20 December 2009


It's a Sunday and I have therefore been thinking over what I'm doing in my life; not that I don't think about it on other days but Sunday is a particular prompt. Over the past three days I've had my semi-annual semi-collapse, something that seems to happen irregardless of my general health, in wet weather years and in fine. For a few days to a week, I hibernate, skip bathing (embarrassing but true), eat unhealthy food and avoid talking to people. It's exhaustion and nerves and while it feels like a waste of time, it seems to be an inexpungible part of my constitution.

The result of this is that I have come to the conclusion that I have been failing to take myself seriously. I have not given myself much credit for anything, I have doubted my own agency, I have abrogated to others my opinions of what is good and of what I ought to do. This has not been a total state - I have got myself off to grad school despite other people's best, well-meaning and insidious advice, after all. However, I can see that I have often done things by half-measures and deliberately obscured myself in order to avoid seeming to think too much of myself when I ought to have let myself try my talents and tested myself by truer measures rather than let the expectations of others dictate how far I should pursue success and enjoyment.

I know where this started. It was when I started school here in London at the beginning of tenth grade. My parents enrolled my sister and myself at a school that follows the American curriculum. All my life before, I had gone to public schools, which is American for state schools but the school I went to here was independent, which in American would be called private, and private schools have a tendency to look down on the quality of education available in a state school. I had all my life been in honors classes and moved up grade levels in maths and English. However, this new school automatically placed me in mainstream track classes and when I queried this, they informed me that it was because this school had very strenuous high standards and they knew that I would not be prepared for their honors classes. This happened during orientation; they held it in the library and I remember quite clearly sitting on the round table in the front of the library where I later spent much time studying with my friends after school, and thinking that perhaps they were right. After all, I had never done well in school before. No one, neither I nor my parents nor my teachers, had ever thought this was because the work was too hard for me: on the contrary, I was always told that I was more than smart enough to be attempting the classes I was in.

I never had been able to complete more than half the homework I was assigned, much to the confusion of myself and all the relevant adults. I still struggle to make myself do all such things in vaguely timely fashion. I now think that this is part due to the strain of mental illness and part due to the fact that it's just not interesting to do - I have much less trouble when the assignment is at all substantial or challenging - and largely due to bad habits. I think that the first two led eventually to the last: as a child, I rarely had recourse to any defense but withdrawal and refusal. But at the time I didn't know why I found it so hard to be like everyone else, I only knew that I had never been able to do it.

By the time I reached tenth grade I was, as you might imagine, very discouraged over the whole school situation. So, when it was suggested to me that the honors classes I was used to might be too hard I was ready to take this advice - it was a new idea about why I did not do well and I wanted an explanation and I wanted a release from the constant strife with teachers and with my parents. Perhaps I had been setting my sights too high and perhaps I wasn't as smart as I thought. Apart from pressing them into putting me in French 3 (I had already completed French 2 and languages have always come easily to me - French was one of the two classes I could usually actually do my work for), I gave up the battle and accepted their judgement that I wasn't good enough for their honors classes - disregarding entirely the fact that I started school a year early, that I had always been above grade level hitherto and my consistently high standardised test scores.

I'm afraid that that sounds quite snotty but it is the plain truth of the situation. Besides, pretending that I am less than I am is what has gotten me in to this particular mess in the first place. I may as well stop doing it now as at any other time. Why ought I to be modest to the point of feeling ashamed about having the abilities I am lucky enough to have? I am very smart and quite good looking and I have a nice dry wit in conversation and I know it. I don't think it makes me better or more worthwhile than other people - it's an accident of birth and as such has nothing to do with whether I'm a good person or not. It doesn't cancel out my less desirable qualities, such as being very untidy and a mediocre cook and lazy about schoolwork and turning library books in on time. Nor does it cancel out my slatternly tendency to digress when I'm writing. . ..

My point is that I have believed other people who tell me I cannot do things that I reasonably think I am able to do. Since that initial concession at the start of tenth grade, I have given in on innumerable things, large and small and let myself be guided by other people's expectations. There are several important instances where I have not given in but plenty where I have and still more where I have equivocated. I am obedient when I ought to be stubborn. The worst of it is that I moderate my ambition - instead of aiming to do well, I aim not to fail. Sometimes not failing is the best I can do but I apply the same remit to situations where I could do much better. I ought not to do this. I especially ought not to give up without trying; I especially ought not to just fail to do anything at all.

All this is by now compounded with my mental ill health and what various people think I ought to do or refrain from doing in order to protect it. Foucault, I must admit, was largely right in his assessment of the effects of the moral management of mental illness - that the unique experience of madness was denied and devalued and with it, the agency and personhood of the mad, that it creates an internal police state within the individual (he didn't put it quite like that but that is how I take it) that makes the mad individual her own oppressor, her own restraint and a restraint ultimately more insidious and cruel than chains because it disintegrates the individual and makes all herself, her feelings and attitudes and actions, invalid. He argues this more strongly than I would personally but I do concede his point in the main and I'm digressing again.

O for brevity! O for clarity! O for the ability to be succinct and to use fewer parentheses!

This is where doubt strikes me, whence fear springs forth. If I want to do anything with my life and if I want make it through without being bored half to death, I must stop listening to others at the expense of listening to myself.


  1. Good heavens, that has some bad sentences and misplaced commas! Sorry. I'm too tired to fix them just now.

  2. For myself, I think, the reverse situation had a similar outcome. I went to a state comprehensive where only a handful of us went on to 6th form. I was supposed to be the 'clever one' from the age of around 12 and had pressures to succeed heaped upon me by parents, teachers, gymnastic/swimming coaches,etc.etc.My 'difficulties' began when I was around 16 and although I still continued to do almost (but not quite) as well as expected at school, it became evident that I wasn't focusing so well, was skipping school and half the time cracking-up under the strain of being forced in so many, often conflicting directions.
    I too lost self confidence and didn't go to uni for 2 years after leaving school.
    However, although I still have the suspiscion that the world perceives me as a failure who allowed irrational whims and emotional frailty or explosivity to ruin her respectable career (and matrimony, mortgage, 2.5 children etc.), I've finally begun to accept myself better, acknowledge my gifts and reconfigure 'success' more on my own terms.

    It is quite obvious to me that you have exceptional abilities, whether or not you tidy your flat regularly or hand-in work late. But you know best what you are capable of (and where to draw lines). The fact that you are having this 'talk' with yourself suggests that you're sorting the wheat from the chaff of other people's opinions and intentions for you, with the likely result that you'll toss the latter to the wind.
    Aiming not to fail is not such a bad thing now and again. I think the 'average' person operates on such terms most of the time.
    We also have to make allowances for the added strain of mental-illness. Not only does it sometimes limit just how much we can do, it also has a habit of sucking away at self-esteem.
    I have every faith in you my dear and yes - I hope you resolve to be less obedient and flaunt your talents without reservations.

    I hope the malaise is but a brief visitation and that you also resume proper sleeping.
    Will you have plenty of friends around you this Christmas?
    Take care.

  3. Thank you for the kind words! You're quite right that trying not to fail is a good aim in some cases - that's what I aim for as far as housework goes! There are several things in life for which I have given myself an 'I'm crazy and I'm just not going to worry too much about this' pass - things for which I think such a thing is appropriate. If you talked to my last therapist about it, though, she'd say that that should be my approach to life generally - never to push myself because I couldn't know the consequences beforehand and because I would just feel worse about myself when I failed (do you detect the informal fallacy here?).

    No friends on Christmas Day because there's no public transport! Midnight mass and going out on the 24th, though, and to Oxford on the 26th. I'll be eating silly amounts of chocolate and watching movies on the 25th and opening the packages under the tree and I'll probably stay up late so that I can call people in the states. Some friends are a six hour time difference which means that I haven't really been able to call them since I've been here!

  4. I can relate to so much in this post, but especially, this:

    "I am very smart and quite good looking and I have a nice dry wit in conversation and I know it."

    That is a line to cherish.

  5. I have to confess that I was a little surprised that the earth didn't swallow me up for saying it publicly in so many words! Pleasantly surprised.