Of Sheep and Sadness

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I posted last year about an extended visit to Mt. Saviour Monastery—but there’s one story I left out of that narrative. The monastery is also a functioning sheep farm and so I spent a lot of my days wandering around and looking at the sheep. It was shortly after lambing season and so there were plenty of adorable, adolescent-y looking sheep milling about. One, however, had gotten separated from his mother and was bleating, miserably, over and over and over again. And suddenly I thought, “That sheep is me,” and nearly burst into tears. These moments weren’t atypical for me—moments of deep, devouring sadness that seemed tied to old wounds that were still gaping—but I did then what I’ve been doing for several years running: I put it away. Part of this was out of fear, since I didn’t know whether going into that kind of sadness would ever allow me to come out the other side of it, and part of it was practical, since I knew that with this type of thing “it’s going to get worse before it gets better” and I had a degree to complete.

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Flash forward to last weekend, when I visited the monastery again as part of a Lenten retreat program. I was sitting in the chapel during noonday prayers and I was thinking to myself how much more engaged I’d been with the service the last time I was there. And then I thought about how much more I’d been engaged with my dissertation work a month or so earlier versus how engaged I am with it now. And then I tried to think of anything that could happen that I’d really care about: nope, zilch. And then I thought about how tired I’d been lately, how much mundane daily tasks felt Herculean, and how—if I turned off the TV and my smartphone and just sat—I felt like I was floating on top of a profound loneliness. And so I realized what should have been blindingly obvious (at least to someone like myself, the child of a therapist and the taker of innumerable psychological diagnostic tests): I was depressed. Not can’t get out of bed depressed. Not making suicide plans depressed. But depressed enough that daily life had turned into a struggle and my own body seemed exhausted by the strain. Unsurprisingly, this is what happens when you file away nasty feelings until a “better time” to work through them. Eventually, they’ll assert their rights. 

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The inconvenience of having to finally slog through them now is certainly still there, but the fear seems to have gone away. At least, it went away enough that I was able to sit down and write a contract with myself (yes, it’s silly, but it was the only way I’d ever follow up) that I’d call the health center, get a referral, and then actually make an appointment with a local therapist. All of which I’ve done, with the first appointment scheduled for next week. As suspected, owning up to all of this has started to impair the functionality I’d bought at the price of a lot of emotional repression. I’ve yet to burst out in tears during a tutoring session or coffee with a committee member, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if it ends up happening. The dissertation is attended to when I feel able, but it’s not going to be lightning-fast progress (especially if last night’s 13-hour sleep is any indication!) but it will be there when I get back. And, as one friend of mine who’s faced her own bouts with depression helpfully told me: “It’s just a dissertation.” And what I ultimately had to admit to myself at the monastery was that I couldn’t take care of other people or of other commitments until I finally stepped back and took care of myself. Until, like the bleating lamb, I could finally give a voice to my distress.

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“I’m Already There”

I’m in the process of digitizing my entire filing cabinet (it’s amazing how many nonsense projects you devise when you’re trying to avoid writing your dissertation!) and I just found, filed away under “Catholicism,” the handwritten page that I’ve transcribed below. I don’t precisely remember when I wrote it, but I know I was in the process of becoming Catholic. As I’m now helping facilitate this year’s RCIA program at my school, it seems particularly appropriate that I’d come upon this letter from my former self.

It’s pretty obvious that I was already thinking about the connections that I’ve tried to trace in this blog, though I also realize—seeing it from the distance of about a year—that I’ve grown a lot in being able to, as the Jesuits say, “discern the spirits.”  These days I can differentiate better—not perfectly, but better—between authentic contrition and a “guilt” that is really just a combination of shame and self-loathing. Nonetheless, the piece is raw and interesting and I thought it worth posting in all of its rawness. I wrote it very shortly after having a conversation with an acquaintance, an ex-Catholic, who had suggested that my conversion to Catholicism was really just an exercise in masochism:

Catholicism, my friends insist, is an exercise in masochism: repression, penance, and a twisted aesthetic of sacrifice. Well I’ve still got gash marks on my bicep from when the razor slipped—and so do you, I suspect—so don’t talk to me about masochism. I’m already there. I’ve crawled on my knees across dorm rooms at the behest of digital masters just to get off. I’ve been slapped up the head until I saw lights just to forget myself. I’ve drug myself through every secular ritual of penance and redemption that I could find. What, then, could be any worse about confessions, chastity, and obedience? We’ve never stopped punishing ourselves all our lives—we’ve run ourselves ragged with our guilt. Is it such madness to ask for something, at last, that can expiate that guilt even if it also heightens our awareness of it? Is it so much to long for those words that no fuck buddy, no reflection in the mirror, and no amount of blood trickling out of my body could ever pronounce: I absolve you?

On quitting as a form of starting

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped running. I had made it through three of the four short running segments that were meant to make up that day’s run-walk; but, when I started the fourth one, I dropped almost immediately from a run into a walk. Since that day, the running has been going well—quite well—and I realized that my decision to stop actually represented the overleaping of a major hurdle. To explain why, I have to go back two years to the first time I decided to take up running.

In the first year of my PhD program, after years of a sedentary lifestyle and still in the shadow of pained memories of PE, I decided that I was going to run. I think I decided on running because I knew that any fitness activity that required me to go anywhere to do it was never going to happen—it was hard enough to get myself out the door. Thanks to all those sedentary years I was woefully out-of-shape and that, of course, was what the running was going to fix: I was going to be in shape. I was going to be thin. I was going to be desirable. I was, in short, no longer going to be the ugly, fat, and uncoordinated person that I thoroughly believed myself to be.

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Sex, Shame, and Purity Culture

English: see Purity ring

Purity Ring

For most of my life, I’ve felt like I had two choices when it came to expressing my sexuality: I could be a dirty (as in sinful, impure, unwanted) girl or I could be a dirty (as in sexy, desirable, objectified) girl. Some choice, huh? It seemed no matter what way I turned, sex and shame were linked together.

There was a pervasive assumption in the Evangelical culture in which I grew up—one that still, unfortunately, persists in some areas—that women didn’t really have sexual desires, only men did. I even remember reading in some book from my parents’ bookshelf (the title is long forgotten) that “Women give sex for love. Men give love for sex.” But something must  have been wrong with me because once I turned 15, I discovered that pesky “desire” that I wasn’t supposed to have—and it wasn’t just for “love,” it was most definitely for sex. Of course, this wasn’t what women were supposed to want, this was what men were supposed to want and were constantly on the prowl to coerce, cheat, or force out of women. But I wanted it—and the girl who “wants it” is dirty. Furthermore, because of my upbringing, sexual desire just wasn’t thinkable for me outside of the male gaze (which might explain why the only model of desire that I could really find to explain how I felt was that of gay men).

The outworking of these two ideas—the “dirty” girl and the lascivious man—in my adolescent and adult life wasn’t very pretty. Some of my earliest fantasies were rape fantasies because in them my sexual desire could be mediated through the figure of the violent, desiring man and I could feel a little less guilty about my desires (since I “had no control”) though the feeling of dirtiness remained. By the time I’d hit adulthood, the association between sex and shame was so strong that—unable to escape the pleasure I felt in sex—I simply began to masochistically associate shame with pleasure. Eventually, I could only be with men who fully objectified and humiliated me: they had to be in control because sexual desire ultimately “belonged” to them—I couldn’t think my sexuality outside of my role as sexual object for male consumption—and I’d grown perversely attached to the idea of being “dirty,” a coping mechanism that developed when I realized that I’d never be one of the “pure.” Continue reading

Confession and the End of Catholic Guilt

I’ve always loved Woody Allen films because I always identified—more than I’d like to admit—with Allen’s neuroses, anxieties, and performed guilt. There’s a memorable and witty exchange on guilt between Allen and Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose. “Who’s got time for guilt?” Farrow exclaims. A flummoxed Allen responds: “What are you talking about? Guilt is important! It’s important to feel guilty, otherwise you…you know, you’re capable of terrible things. You know. It’s very important to be guilty—I’m guilty all the time and I never did anything, you know. My rabbi, Rabbi Perlstein, used to say we’re all guilty in the eyes of God.” Farrow replies skeptically: “You believe in God?” Allen delivers the punchline: “No, no, but I’m guilty over it.”

Allen, of course, draws on the famed store of “Jewish guilt.” There’s no equivalent notion of “Evangelical guilt,” but you’d never guess that from my childhood. I was in perpetual spirals of guilt. At the end of the day, I couldn’t even say why I felt guilty—I just was. Years later, after I’d done plenty to actually feel guilty for (usually in an attempt to self-medicate away that persistent, floating sense of guilt), I told my mother: “You know, I felt guilty even before I’d even done anything to feel guilty for.”  I left Evangelicalism behind, but quickly replaced religious guilt with “liberal guilt.” I felt guilty about white privilege, about drinking non-fair trade Starbuck’s coffee, I even felt guilty about my own self-indulgence in liberal guilt! Not that any of this did much to substantively change what I did everyday. Guilt was useless but it was also omnipresent—the most I could do was to sally on in spite of it.

When I began to tell my friends that I was considering converting to Catholicism, many—especially lapsed Catholics—responded with: “But…but…’Catholic guilt’!?!?!” Frankly, I always thought that my persistent guilt made Catholicism a good match. It’s better to be able to throw up your hands and proclaim “Catholic guilt!” than to be stuck with a guilt you can’t account for. But Catholicism also appealed to me for another reason. Unlike the religion of my youth and unlike my secular progressivism, Catholicism offered something alongside its famed guilt: a ritual for its expiation. I’d long envied Catholics their confessionals. When I was a freshman in college, I longed  to find someone to whom I could tell every single bad thing that I’d done or thought. Someone who, after I’d laid all my cards on the table, would still want to associate with me. This, so far as I could tell, was what a priest was. The person who knew every shitty thing you’d done but would still make eye contact with you.

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My Abortion Story

Note: My apologies for the long post. Some stories just don’t tell short. The “Prelude” to my story is here.

The most remarkable thing about the day that I discovered I was pregnant was that it hadn’t happened earlier. It arrived towards the end of what had been a very dark period of my life: cocaine addiction, clinical depression, an emotionally abusive relationship, and a dangerous spate of unprotected, promiscuous sex had only recently given way to getting clean, getting accepted to grad school, and beginning to rebuild trust with my family. I was in the healthiest romantic relationship of my life—though “healthy” is a relative term here, as I was dating a man fourteen years my senior who kept hinting that he would emotionally collapse if I moved away to go to school.

But I was dead set on going to school; truth be told, I desperately wanted to move away from my state. I was living with my parents, forced to move back in as my world financially crumbled around me. While their taking me in was probably life saving, I also realized that both they and I were repeating some of the destructive emotional patterns we’d experienced during my childhood and adolescence. I needed to get away—I was practically white-knuckling my way through recovery and I could only hold out for so long without a change of scenery. I also felt increasingly trapped in my romantic relationship, but I didn’t know how to extricate myself from it and wasn’t even certain if I really wanted to. Leaving town—even if the relationship continued long-distance—seemed like the best way to get some breathing room. But all those plans started to fall apart around me as I wandered out of the bathroom with a positive pregnancy test.

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The Political and the Personal: A Prelude to My Abortion Story

Pregnancy silhouetteWhen I was young—really young—my parents used to picket abortion clinics. I still remember the picket signs, with big permanent marker lettering and pasted cutouts of ultrasound images, that they kept stowed in the upstairs closet. I remember the pewter paper-weight molded into the shape of a womb with a fetus inside of it that sat on my father’s desk. I also recall the more bloody images nested inside brochures—I doubt if I was meant to see them at that age, but I did.

Everything seemed self-evident then. Of course abortion was wrong. Of course all babies should be born. What madness could make someone say anything to the contrary?

One of my first experiences of reading outside of my ideological comfort zone— and thereby encountering something more than a straw-man depiction of an opponent’s position— happened in high school when I read (I don’t remember where) a relatively straight-forward explication of the pro-choice position. Exposure in college to some of the more rigorous philosophical arguments for abortion rights, like Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” in an Intro Ethics course, also added complexity to my thinking on the issue. Through my early exposure to the pro-life movement I’d only seen the child’s rights; I’d never really stopped to think about the rights of the woman or the way in which ethical situations could get really hairy when you had one person literally living inside another. Slowly but surely, I found myself drifting from the pro-life side to the pro-choice. My relationship to both positions was largely intellectual, though I did cringe a bit, as a woman, at some of my father’s descriptions of women who had abortions (I don’t remember any choice words being directed at the men who also had a role to play in their pregnancies). 

But then, several years after graduation, I got pregnant. And I had an abortion. Continue reading

Broken Wholeness

The Incredulity of Thomas—Caravaggio

Before my conversion to Catholicism (and before a rather lengthy agnostic walkabout), I was born and raised an Evangelical Protestant. There’s a lot of good things to be said for Evangelicalism: it’s pragmatic, it strives to speak to the world in a language it will understand, and it proclaims a message of hope. However, those very strengths were precisely what made it seem untenable to me from my early adolescence onward: the pragmatic eagerness to “fix things” felt like a refusal to treat my struggles as anything but a problem to be fixed, its desire for relevance felt like a refusal to engage with the deeper, messier questions that no one in the mainstream culture nor in the church seemed willing to ask, and its hope felt more like a coercive demand (you will feel loved by God!) than like an authentic possibility to be considered. [I should also note upfront that my experiences of Evangelicalism shouldn’t stand in for the whole movement. This is my story, but it should not take the place of the stories of others.]

Once I left for college, I basically left Christianity behind me. I’d always insistently asked the hard, uncomfortable questions—the questions that weren’t “allowed.” I’d always been accused of being both too depressed and too depressing. So I went to what felt like a safe place for that kind of dark and rigorous inquiry: literature and philosophy. If you couldn’t think about death, about suffering, about the experience of meaninglessness, in either pop culture or in the mega-church, you could talk about it— you had to talk about it—when you were talking about Shakespeare or Sartre, about Kafka or Kierkegaard. I still love literature and philosophy to this day because both have the remarkable ability to cut through the comfortable numbness of our days and make us look, however briefly, at the wounds—individual and social, personal and existential—that we’ve kept bandaged and out of mind.

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