When I saw my therapist last, we talked, among other things, about forms of movement I might engage in given my lack of motivation and poor health and stamina. She suggested T’ai Chi. I admitted I’d considered it, and had thought about getting a DVD. She said, “I bet the library has some.” I said I hadn’t thought of that–which was true; I always forget the library has DVDs. I said I’d look into it.
That part wasn’t true. I knew it wasn’t true when I said it. I have no intention of looking into it.
For those following along at home, yes; I intend to bring this up next session. My twisted relationship to diet and exercise is an ongoing theme, something I very much want to explore. Or, I want it as much as I’m capable of wanting anything. But therapy is tricky. It isn’t linear. Things come up in the moment, and things may have happened since you last met that take a while to process. And I have a lot of thoughts I need to put down, and I meant to write this post anyway. So.
It’s hard to describe my experience of desire. Except at rare intervals, it’s not something I really feel. The closest I get is a kind of vague interest, followed by a shrug. Or the idea that I should be concerned about this thing, except, in my heart, I’m not. I barely remember what desire feels like. I remember that I have experienced it in the past. I remember wanting my husband, enough to proposition him in a Wendy’s even though I was seeing someone else. I remember, long before I met my husband, when I was trying to get over a break-up, asking myself, “What’s something you’ve always wanted for yourself but have never done?”–the question that led me to enroll in dance classes at the community college. But I don’t remember the sensation of wanting. Instead of desire, I feel pain and fear.
There are a lot of reasons for this. When I was a kid, my personal desires were coded as selfish, for example. When I expressed a desire for something, I was often told, “Oh, you don’t want that,” along with a list of all the reasons I couldn’t possibly. Or I was told not to want what I wanted because someone else didn’t want it, or someone else would have to take trouble over it. Desire was reserved for the adults in my life: Go to church because your father wants it; excel at school because it’s what we want for you; go to THIS school because our fears are more important than your desire to get away from a toxic environment. Desires about my own body were dismissed or ridiculed. “You’re too young to care about that; you look stupid that way; why should you care about having the kind of sweater the other girls have?”
But I think, most of all, I’ve just experienced too much disappointment and I’m worn out. I’ve never actually fulfilled a desire, not the way I envisioned, at least. Or maybe, the ones I’ve managed to fulfill haven’t changed anything. The path doesn’t lead where I think it’s going to. And some of this is normal. You marry a man, it’s never what you think, but the marriage still has value. Or it doesn’t, and you fix it or compromise or move on. But some of it isn’t what I think is the regular course of life. Shouldn’t you be able to map out a path and follow it somewhere you intend to go without random weirdos putting up irrelevant roadblocks? Some people seem to manage this. I never can. I plan out my course for the New World, make sure all my navigation instruments are working, plunge ahead, and next thing I’m not even sailing; my boat has vanished and I’m fighting Martians or something. Like applying to a Master’s program in Dance Therapy, being interviewed by two people from a completely different department, who asked about my spirituality (since I mentioned its importance in my personal essay), then derailed all my attempts to answer my questions with “We’re not interested in that,” and ultimately told me I wasn’t mature enough for grad school and I should go away and get more “life experience.”
So then I try to reconcile telling myself things like, “Well, maybe it was better I didn’t pursue that anyway” for this, that, and the other reasons, and try to find a new path. But the same thing always happens. Maybe I’m a shlemazel by nature, or maybe it’s just life, or, I don’t know. What I know is, pursuing any kind of goal is difficult when you have no real hope of achieving it.
Anyway, my inability to feel true desire or passion for anything is problematic, both personally and in relating to others. When I don’t feel things, they become unreal to me. They exist in a theoretical realm, so far removed from primary stimuli and comfort they may as well be mythical. So I want and don’t want. This, as I kind of said above, makes self-motivation almost a moot point. Also, talking about desire with others is difficult, because they understand it to mean something other than what I understand it to mean. I assume that to others “wanting” something has some kind of feeling attached to it, which it doesn’t have for me. So I often have to answer questions like, “If you want to be in better shape, why don’t you do what you need to get in better shape?” And any response I make is interpreted as an excuse to be lazy, or recalcitrance, or something of the kind.
My last psychiatrist was especially bad about this. Actually, the entire psychiatric profession is pretty bad about this. For all that they’re allegedly treating mental illness, practitioners have a serious disconnect when it comes to what that means. So they say things like “You know what it takes to lose weight; if you want to lose weight just do it!”I have a HUGE problem with “just do it” rhetoric in general. I mean, we all know how “Just Say No” to drugs, to sex, worked out. “Just Do It” erases real obstacles like mental state, physical ability, marginalization. It presupposes that we have control over all those things, and failure to “Just Do” is due to a lack of will. Or of true desire. If you don’t get what you want, you must not really want it. It’s an attitude that allows people to shame those in poverty for not working hard enough to get out. For not wanting to change badly enough. It excuses the cruelty of not offering people the help and empathy they need with the idea that if you don’t jump through the proper hoops, you’re too comfortable. It requires people always to sink lower to prove they need help, and however low you go, it’s never low enough. I despise it.
(Related: Another thing that’s happened a lot in my interactions with mental health practitioners–and I wish I could think of a specific example, but I only remember my reaction to it–is, they’ll make some off-the-wall suggestion, like, “Have you thought about such-and-so?” And when I tell them I don’t really care about that, they say, “Well, if you don’t care, you might as well try it as not!” Like they’re trying to prove some weird point. And it makes me want to strangle them while banging their heads against the wall, screaming, “Not being able to care about something does not equate to being okay with it one way or the other!”)
There’s a mindset among adherents of certain types of spirituality that passion is an obstacle to be overcome. Passion leads to action, which leads to an accumulation of karmic points, which prevents one from attaining enlightenment (those are layman’s terms). This is based on an understanding that enlightenment is a dissolution of self into the All, and your passions, with their resulting actions, anchor one in the Wheel of Samsara, so one has to incarnate over and over until one achieves the proper level of detachment. It follows very handily upon the first “Noble Truth” that All Life is Suffering, from which one might understandably want to avoid.
I don’t buy it. I don’t believe all life is suffering (unless you use the archaic definition of “suffering” as “allowing,” in which case life would be allowing things to happen as they happen while maintaining some amount of detachment). I don’t believe passion and desire are bad things, and I think they have as much place in the human experience as any emotion. I think without passion there’s no motivation and no cause to challenge oppressive systems. I think without desire, there’s no impulse to change one’s self. That being said, I do understand how culture and society can instill one with desires that don’t benefit anyone but those in power, and it’s hard to separate those from the true desires of the heart.
The Tumblr screencap above popped up in my Facebook feed recently. It resonated not only because I’ve struggled with depression since I was seven or so, but also because I’ve fought just as long to be allowed to want what I want, to like what I like. The two are inextricably bound for me, because if you don’t know what you want, how can you know who you are? And the depression itself occludes all the sense of wanting things, and diminishes the ability to imagine joyful outcomes. Everything turns into a wasted landscape of pointless drudgery for little or no reward.
As I try to confront the lasting damage having an eating disorder has done to me, I’m recognizing more and more how few of my actions over the course of my life have sprung from a true desire to do them, and how many from a need to be “right” in other people’s eyes. Be thinner, be more conventionally attractive, be active, be involved. It all boils down to trying to gain approval by being something I’m not instead of learning to be okay with the person I am. Even when I went back to college to finish my BA, my choice of major was less about me than about appearances. Yes, I loved dancing when I studied it. And I thought at the time earning my degree would improve my life–though now I wonder how much of that was due to societal expectation and the idea that a person of my class background and intelligence should have a college degree. But I also thought, “Given the state of professional dance, I am not the ‘right’ type to be just a dancer, and going into Dance Therapy will keep me active (because we’re all supposed to be active, and especially large people are supposed to be active).” I wasn’t happy in California, but I did have a pretty good life with a decent job. I wonder sometimes if maybe I should have just stayed and taken dance classes at the community college and worked in the shoe store. Maybe that would have been more honest.
When I started writing this post, I felt genuinely bad about the fact that I don’t like exercise. I don’t like moving much, not anymore. Over the past few weeks, I’ve gone through a significant depressive episode. It started with this guilt, but recently I’ve thought maybe the trigger was that I once again pushed myself to do something I did not want to do–in this case, going to the local gym. It sets me into a downward spiral, for I genuinely would like the body of someone who goes to the gym, but engaging in movement is too loaded and upsets me. And that causes me to beat myself up for a lot of different reasons.
I still have layers upon layers of shit to deal with. I hope, at the bottom, I’ll find the passions I’ve lost. I’m afraid there’s nothing but emptiness.