Photo by Tina Curiel
When your heart is caught again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain
When the aching won’t be gone
When your battle’s never won
TOIL AND TROUBLE will guide you fair
Steer you through the fog to clearer air.
(We’re an advice column, with music. The weird sisters are on your side this time.)
QUESTION: The thing is, I wanted to start this out by painting a morbid picture of my gravestone, which has a giant YOU TRIED star, in Comic Sans. I have the rose bush that fails to bloom. I’m the one that runs out of lead on an important test. If I was a song, I’m Alanis Morisette’s Ironic. I have anxiety. I’m a giant bundle of nerves that tries very hard but never gets anywhere. I’m inept. I want a million great things. I’m a rocking chair. I’m me and I don’t want to be me. How do I stop being me?
TOIL: To start out my reply, I want to start this out by painting you my own picture. My name is Toil. When Trouble and I talked about picking our name, she suggested we be called Toil and Trouble, as a reference to many things. We’re pretentious enough that we like the reference. We’re cute enough that we……want to be cute. And finally, needing advice means you’re in trouble and some hard work is what you’re going to need to get you out of it. Perfect. A+. We’re great, etc. However, we couldn’t decide which name went to whom. We finally decided that Trouble was Trouble for various reasons (hint: Louis Tomlinson), and I became Toil by default.
Another however: Toil fits me. Despite having everything in my life, I am always convinced that I am in trouble, that everything is falling apart. I am so privileged. I do not want to toil. I am confused and upset by work. When depression hit me, I collapsed instantly with a round thud, like dropping a brick into the ocean from a great height. I live in extremes, and I went to the farthest one. I did not understand how life was forcing me to worklike so many things, giving death words made it real. So instead, I framed it obtusely, adjacently, off in corners. I do not want to die, I do not want to exist. I do not want to not exist, I just want to exist different. I do not want the effort and struggle of death, I just want to vanish into a blank plane. I do not want to die, I just do not want to be me any more.
A year and a half later, I will tell you, obviously, I am still here. And I am still me. I’m not going to say it gets better because it is a lie. Sometimes it does not. And when it does, it might not be because of anything in particular. It might not be because of something you can control, so saying “it gets better” is like waiting for your Daddy Warbucks to transform you; it is like waiting for your Fairy Godmother, or, most importantly, your Caine Wise (GO SEE JUPITER ASCENDING. IT MIGHT NOT GET BETTER BUT FOR TWO HOURS EVERYTHING WILL BE PERFECT). “It gets better” happens to the chosen few, and it happens to the patient. Therapy, also, is possible for a chosen few, although I will say that a random phone call to a suicide hotline (literally regardless of how you happen to be feeling about suicide) is a very effective 15 minute free therapy session.
Here is what I can tell you: you are clearly used to living in shades of grey (LORD do I hate that book for ruining such a useful phrase), but pay attention to your cloud. You are clearly a very good writer. I am, in particular, struck by the phrase “I am a rocking chair”. What a good phrase! What satisfying words! So, you have a talent. Do not write this off as “I am not the most talented” or “these words are not important” or “I have other things to do”. Accept is for what it is: something you are good at. Start collecting those things, like a butterfly jar. Start writing them down and folding them into origami stars. Repeat after me: no one is worthless. I might be wrong, but a lot of the urge to self-erase comes from a feeling of inadequacy. It sure did for me. I don’t know you. Maybe it’s friends. Maybe it’s family. Maybe it’s the awful ache of comparison. Maybe it’s nothing! Maybe you have anxiety and it is pressing down on you until your skin bloats and that’s not something you can control.
Regardless, erasure is a terrible, terrible thing. I won’t compare it to suicide, because there are a lot of ways to erase yourself, of which suicide is only one, but they all are simply awful. When you are no longer you, it is not just the bad parts of you that you are throwing away. You are throwing away everything. It might sound good right now, but trust me, it is not, because it is impossible. This is how it went for me. I want to cut my stomach out, but I would miss the precise color of my skin when I’m driving my car in the California sun. I want to be Taylor Swift but I would miss the way I walk, bow-legged and masculine when I’m feeling confident. I want to be smooth and wrinkle-less, but I want to be able to crinkle my nose.
We are all scales, in a way, of things we hate and things we love. I think it is very rare (impossibly rare) to have your scales balanced all the way to the “good side”. But gradually, millimeter by millimeter, I would encourage you to even your scales.
TROUBLE: Here’s another reason it seemed right that I be Trouble, even though, truly, I am very demure and law-abiding, as withered millennia-old crones go: as soon as I said the words out loud, I had on loop in my head the refrain of this old bonus track, Britney sing-stuttering Ain’t nothing wrong with a little bit of trouble, trou-uble, trouble. This is something I’ve built shakily and stubbornly into my worldview, because I’ve had to, because I’ve made a few too many times the mistake of thinking trouble is something that can be outrun. Trouble is what brings you to our door, but trouble is also a part of life, one that can be read like tarot cards, to teach you about where you are and where you’re headed.
I am not saying: hey, cheer up, there’s nothing wrong. Your problems are real and the pain they cause you is valid. What I am saying is: let’s shift the lens a little bit. You’re turning a story about how you feel–anxious, frustrated, tired–into a story about who you are–inept, broken, doomed. What I’m saying is: there’s nothing wrong with you. Toil is right: you can’t erase yourself, and that’s a good thing.
I’m not expecting that to be comforting. I know–I know–that it can be the hardest thing to hear when you’re choking on I don’t want to be me, drowning every day in your own unwantedness. You want a magic spell to rewrite each cell in your body, turn you into something bold and clean and fast and steady, but think about how those stories end. Do you want to be voiceless, dancing on knives? That’s what happens to Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid, and that’s what it feels like to live fighting against who you are: a stopped throat and wounds that never close.
Right now you’re at war with yourself, and you need to find a way to make peace. Many people do find therapy a valuable tool in that process, and that’s both a recommendation if it’s an option for you and a dose of perspective: you think you are saying “I am dead already,” but what I’m hearing from you is “I am human and alive.” Which is terrifying! Help, I’m alive! sings Emily Haines, and the echoing, cavernous dread is so much more believable than the thin falsetto lightness of my regrets are few. But, also, it’s just life. I know I’m that I’m being hateful, but that ain’t nothing / I’m just jealous / I’m just human / don’t judge me, Beyoncé says, and you need to channel that idea for yourself: call a truce on your hatefulness, your fear, your thorns, your wilted blossoms. Declare a ceasefire on your difficult humanity. I’m telling you this because you deserve to believe this, but also because the only thing I have found that grounds me when I feel nervousness climbing up my skin like ivy is saying to myself, I am experiencing anxiety because I am a human being and this is a thing human beings experience. I don’t know if that will help your in-the-moment anxiety, but I know that more broadly, the more I make space in my life to name and observe the things about me I wish weren’t true without trying to cast them out, the more livable they become. The less energy I spend fighting them, the more I have to build up the other parts of myself. This is the trick: not to become less you, but to become more you, to inhabit more fully your skin. In making room for the painful parts of you, you give the rest of you air to breathe. This is slow going, and frustrating, like gardening, like anything involving living things. But you can do it.
TOIL: You wrote to an advice column, and you wrote in a clear, beautiful voice, about how you can erase yourself, and you opened with “I want”. You wanted to control how we saw you. You had your own desires. You had an image of yourself in mind, an image that you felt was true. Somewhere in you, you do not want to be erased entirely. I could tell you how to stop being you. But, as you may know, nothing is going to stop you from being you, apart from those unspeakable words. And they are never, ever, worth it. It may not get better, but you might love yourself for it more.
TROUBLE: YES! I am so, so moved and inspired that even feeling so desperate to shed your skin, you dare to want great things and you dare to call them that! If there’s one thing I want for you–and I want a lot of things for you, I want you to find love like you deserve and peace like you crave and a thousand glittering dreams–but if I have to pick one, I want you to never stop believing in the greatness of your desires. You say you’re trying, and I believe that, and god, it can be so exhausting to roll and roll till you’re out of luck, again and again. When you’re so full of longing, it’s easy to read it as the story of the million things you don’t and maybe will never have: I’ve got a feeling deep inside / it’s taking, it’s taking all I’ve got. All your strength, burned up in the furnace of your failures. But we’re shifting lenses, remember? Can you try to believe in the bravery of your wanting? I roll and I roll till I change my luck: same story, new ending, all because you had the courage to keep showing up. And look, I’m not a psychic: I can’t tell you when your luck will change, or if it will be in the way you want now. I can only encourage you to look for beauty in the game.
You need to build that beauty into your life if it’s not already there. This is partly a logistical matter: STOP BEATING UP ON YOURSELF, as an isolated directive, is about as easy to follow as DON’T THINK ABOUT A WHITE BEAR, so you need to find a place to redirect that energy you’re currently hurling at your spiritual scabs. This isn’t the same as distraction, which is another way of trying to outrun yourself. I’m talking about spending time on things that make you feel nourished, more whole. I don’t know what those will be. Maybe it’s something physical, to remind yourself you’re not just a series of heartaches floating through the ether; maybe it’s a craft, something where you can hold tangible results of your own learning. Maybe you’re gonna get real weird about a boy band, or become an expert on the Civil War. You’re good at wanting; I believe you can follow your heart to its own lifeline. What I’m here to do is to tell you to cherish it, even if you think it’s not “productive” or doesn’t “count” or isn’t “meaningful”: believe in the magic of something that makes you want to be alive. Believe you are worth nurturing. Easier fucking said than done, I know! It’s hard, it’s so hard. One of my favorite things about Cher Lloyd’s “Human” is that she follows up a declaration — I decided tonight that I’m breaking all the chains on my throne of perfection — with a question: could it be that easy to let it all go? Listen and think about that tension between boldness and uncertainty, about epiphanies that slip like water through your fingers, about how it feels awful to make the same decision over and over again but it’s better than the alternative. You know I’m just human, human, human after all. I promise you, that’s enough if you let it be.
TOIL: I would also recommend that you listen to Meditation from Thais. We don’t do much classical (or we haven’t yet) here on witchsong, but I love this piece. It’s a lament. It’s a phoenix song. You are at a juncture here. You can lie to yourself, and focus on the negative sides of your scales, and you can make minuscule changes, day after day after day, trying to wipe off your canvas. It will not work. I can tell you with complete confidence that it will not work. Everyone runs out of pencil lead. Or, alternately, you can write out your feelings until you run out of words. You can sit in a rocking chair and roll back and force until your bones are shaken loose from their clenching. You can write down on your arms the things that you are good at: you can write down both sides of the truth, the good with the bad. You can rise, rise, rise. This song will make you cry but it will be worth it. As it climbs scales to its crescendo, think to yourself, isn’t it ironic? Isn’t it ironic that evil succeeds when the good is so obvious? You can rise. Please write back at any time.