I went to a Natalie Diaz poetry reading yesterday, and it was — apart from being amazing — the only good thing that has evoked an emotional response from me in months. I mostly cry when someone catches me doing something mildly terrible, like checking my email in class or when I have to reckon with the mountain of work that causes me extreme existential distress, while simultaneously requiring completion in order to keep me on a trajectory towards a future I am preemptively resenting. Objectively stressful tasks like job applications and finals cause me exactly 0 percent of my anxiety, or if they do contribute to my anxiety, it’s in an indirect way. It’s the obsessive tangents that manage to work me up and derail me.
And let’s just say Natalie Diaz’s poetic advice was of little help.
She said, and I quote, to “lean into your obsessions.” Thanks for the very Sheryl Sandberg-esque tip, but I’m already constantly looking over the event horizon of my obsessive void into the concentrated mass of unimportant tangents that actively threaten to stretch me into nothingness at any given moment. So “leaning in” sounds a lot like succumbing to my lack of control over the things that create an internal illusion of having control. Fun.
Yet I’ve found attempting to combat obsessions can basically be tantamount to giving in to them. Trying to pull a thought relevant to reality out of my brain without dredging up a scenario that will literally never come to fruition feels impossible. Obviously, the unreal scenarios are more appealing, and with manic grandiosity telling me anything is possible or depressive hopelessness telling me nothing in the real world matters anyway, whatever obsession my brain dug out of its recesses can fester endlessly.
For me, obsessions include but are not limited to poetry, eyebrow plucking, eating only 1,000 calories, other random beauty rituals, hand-washing, showering, texting some boy I met once and have now romanticized into the impossible, streamlining my closet, optimizing space in my room, drinking, how the world alternates between grayscale and Clarendon, and my oscillation between god-complex and self-loathing.
None of these things may seem that detrimental on their own, but combined and given the power to relentlessly derail any remotely productive train of thought I have, they’re the worst. My brain is one massive detour, but I’m unaware of this until I see other people’s brains leading them to some tangible destination. You know, like a job or grad school or whatever. And mine’s just over here like, “Count the number of ripples when a raindrop hits that puddle, and if it’s more than five, that’s a sign you should talk to the next guy you see,” or “Hear those song lyrics? Do exactly what they say.”
Obsession combined with either a surplus of energy or feverish lethargy can be disastrous. The former ensures the broken record can keep twitching well into the night, and the latter propels me into a state of obsessive inertia, because I’m too exhausted to try to move.
When either of those instances reaches its peak, what was once an impossible idea is no longer distinguishable from the possible. I’m not out of touch with reality per se, but it does become extremely difficult to know what’s an emotion/thought versus what’s a symptom. And suddenly I think, “Maybe I am one giant symptom. I am mental illness incarnate. This is a conspiracy. Maybe.”
I want to think my obsessions are as simple as me trying to cope with all those pent-up emotions that periodically get released in inopportune and seemingly minuscule instances, but that implies I have more control over them than I actually seem to. If I could just say, “OK, brain. Dissociate through obsession,” then maybe I would actually enjoy it, but it’s more like my brain is like, “Time to obsess over things that simultaneously represent your nameless emotions and allow you to project your emotions onto them so you can not deal with — but still be affected by — your emotions in a really roundabout way,” a.k.a. dissociation.
Even though obsession can feel overwhelming, unpacking the emotional baggage I carry with me everywhere — be it from mental illness or anything else — could be exponentially more overwhelming. My brain obviously has some passive awareness of this, because it does the obsessing with no oversight from me. Zero work is involved in making my brain work overtime at being unproductive. It’s its default setting apparently.
I don’t lean in to my obsessions. I fall into them headfirst and involuntarily.
Image via Thinkstock.
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