The defiance of living in your own skin

Life, and the act of leading it, has never been an easy or calm process for me. My very first therapist, a kind young lady who’s name I can’t even remember, told me that my gift and my curse is that I feel everything, and I feel it in my core. Emotions, mine or others, don’t bounce off me. They cut to the center of my soul, leaving me drained and wounded on behalf of others pretty frequently. I weep for friends at the drop of a hat — often unabashedly in bars and at kitchen tables and in borrowed offices. It’s a lot easier to bear someone else’s pain, though, and for totally selfish reasons. The pain walks away at the end of the night, and instead of the sharp glass of heartache lodged in my palms, it’s the quiet ache of mending muscles. I don’t scream for my friends the way I scream at myself.

That’s a very heavy and laden paragraph, and I can’t promise the rest of this will lighten up, but there’s a couple things I want to clarify in there. First, my family treats mental health like physical health — if you’re feeling symptoms, you go see someone. It’s a hard won gift my parents gave me, to not shy away from anxiety and depression and anger and messiness, hard won for me by my father’s best friend’s suicide, my mother’s own history with depression, and my little brother’s learning disorder. I often forget that responding to a friend’s freak out with “Well, what’d your shrink say?” carries the connotation “You’re clearly nuts.” It’s not like that for us at all. Or maybe it is. We’re lunatics who’ve learned to embrace our crazy.

Second, you may have noticed why I titled this thing the way I did. I live in others’ skin a lot. Not like “it puts the lotion in the basket.” But one of the lessons I learned down to my core from my parents is that love is an action verb, that love is service. I really love these people around me and willingly step into their mess. I don’t love myself, and avoid my mess like a rat scurrying out of a sinking cargo hold.

And the problem with stepping into the chaos of other’s lives is I’m not actually the whole way in (I had to ditch the skin metaphor, it’s getting creepy), I’m a patchwork of other people’s different needs pulling me this way and that. And being a patchwork doll all the kids are tugging at eventually goes south. Friend A needs a meal cooked, Friend B needs help moving, Friend C needs to talk, Friend D is getting married and wants me to fly out for the ceremony. My parents need help at the house, my sister is freaking out over finals, my brother needs a new suit. Man creature’s a mess that needs to get untangled, work needs me to get another industry license. The list goes on.

I think, as much as I hate my depression and falling asleep crying and not being able to commit to the things I feel I should, that my body’s mismatched chemicals have given me the next hard won gift of my mental health journey. They have sent a very clear warning shot that if I don’t live in my skin, there will be consequences (okay, the creepy metaphor is back now that I avoided the image of me being an emotional Buffalo Bill). It’s like I’ve been forcibly reeled back to myself and told I’m not going anywhere until I learn to love myself the way I love others. In this place, on days like today when I feel reduced to my bare bones and exhaustion sits in my soul like ballast, every act of love becomes an act of defiance. Making myself cinnamon toast for breakfast and putting cream in my tea is an act of defiance against those who “need” me to be razor wire thin to be beautiful. Wearing comfy shoes in place of heels is an act of defiance against those who “need” me to look prim and polished at work. Intentionally making as few plans as possible is an act of defiance against all the “needs” pulling me this way and that, across the state, across the country, anchored in nothing and stressed out of my gourd. And with each act of defiance, I shed a little of the facade I hide behind, and bits of the real me become more apparent to myself. I need sleep. I need cream and sugar in my tea. I need to go for a walk. I need an hour long bath. I need, because I am.

And this is probably my greatest act of defiance against myself. I need, because I am.

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