll probably start using one of those apps again, but I’m going to give myself a nice, long break.

All of that happened yesterday. Today, I came home at a reasonable time, and I’m eating leftovers of my healthy dinner. Later, I’m going to learn how to draw with pastels while listening to a podcast with my roommate (hello My Favorite Murder <3). I’m going to break it off with someone that I’ve had a weird on-again-off-again short term relationship with that has left me feeling vulnerable, used, and unappreciated. I’m going to drink chamomile tea and eat an apple and go to bed early. Tomorrow, I’m going to wake up and exercise.

This attempt at self-care is different from my last because it’s not about hiding the stressful feelings. It’s facing them dead on and changing my behavior to eliminate or decrease them. I feel like this is a healthy way to handle stress in my life, but I recognize that not all stress factors can be eliminated, and so I still need to learn how to overcome those situations. Hopefully therapy can help with that. Either way, I’m making progress in the right direction, and it’s all about the experience.

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I wear my stomach problem like a badge of honor

Why do I do that?

I mentioned this briefly before, but I really want to dive into how mega fucked up this is, so let me quickly recap.

Last semester was incredibly stressful for me due to a variety of things, but mostly because I found out last-minute that I was giving an oral presentation at a national conference on the east coast, and in the same email that my boss told me this, she said “hopefully by then you have enough data to present ;)” which made me incredibly anxious. It sounded like she was implying that the data I already had was nowhere near enough, so I panicked and worked hardcore to collect as much data as I possibly could in the span of 4 weeks. Throughout those 4 weeks, I was working 65-75 hours per week, mostly doing lab work, and the small amounts I slept were riddled with nightmares about something going horribly wrong either in lab or at the conference.

As I mentioned previously, I also had a very poor diet, often consisting of a bag of Doritos as my dinner. Other times I would have pasta with olive oil or I would skip dinner just because I had no time to buy food or make dinner.

I didn’t notice the stomach problems until right around the time of my conference, and they got much worse afterward. It would be sharp pains that would come at random times, and I also kept getting other sicknesses.

I finally went to see a doctor about it in January, and she said it was most likely a stomach ulcer that was stress related. As soon as she said that, even though it could mean that my stomach is completely destroyed, I got super excited. I had something physical and tangible that was a direct result of my stress (and poor diet, but that’s less exciting). I had something I could point to and be like “There! See? I am stressed out. I am working hard.”

Part of it is the grad student in me talking. Grad school is a specific culture where you’re expected to work insane hours. If you’re not stressed out, you’re not working hard enough. If you go home before 7:00pm every day, you’re lazy. You’re expected to have a justifiable reason for not going into lab on a weekend day. While no one keeps track of our hours, everyone is counting their own.

So whenever I found out that my stress levels were destroying my body, I was relieved to know that I was in fact working hard enough. Anyone in the program (really, anyone at all) that even remotely encountered me since mid-January has heard all about my stomach ulcer. I need to force myself to slow down when I talk about it so that my excitement doesn’t come through too much. After telling the grad students about it, they sort of size me up and get real interested, like “Oh you’re so stressed you have a stomach ulcer? You must be really stressed. You must be working super hard.”

And then will come the sympathy and urges for me to practice self-care.

This brings me to the second reason as to why I was so excited about my body failing me. Just like pretty much everyone else, I’m super hard on myself. I think I’m lazy, I chastise myself to not doing everything on the insane to-do lists I write. I call myself stupid and punish myself when I don’t do well enough. It’s a problem that I’m working on, but it’s still there.

Now, I have an excuse to practice self-care. Stupid, but before this happened, I always felt like I didn’t deserve to take care of myself. Or I would only do “self-care” when I was procrastinating doing stuff that really had to get done. I never allotted time for recharging unless I was in one of those states where I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed. In other words, I wouldn’t take care of myself until it got so bad that I didn’t have any other choice.

It’s so much easier to force myself to take breaks, check in with myself, and slow down whenever I know that I have to in order for a sharp pain in my stomach to go away, or when I know that my body needs it. At the end of every day, I have to make the decision to stop when I could just keep going. If I keep going, I’ll get more done, be more productive, be a step closer toward graduation. If I stop and go home, that stuff will be waiting for me the next day. It’ll get done, but at a slower pace. It’s easier these days to make the call to just go home whenever I have a concrete reason.

So really, this stomach ulcer thing was the wakeup call I needed. I know that I need to make changes in my life, and I’m in the process of figuring out how to do that. I know that I’m working plenty hard enough, and I know that I need to focus more on taking care of myself because my current lifestyle just isn’t sustainable.

My conclusion is that it’s okay that I’m prancing around with my stomach ulcer like it’s a great thing because in my specific situation right now, it is a great thing, and I’m oddly thankful for it. It’s not that I need people to feel sorry for me like I had suspected. It’s reassurance that it’s okay to take a step back and focus on me.

Now that I have that straightened out in my head, I’ll stop bragging about it to you guys, I promise.

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Never Settle

I was thinking about my Tinder addiction a lot this week. Okay, let’s not call it an addiction because that makes me sound like a sexual predator. Let’s call it my Tinder enthusiasm. Really, it’s just the intersection of my dating enthusiasm and my laziness enthusiasm, but either way it gets the job done.

I was dating this amazing woman for about 3 weeks. She was the whole package, charming, outgoing, funny, gorgeous, and worldly. We got along great, and every date we went on was so much fun. I could go on and on about how great she is, but I won’t because you get the point. Anyway, we made plans last week to watch a specific movie at my house. We originally planned for Tuesday because I had stuff going on Wednesday and Thursday. Then she later said she couldn’t do Tuesday because her work shift got switched. Totally fine. We made plans for Friday. Then she said she forgot that she was going to a concert on Friday, so she couldn’t do that. Again, totally fine. Neither of us could do Saturday, so we decided to do Thursday after I got back from a dinner I was going to. Thursday rolled around, and about an hour before we were supposed to get together, she texted me saying that she was feeling really tired and couldn’t make it. Disappointing, but it happens. I know the feel. (I just cancelled on someone tonight for the same reason.) At this point, things were still going great between us, texting every day, sending flirty emojis and sexy one-liners, it was all fine. Then, we made plans again for Monday night. Sunday night she texts me saying that she forgot she had to go to a birthday party on Monday, so we’d have to do after that. Totally fine, but I had a weird feeling about it. My feeling was correct because Monday night, she texts me and cancels because she’s too tired. I’m neither surprised nor bothered by this; I kind of saw it coming. I text her back saying that it was fine, she said she’s sorry, I said let’s not bother rescheduling, she said she swore she wasn’t blowing me off it was a crazy week blah blah, I said okay.

And that was how we broke up. And I felt nothing. At all.

Right after that, I updated my Tinder profile with a nice, academic-looking picture, and got right the fuck back on the market.

This is one example of many where things are going great with a really awesome person, but something inside me just thinks “Nah, let’s call it off. Right now.” And so I call it off, move on, and never look back. This behavior worried me a lot for a while, as I talked about before, but then I got to thinking about why I do this, and I realized that it is totally fine and has nothing to do with my Tinder enthusiasm.

I realized that I’m just streamlining the process.

After my former significant other and I broke up after 4 years of dating and plans to spend our entire life together, the biggest thing I got out of the relationship is that I can never ever settle for anyone other than my soul mate (or someone that I am 100% compatible with, if you’re one of those lame people that doesn’t believe in soul mates). I was so depressed and apathetic about my future when I was with him. Being around him after the initial fun parts just aggravated me and caused more stress. Everyone says this, but I know for absolute certain now that I am SO much happier by myself than with anyone other than the person I’m meant to be with. This guy was a nice guy, it’s not that he was unpleasant or abusive. It’s just that he wasn’t the one.

Now, I’ve completely streamlined the process. I know exactly what I want and what I absolutely won’t compromise on. For example, if they don’t identify as feminist, I want nothing to do with them. If they’re not liberal, no thanks. If they are intimidated by my intelligence, require their ego to be constantly stroked, think they’re funny when they tell overused jokes they found on Google, I don’t need to waste my time with them. It’s incredibly liberating.

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