Why I Don’t Have a Why
I’ve struggled with depression and dysphoria all my life.
As a small child, it was driven by the loneliness and social ostracizing that I experienced. I internalized everything. No one to play with on the playground? No feeling of belonging or social acceptance? I must not be good enough, I figured. My parents, though loving, were stingy with praise, and because I buried my problems they didn’t know how bad my self-image was. Naturally shy and timid, I only got worse over time. Self-pity, withdrawal, and avoidance were my coping mechanisms, and they fed on each other. I withdrew to avoid negative situations, leaving myself more distant from other people, feeling more sorry for myself about it, and retreating further. I read books constantly. I could become someone else, someone more interesting, someone alive. I learned a lot about life, about how things were supposed to work, but not about my own personal Why. I had no Why except “because someone else expects it,” and most of my childhood was quite passive.
I can remember sometime around late grade school or middle school when I was first depressed. It was around Christmas break, and I didn’t know what to call the feeling I had, but I knew that it was different and that it scared me. I owe my survival to Jan Karon’s Mitford books, funnily enough. Despite my growing religious doubts, they were the only thing I found comforting when I was in that mode. The distraction of spring semester at school eventually pulled me away from the terrifying slump, but for the first time I knew what it was to lose all interest in living.
It was the structure to my life that kept me alive and moving, all through high school and college. I don’t ever remember being happy, exactly, but I had things to do. One summer in college I became depressed again, but I still didn’t think to seek treatment, though this time as I slowly came out of it, I realized that depression was what had happened. Unfortunately, dysphoria was the only state I knew. I didn’t really have any concept of the idea that maybe it didn’t have to be that way for me. Other people had the magical ability to live and not be sad; I didn’t.
Later in college I briefly sought treatment for my anxiety, moodiness, and interpersonal difficulties, but my experience with the therapist brought only limited enlightenment and I stopped going. The only thing I got out if it was “I have problems forming appropriate relationships” and “I miss reading for pleasure rather than for schoolwork”. I tried to read more, but I didn’t really have time, and even when I did, it was only a little temporary stress relief. I think I knew that even though I missed it, I didn’t want to use it as a coping mechanism anymore.
Then, I graduated college and got a real job. I moved to a city where I didn’t know anyone. I was trying to start fresh; and it wasn’t a bad idea, but it didn’t completely succeed. I was still tethered to the people and the way of life from back home, and my energy was sucked backwards instead of pushing forwards. The paper mache shell of a “self” that I had built over many many years was beginning to crumble under the strain. I exhausted myself trying both to maintain the façade of what I was in the past, and explore what I wanted for myself in the present, at the same time. Problem was, I wasn’t sure what either of those things were in the first place.
Anxiety drove me at that point, not so much the structure of my life. Or rather, the anxiety came from the loss of the structure. I didn’t have school to provide schedules and social opportunities anymore. I owe my survival in this phase to my audiophilia, as most of the activities I could manage for those couple years were related to live music. I couldn’t convince myself to explore or make new connections to my old hobbies. My social life stagnated beyond the point of unhealthiness as I turned increasingly to television for safe escape.
On top of that, fear of losing something or of being exposed as a failed human pulled me around and sapped my energy. I had lived under other people’s status quo for so long that I didn’t know how to break it. I hated myself for letting other people’s expectations run my life and for not asserting my self-hood or even knowing what it was, but I felt powerless to end the cycle, to get off the merry-go-round.
Lying is exhausting. Being someone you’re not is exhausting. Giving to other people what you should save for yourself is draining.
So I reached a breaking point. I was too far in the hole. I reached out to a therapist again because I knew I didn’t have the power to sort everything out on my own. I’m a very analytical person, and I’ve had a lot of informal practice at talk therapy. But you don’t hear yourself the same way you hear other people.
This time, I was lucky enough to find a therapist who could relate to me. She was quirky, no-nonsense, caring, and (this part is important) she was enough like me to understand what I was going through and how I was processing things, yet different enough from me to give me a fresh take on what I was facing.
My therapist didn’t tell me what to do, or give me any easy answers. Sometimes that was frustrating. But she did her job: she was my ally, my sounding board, and my extra voice of reason.
As a result of the work I did with her and work I did with myself, I began to change some things about my life, some drastic and some gradual. Mostly it was changes in my relationships with people; in my personal boundaries, in the way I approach others, and in the way I approach myself. A lot of things are better than they were.
As a part of that process, I started an antidepressant. It didn’t “make me happy,” but it reduced my anxiety and helped me get through that particular transition.
I got rid of some emotional clutter, and changed my How and my What for a lot of things. But there’s still a long way to go. I’m still depressed, apathetic, exhausted, unmotivated, and aimless. I’ve gone through a lot in the past few years, and I am burned out. To move further, I need a Why.
Why used to be “because I’m expected to.” Why was “I’m obligated to,” or “that’s the way I always do it,” or “it’s the safe route.” I’m a lot less obligated than I used to be. In fact, as a sort emotional flinching from something that has burned me previously, I’m finding myself resenting obligation now. It’s not a typical rebellion though, because it comes with no counter-action. I’m not a teenager rebelling just for the sake of it. I’m a rational, non-impulsive adult rebelling against a self I don’t like, and I don’t know what my alternative is. If my Why isn’t any of those old things, what is it?
My rational brain can reason that Why should be “because it makes you happy,” or “because you want to,” or “because it fills you up.” My head knows these, but my gut doesn’t. I’m deeply accustomed to having an external or anxious rationalization for every action. There might not even be a need for a Why. But my gut doesn’t know how to go why-less yet. Taking action without anxiety and self-oppression is a completely new skill that I don’t have yet.
My therapist tells me to give myself a break, to slow down and enjoy the freedom from anxiety, and to let the Why happen on its own time. I am not good at any of those things…none of them. But for what it’s worth, that’s the goal…