There are times when I honestly feel the root of mental illness, depression, anxiety, etc. is the overwhelming need to be perfect. Perfection can mean different things to different people, and I will even go out on a limb and say that not all perfectionists crave perfection in every aspect of their lives (raises hand and looks around the room for validation). I have only really wanted to be perfect in those tasks and deeds at which I excelled at naturally. I wanted to be the best soccer player on the field, the smartest kid in the class, the best writer in college, and the best employee at my job. I managed to make it all the way to college feeling pretty perfect about my accomplishments, and had zero doubt in my mind that whatever I wanted in life was mine for the taking. I had never really failed before. I had never allowed myself to even entertain the idea of failing because I am a Harrell and Harrells don’t fail. We piss excellence, kick ass and take names, exude grace and confidence in everything we do. But we damn sure do not fail. Sounds ridiculous to me now, but these were the phrases used to govern my life and I never had a reason to believe otherwise. And then adulthood happened.
I dropped out of law school, moved to the other side of the country, and began working for the first time in my life. Ever. And it was horrible…but I always felt it would be temporary because I piss excellence and there was no way that I was going to stay in my rut for one day longer than necessary. This too would pass, etc. And even though I hated my job, I wanted to be the best at it to prepare myself for the day I would get the opportunity to take my perfection and apply it to something I was passionate about – something I truly loved so that I could become even *more* perfect that I was before. It was a brass ring that I chased year after year, job after job, city after city, but I was never ever ever happy. I blamed myself for my failures while holding those people who were doing *better* than myself up on a resentful pedestal, even if it was just a facade. I was jealous of their facade and the fact that they even had the ability to pretend that everything was perfect, because on an almost daily basis I just could not get my shit together enough to pretend I was as perfect as I longed to be professionally or personally.
The need, the almost obsession, to be at a certain level of your own imagination can be soul-crushing and immobilizing at the same time. The older you get and the more divorced from your dreams that you become, you make sacrifices and excuses for why you aren’t happy and even start to think that tolerance for your situation is a decent substitute, at least in the interim. I am guilty of that on an almost daily basis. The industry that I managed to land in after four years of college and a year of law school was something that I looked down on. I felt it was beneath me in almost every capacity. I did not think the people with whom I worked or who worked *for* me were beneath me, but I hated the industry I was in with such passion that it became the ruler with which I measured my own failings. And I resented the shit out of myself. I hated that I did not have an immediately identifiable passion to pursue on the side which would deliver me from my hell of mediocrity. I HATED most of my bosses who I felt were intellectually inferior to me, and more than a few of them had the emotional intelligence of a scorpion. I felt trapped by bills and responsibilities and a lifestyle to which I was accustomed. And all of these feelings of failure and rage and resentment built up inside of me year after year after year, becoming more pronounced with each passing birthday or major milestone in the life of a friend or loved one.
With these feelings came an extreme bout of anxiety and moderate depression. More anxiety than depression for me, but my perfectionist mentality made me shun asking for help and I turned my nose up at medicating the problem. I didn’t need a pill to make my life suck less, I needed to click my heels three times and land in the career of my dreams. Only then, when I was making the money I wanted in the field that I was perfectly suited to be in, would I allow myself to consider what comes next. Only once I was perfect would I concentrate on my health, traveling, dating, or on increasing my volunteer presence in my community. How could I go help out the disenfranchised when *EYE* was suffering too?!
I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t going out with friends. Mama loved herself about a bottle of Chardonnay each evening before bedtime. I was suffering from blinding migraines, tightness in my chest, an irregular heartbeat, and my hands were going numb. And the more my anxiety manifested itself in the physical and the more doctor’s appointments I went to in order to confirm that I wasn’t actually dying, the more shit my boss gave me (in my head) for leaving work early or taking the day off. He never actually said anything to me, but I was convinced that he was judging me and doubting my commitment to my job (that I hated) and plotting on a way to get rid of me (scorpion) before I had a chance to liberate myself from Hell and move on to my destiny!! I just had no idea what that “something” actually was, how to find out, how to afford making any major life changes while living in one of the most expensive cities in America and maintaining my autonomy. You know…the pesky little details. Sometimes life makes those decisions for you, and that temporary loss of control is exhilarating and horrifying at the same time. Perfectionist = control freak.
I cling so desperately to the idea of perfection because with that perfect life would come the illusion of stability (IT IS ALL AN ILLUSION!!!). This yearning for perfection, and as an extension my desire for stability, has made me operate from a place of fear for a very long time. I would rather be miserable with a secure source of income than take a step back (emotionally and financially), look deep inside myself to discover who I am without a job title behind my name or other people’s expectations having a predominant place in my head, discover what I am truly supposed to be doing with myself, and figure out how to make my days on this planet extraordinary and satisfying. And allllll of this added up over time gives you the glorious mess of an imperfect human being that I am today.
In my short 35 years on this planet, I have experienced a lot. I have had some amazing good times, but have also suffered some soul-snatching losses and defeats. Consistently I have been carrying guilt and pain and the burdens of imperfection for many, many years. I have measured my reality against my own expectations for my life, found myself lacking, and then consistently beat myself up emotionally for it. I fight a paralyzing fear of worthlessness on a daily basis while still being expected to show up and excel at whatever is in front of me when all I want to do is scream and cry and fade into the shadows if my star can’t shine as brightly as I feel it is meant to. And what I feel is not unique to just myself. These overwhelming feelings haunt the minds and hearts of millions of people in this country each day, but we are just now getting comfortable talking about and trying to normalize how we as humans process our emotions.
There are so many people out there fighting an all-out war on a daily basis, and their number one opponent on the battlefield is themselves. Some people think that depressed people or people suffering from anxiety are always the people who are “emo” dressed in black, sitting alone crying all the time, or who are just down-in-the-dumps. If that is all they care to understand about mental health issues, then it’s easy to ignore the symptoms in themselves or in the people they love. If a person is sad they are depressed, but if a person comes to work every day and can tell a funny joke or smile in a picture for Instagram then they are OK, right? Then they act shocked when that person takes their own life or otherwise hurts themselves with addiction or mutilation, saying things like “they were always so happy,” or “I guess you never know what’s going on with a person.” So as a parting gift for reading this post, I am going to try and post some words of wisdom for all parties so that there can be understanding, self-love, and compassion moving forward.
To my fellow perfectionists or anyone suffering from depression or anxiety my advice is the one I give myself on a daily basis: Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for not being whatever you think your version of perfect or accomplished or gifted or blessed looks like, and try really hard to think of the people and experiences that bring you joy. Try and find peace there so that you can navigate around the noise in your own head and come out on the other side with a clarity and renewed sense of direction and purpose so you aren’t frozen in place forever. And speak with a professional if you aren’t comfortable speaking with close friends or family. An objective opinion is often helpful for showing you that while you are valid in not being content with where you are, you do have the power to change your circumstances. And if for some reason you cannot immediately change your circumstances, it might give you the strength to change you attitude about them. Perfectionism is the driving force of greatness! Do not apologize for having a high opinion of yourself and what you are meant to accomplish! But find peace in accepting where you are in this present moment, and use those experiences as tools to add to your arsenal so that when your time arrives you are a force of nature that cannot be stopped. Remind people why storms are named after people and leave your mark on the world in a way where people will speak about you with admiration for your talents and your compassion for others fighting the same battles that tried to take you out.
To my readers who do not suffer from mental illness I say the following: Do not dismiss the feelings of someone who is literally fighting themselves for their life simply because you do not understand the burden that they carry. It is not your job to give them “tough love” or remind them that there are people who are worse off than them in the world to try and provide perspective. That shit does NOT work, and they will close off the part of themselves that they allowed to become vulnerable until the cancer destroys them from the inside. Remind them they are loved and valuable and encourage them to follow their passions (or in my case, discover what their passions are), but then don’t follow it up with some patronizing sentiment that is really designed to make you feel better for helping them rather than actually being of any real assistance to the person in need. Remind them that where they are right now is a stepping stone that they can pick up and add to their personal or professional foundations to make themselves stronger for whatever is coming their way next. But do not make them feel weak for baring their souls to someone with whom they felt comfortable enough to let their walls down. Be kind. Encourage forgiveness of self. Love them for who they are right now, not for who you or they think they will become. And if you are truly scared for their health and safety, do not rest until you have gotten them the professional help they need. You would rather they be upset with you for a few months or years than cry over their absence if the burden got too heavy for them to carry by themselves.
Love yourself. Love each other. Tomorrow is a better day.