For three months now, I've been in depression's miserly grasp, gasping. I cry in bed. I cry in the bath. I participate in that most New York of activities: I cry, publicly, on trains. Sentences happen in superlatives: I'll never be a real writer, nothing I'm trying is working, I'm always going to fail. I try to get out of those thoughts but my brain is a smooth-walled room: no door, no handle.
For context: I've been writing. A lot. And I've been rejected. A LOT. More often, though, I write something and don’t even turn it in. I stare at it and think "Nevermind. Nevermind! Ha ha! This is not important. There is nowhere this fits. This is not even, really, a thing." And so when I do send something out, and when I do get rejected, it's even easier to go into the spiral: What was I thinking trying to be a writer I am too old this is embarrassing I don't have the connections I have too many ideas I have no discipline I am stuck I am overwhelmed I am too depressed I can't network I will fail I am broke I will fail.
And so tonight, instead of trying for a lovely essay, I decided to write from here, the hot middle of my everyday, and try to be honest about what it's like here. I’ll use two writers to say what I want to say: Leslie Jamison and Ariel Gore.
First, a hot tip: If you are prostrate in bed one night, racked with insecurity and warming yourself with a hot pad that your dogs have DEFINITELY peed on, do not, I repeat, DO NOT, read the New Yorker review of Leslie Jamison's new book about addiction. TL;DR: It's about how Jameson grew up in this perfect little stimulating William-James-type intellectual family, and how the desire to keep up and prove herself led to alcoholism. But before you try to relate, let me get to the clincher: Jamison was a really, really good alcoholic. She published a million things while she was drunk, won all sorts of awards and residencies, and never even hit rock bottom! She was the World's Best Worst, the most exceptional alcoholic ever! And yes, I know alcoholism is real and I know it sucks and I know it must have sucked for her, but in my self-pitying state all I could think was: Leslie Jamison is better at life with a gut full of Franzia than I am sober as a nun. All those nights I said, "but I'm depressed!" and used it to excuse my lack of drive? That's cute Ash. But Jamison wrote goddamn books when she felt like that.
For our purposes, Jamison will signify the dream writer trajectory. Even if that’s not what it felt like in the moment, on paper it looks like everything it’s easy to judge oneself against: It was steep, it was fast, it was full of accolades and purpose.
And then I read a book that comforted me, that gave me hope. For Christmas, a friend lavished a book on my partner and me: We Were Witches, by Ariel Gore. It’s a sort of autofiction, a novel that is a memoir that is (magic eye!) a novel again. Ariel Gore, the author and the book’s protagonist, is a poor, single mom who’s run away from her abusive parents and is trying to become a writer. There are obstacles: she is poor, like I said, and she has a kid, like I said, and she knows zero people who write. She’s always cooking the very last box of macaroni and taking a bus to her community college classes and forcing herself to stay awake by reading her college books (Audre Lorde galore) to her one-year-old. As she sits in a writing class one day, her teacher draws a diagram of a successful short story: the usual inciting incident, rising action, climax, denouement. Ariel Gore looks at the diagram and wonders the most wonderful thought: Why does the graph look like a penis?
The rest of the book is spent delightfully exploring an idea. In a truly feminist story—or even just an honest story—would the middle be a hole instead of a hill, a vagina instead of a penis? (And in case you are rolling your eyes, no, it does not come across like that college freshman who makes art with period blood.) So she tries it out, a vagina story—a story where the main character falters in the middle, sitting on the ground and waiting—and she turns it in. She gets it back with terrible marks. This isn’t a story, is the message.
She spends the rest of the book trying to believe in herself, writing more vagina stories and doing lots of witchy things. When she doesn’t know what to do, she does some magic, throwing salt around and clapping in corners. And before you know it, you are done with the book, and you realize it was a vagina story this whole time, and you loved it. She won. Ariel Gore wrote the book that people said no one would want to read, and in the process she wrote about what it feels like to write: a lot of waiting, a lot of faltering, a lot of sitting down in the middle.
As much as I like Leslie Jamison (and I love her), I am trying to believe in Ariel Gore. I am trying to accept that the middle of the story—a fictional story, a real story—is a hole, an inverted arc of success, a place of sitting and desperate magic. I am trying to clap in the corners to banish bad voices, and I am salting the garden of doubt to make it die. But this work is not springtime growth, it is the slow, fungal work of decomposition, of falling apart so you can nourish something new you can’t even see yet.
In the meantime, a toast: to living la vida vagina.
My name is Mo, and I am a recovering self-doubter.
Recovery began when I recognized that the voice in my head was very mean. It was critical of my every action, conversation, and thought. It told me that other people had more innate value than me, always. It reminded me of foolish and embarrassing things I said years ago. Like when I naively repeated a dirty joke from Wayne’s World at a dinner party with my dad's co-workers. It reminded me of every embarrassing moment and held me there. "You are pretty terrible if you ask me," it said. Well nobody asked you, did they? It told me I was better off by myself where I could not burden anyone else. Sometimes it told me I was better off dead. A pretty good movie, a bad life-plan.
I had accepted it as my own voice until a therapist suggested that it wasn't. She told me I should challenge it. She asked me why it was okay to let the voice talk to me in a way that I would never speak to my friends. I agreed that the voice was kind of an asshole. And assholes are the worst.
I have been feeling better. I have been kinder to myself. I have told the asshole to leave. I've googled listicles about how to feel self-worth. Im also on anti-depressants ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
When I feel bad I watch America's Home Videos, the original FAIL compilation. Watching America’s dads get hit in the balls by toddlers, I am reminded that everyone struggles and everyone fails, and we should laugh instead of succumb to shame. And it reminds me how strange it is that men have their genitalia on the outside of their bodies. I guess evolution never doubts itself. It should have when it made the Giant Panda. An animal that only eats ONE plant for its diet??? That thing is screwed.
This weekend, I went to the memorial service of a friend who I’d wanted to know better. It feels absurdly self-centered to admit this, but the main thing I felt before going was self doubt—did I belong there? Would it be somehow apparent to all the people who did belong that I was someone who hadn’t earned the sorrow I felt, someone who hadn’t been there when being there was banal? I lingered a little longer than necessary picking clothes, lipstick, a coat. I imagined what my friend would have liked to see me in. I wore heels for the first time in months. The memorial was gorgeous. The friend had been a remarkable drag queen, and so the service ended with a series of drag and burlesque numbers by people they’d performed with. Oddly, one of our first conversations had been about the use of camp in grieving. Before I left, I’d determined to be stoic: if I’d barely earned my place at the memorial, I certainly hadn’t earned tears. But the second performance was an exuberant strip tease, and as the performer rolled on her back to peel her stockings so lovingly off of her pointed toe, I lost my grip. She stood, flung off her bra, and suddenly began twirling in diaphanous cape as the music dropped and all at once you could hear and feel the whole room heaving. There is something dangerous about laying claim to the dead—they can’t claim us back. They can’t reject the claim. We can’t know, in that way, whether our claim is legitimate. Maybe it’s not necessary to earn the right to mourn, in the same way that it’s not possible to choose or predict your grief. Maybe you just get lucky sometimes, when the beloved you lost is being celebrated by people who invite you to join them.
I think too much about mastery. And I'm pretty sure mastery of any of the too many artistic/artisanal pursuits that interest me is not available to me anyway. I lack obsession. And even though I know that's maybe for the more healthy, and even though I may be constitutionally unable to become obsessed, I'm still afraid of remaining the quaint jack-of-all-trades that I so relished becoming over the last ten or twelve years.
Thanks for the prompt and the nudge. Always nice to see the fears on paper. Exposes them as the not so big deal they really are, I think. I found a tape recorder has the same effect. Magic!
Oh and for what it's worth, I don't think I've ever said anything that I didn't think of a better way to say it later.
SO. I've never been much of a doubter. Not about myself, anyhow. I made decisions that made sense to me, and it always just felt right. And that was all I needed.
But the older I get, the more complicated life gets.
When I divorced my first husband in 2010, I was 28, had an 18-month-old and a 6-month-old, and still didn't feel like I was finished having children. But I had already mothered these two innocents and now they were fatherless, and although I felt very confident in my mothering abilities and that this was the best situation for my children at the time, I didn't like the idea of bringing more children into the world without a solid father figure and a partner to help me.
Fast forward eight years. I got married! (To a rockstar of a guy who is the BEST dad my kids could ever wish to have, and an amazing partner to boot.) And we're pregnant. ...And I've never doubted myself more in my life. It took us 18 months, 4 losses, and fertility specialists for us to get here. You'd think I'd be exactly where I wanted to be. But something about those losses ripped me apart and made me doubt everything - like the ability of my body to even carry a healthy baby to term, or can I really start over again? What are we doing?!?!
It's more difficult because I've always trusted myself, and now nothing makes sense. I wanted this. Yearned for it. For almost a decade. I worked hard for this. Suffered for it, even. But now—24 weeks in—will my body fail me/my partner/our baby? Will I lose my mind? Was this really a good idea? I don't even feel the same kind of excitement as I did with my other successful pregnancies.
This baby parties all night. As soon as I lie down to sleep, he starts moving and doesn't stop until I'm ready to get up. It provides ample opportunity for me to doubt myself and this decision we've made to bring another little person into this world. I hope I'm good enough. I hope everything's all right. I hope I don't go insane after he's born.
I hope I can trust myself again.
Recently I listened to a podcast about how a feminist YouTube sensation ended up dating alt-right asshole, partially because the ‘social justice warriors’ turned on her - she wasn’t feminist enough, she was constantly offending someone, she used the term ‘tranny’ and had no idea why it would bother people. Ok, that might be an excessively brief summary—and I’m sure this woman would protest my conclusion—but you get the drift.
The part that concerned me was that I found myself kind of identifying with her—as in, “I give up, clearly despite trying my best I am not good enough for anyone, so screw it! And I didn’t even know the term ‘social justice warriors’ before but now I kind of like it! And that is a problem because I am pretty sure it is an alt-right term!” And I really didn’t want to identify with someone who is dating a man who frankly sounded like a misogynist troll.
Here are the facts: I am a heterosexual cis-woman, as white as one can possibly be, American, educated, upper middle class, privileged in a myriad of ways, and old enough that I have never quite even figured out what lingo I am supposed to use in describing myself and therefore probably already offended somebody already. Therefore, having failed to find myself in a minority of any kind, when I consider my strong feelings about social justice, I find my only role to be that of an ally. (To further indict myself I can tell you that word is new to me as of, oh, 12 months ago).
To defend myself, in my 20s, when i was marching in peace protests and fighting for single-payer healthcare, everything seemed different. I went into a cave (or my house) and gave birth to and fed and clothed and bathed three small humans. I feel as though I am emerging into a slightly different world (hello, social media!) and possibly there is no room for me in the fight.
Which is fine, as then I will feel less guilt perusing my Pottery Barn catalog.
I am kidding (sort of).
It turns out you can’t just ask people why something bothers them anymore—it’s not their job to educate you.
It turns out it is insanely hard to use the right pronoun sometimes.
It turns out that if type out a question on Facebook, you are likely to get screamed at and blocked so hard you can feel your insides reeling. For trying to understand something, or to explain your perspective.
All of which is to say, I am no longer confident in my ability to communicate with people. To support people. To work toward a common good. It feels as though just being myself is not only not enough—it will make people actively angry with me.
This is a new feeling for me. As terrible as I was at so many other things, I always prided myself on the ability to get along with all kinds of people, to talk to anyone. In my professional role as a healthcare provider, my very favorite part is being in a small closed room with someone who trusts you with their most private information, and who, when they come to like and know you, is willing to share nearly everything. People have been happy to explain drug use to me, or all kinds of sex acts, or how to navigate food stamps, or details of their gender change surgery—knowing that I am clueless about these experiences in real life, but recognizing that I respect them and am willing to listen, and that I need to know. It feels to me like one of the most wonderful parts of being human—communicating like this. And it always made me want to work with underserved populations, to make sure people whose experiences and identities are so different from mine get the same healthcare I would.
But now? Due to a strange twist of fate, I currently work part-time in a clinic where I treat patients every day that are basically carbon copies of myself.
When I consider changing my practice, and going back to working with underserved populations, I realize I am now a little afraid.
Self-doubt is a voice in your head: “What if they don’t like me? Don’t they deserve LGBTQ(insert other letters here) providers who identify with them? Don’t they deserve healthcare providers with their same skin color? Or who grew up in the inner city? Or who speak their language fluently? Who am I to think that trying my best to be culturally competent will ever be good enough?”
I doubt my ability to ever use terminology that will satisfy the social justice warriors enough that I can ever be an ally. To anyone.
I doubt that I can be the healthcare provider that my future patients need me to be—or rather, I have great faith my ability to provide care, but I doubt that I can be accepted as the right person for the job.
I doubt that I will ever be progressive enough again. (Oh BYU, how I miss you! How fun it was to be the liberal, to be publishing underground newspapers and protesting and trying not to get kicked out!)
Worst of all, I doubt my ability to communicate with people who are different from me. (And humanity is diversity, so isn’t that everyone?)
Here’s my kernel of hope: one of my favorite people is a cousin of mine who has faced all sorts of challenges—and challenging people in her life—that I never have. When she tells me a story and I face her, shocked, asking, “How do you deal with that?!” she smiles her wise smile and tells me, “I believe in giving people grace.”
Give yourself grace, and you can heal your self-doubt. I can’t go on in my professional life or in community activism if I can’t get over the idea that people are constantly judging me.
Give others grace, if you can—it is pretty much a requirement for building relationships.
I suppose this sounds like I am asking for grace, and I am. I can already hear the screams of people who probably hate everything I just wrote. But I am also trying to give others grace—to continue to trust that people will be kind and communicative, the way I think we all should be, instead of becoming defensive and refusing to engage. Because I believe in drilling everything down to humans connecting to humans; I believe in God as a web of relationships that connects all of humanity; I believe that together we can accomplish everything.
The moment I was fired from being a parking lot attendant (we lovingly refer to each other as boothies), I remember collapsing in the hallway. I wanted to immediately pick myself back up. Then I thought, "If someone had just hit me with a baseball bat, I wouldn't expect myself to immediately get back up." And I had emotionally just been hit by a baseball bat. So I stayed on the floor and let myself sob it all out.
This was at the end of a promising career as an elementary school teacher. My "promising career" lasted less than a year. The list of reasons for why that was went on interminably. But my confidence was shot.
So I low-balled my next job. No longer would I be responsible for thirty-two other lives. No longer would my mistakes ricochet off the fragile bodies of third-graders and into my heart permanently. I would take money and release people from their temporary imprisonment from their parked cars.
I LOVED it. Little stress. Time to read. Brief interactions with many people. Climate-controlled room. Comfy chair.
And then I got fired. For insubordination. And my world collapsed. "If I can't even be a boothie, what can I do?"
It took several years to rebuild my confidence. I got another job as a tutor for Valley Mental Health. Despite their trauma and mental illness, working with one child at a time was a dream in comparison to being in the classroom. I built up my involvement in the community, doing poetry and activism. Eventually, I accumulated enough successes to let go of the shell-shock of failing being a classroom teacher.
Self-doubt is a constant companion, one I feel like I know as well as any of my oldest friends. So I think I know what he is up to most of the time, and even though he never shuts up, he doesn’t hurt me like he used to. Or at least that is what I tell myself in my middle age. I think at some point I stopped listening carefully to what he was saying because I knew the script too well. And I had figured out that it was a lot of borrowed trouble I didn’t need. But then, of course, one wonders, is this what happens in old age? You just stop listening to self-doubt and become that pontificating windbag who knows it all, who never doubts a thing? I remember meeting George Schultz, the former Secretary of State, in my dorm at Stanford when I was an undergraduate, and I asked him if he had any regrets, any decisions he now doubts and he said no. I told myself never to live with such confidence. My old friend came back for a visit just recently. He had been gone for some time but I was about to do a public reading, my first, of my new novel, and I was trying to select passages to read. Scouring over the text for days, I was growing increasingly anxious and my old friend was reminding me that I rushed the revision of that passage, or that I never did fix my character’s voice in that scene, or that my dialogues are too intellectual, not like real people talk, and so on. After four days, I was almost in the fetal position and my novel had twenty or so post-its marking options and not one of them satisfying to me. But the reading came, whether I was ready or not, and somehow the warmth I felt for my characters took over and I fell into the spell of self-confidence and self-doubt flew away and left me in peace. I don’t know if anyone caught the errors or the weaknesses, but it didn’t matter. Art is forgiveness. That is what I have always believed any way. It’s a kind of annealing, healing that not only allows for but anticipates and repurposes error. Art is that space where you can allow self-doubt to be a friend to check in on but not become that high priest of self-worth he always seems so eager to be.
As I write this I doubt what I’m going to say. For each word I wonder if it is too dramatic or if it’s underplaying my reality. I doubt that I doubt myself. Thoughts and feelings sweep through my mind and body and I wonder if my upset stomach is a sign from my second chakra, indigestion, or the anxiety I feel manifested in a physical form. I doubt the words I speak. I wonder if a joke I say was too rude-hearted and I doubt that the person I teased will ever value me again. I doubt that my intentions are well-meaning and that instead all I do is to make people see me in a better light and that that is manipulative. I doubt so much that I’ve told people whom I love (which I doubt too) that I doubt they are even real. I feel like a whirlwind of mistrust. Mistrust that the work I’m doing with my therapist is valuable or that my time spent in school isn’t wasted. I doubt that I should feel proud or feel bad so I dissociate and feel nothing. I doubt that my girlfriend loves me or that the relationship is positive. I doubt my ability to articulate and convey what I am experiencing. Maybe this is too dramatic because right now I want to delete this all and tell myself I’m good and that I’m making progress. I doubt what I should spend my time on today, if I should go to a party or sit and watch TV. I’m torn and I can’t pick a side. Although this has been immensely challenging, I do see positivity and I think these hard doubts come and go and that I am making strides to see myself as a person that is just living their life and that it’s okay to do so. I am working to see the good in me and others and this world.
Being a nurse was really difficult for me at the beginning of my career. I had little confidence in my abilities to do my job well. Others saw something different than I did and frequently reminded me that I was doing great. My self-doubt comes from a desire to provide the care that my patients need and the knowledge that I won't ever know all there is to know. It's taken time for me to accept that this is okay. I focus on the most important facets of my practice and learn to do those well. Accepting myself as I am and striving to improve my practice has been very helpful in boosting my confidence.