My Epiphany or How You Gonna Win When You Ain't Right Within?
I made peace long ago with the reality that due to my lifelong battle with Depression and Anxiety I will probably always be on psychotropic medication and I will probably always need to be in therapy. That’s okay. I don’t see medication or therapy as anything to be ashamed of; on the contrary, I take pride in doing everything in my power to fight Depression and Anxiety so that I can be the best possible husband, father, citizen, small business owner and writer.
As I like to say, you need to survive in order to thrive. Medication and therapy have been two of the main weapons in my never-ending battle with mental illness. When I got laid off from The Dissolve in 2015 I went into therapy to help me cope with the swirling darkness, confusion and despair all around me but after I moved to Atlanta that fall to reboot my life and career I did not have a new therapist for roughly four years.
Here’s the thing; if you’re looking for a reason to not do something your brain and soul both tell you you absolutely need to do, like go back into therapy quickly for the sake of your mental health, you can always find one. A depressed brain is very good at making convincing-seeming excuses not to do healthy and productive things to treat that Depression.
So I told myself, not unreasonably, that I did not have the money or the time for therapy in Atlanta, that I was living paycheck to paycheck and costly, time-consuming therapy was something I could put off until I was doing better financially, when I was on more secure footing where money was concerned.
I convinced myself that was true until about a month and a half ago. I broke down and decided to sign up for online therapy via Better Help. I wasn’t sure how it would work, or if it would work. I’ve always been terrified of silence, of running out of things to say, of being tongue-tied. I suppose I was worried that about feeling too awkward, self-conscious, self-aware and anxious to successfully have therapy to deal with my awkwardness, self-consciousness, self-awareness, shyness and anxiety.
It turns out I had nothing to worry about. I really hit it off with my online therapist. We’ve clearly read the same Eckhart Tolle book and in one of our first sessions she asked me if there was one theme in my life and my career that might serve as a skeleton key that unlocks the various rooms of my cluttered, dark and complicated psyche and explained, on a fundamental level, my struggles.
As you might expect from someone who has written three memoirs about their struggles with mental illness before the age of forty, I have spent a LOT of time thinking about myself. Oftentimes that is not a good thing! Too much contemplation can lead to ruination but in therapy thinking constantly about yourself stops being a horrible weakness and becomes a strength.
So the answer to my therapist’s question came to me quickly. If there’s one thing that ties together the elements of my life that I struggle with it’s a sense of unworthiness, of not deserving either the good things in my life or the things I do not have but could conceivably go out and pursue if I did not feel, on such a fundamental level, that I am doomed to failure aside from from a few fields where I feel confident, like fatherhood and writing this website.
This sense of unworthiness has been with me from the beginning. It comes with being abandoned by your mother as a baby. I grew up thinking that I was unworthy of my mother’s love or her presence in my life. That feeling of unworthiness only increased during my largely friendless, Dickensian childhood in a group home.
That sense of not being worthy of anything—friendship, love, success, stability, security—started to dissipate as I got older and achieved the professional success I was convinced would fill the hole inside me where self-love and acceptance should be. And you know? It kind of did. For a while.
My first year at the A.V Club I wrestled with not feeling worthy of my dream job, particularly at such a young age. But there came a point where I felt like I had earned my position at the company, that I was where the universe wanted me to be. For a long time, my fragile sense of self was rooted almost completely in professional success.
I thought that my job and my books gave my life value and worth, that I was good enough because of what I did professionally, not because what’s inside of me. So when things got really bad at the A.V Club, and then at The Dissolve that sense that I was good enough started to fade and that sense of not being good enough increased.
For the last four and a half years or so that feeling of unworthiness is an ever-present companion, fed regularly by rejection emails and dead relationships and a stubborn, not unreasonable fear that I have fallen behind professionally to such an extent that I can never hope to catch up, that I was fundamentally unworthy of all the success I experienced as a young man in television and publishing and now the universe sees me for what I am: a semi-literate has been who does not have what it takes to make it as a full time freelance pop culture writer and, somewhat inconveniently, has no other skills.
For me, happiness isn’t about what you have but what you do. It’s a verb, not a noun. It’s about perpetually doing things that make you happy, productive, of service to the universe. For me that’s writing and podcasting and being a dad. Those are the moments when I’m not worrying about all the gloomy melodrama of the past and an eternally unpredictable, uncontrollable future but living in the present.
That sense of worthiness can’t come from outside. It has to come from within. I won’t feel worthy if I sell three thousand copies of The Weird Accordion to Al book or the site’s Patreon makes it to four thousand dollars a month, although those would both be wonderful developments that would remove some of my paralyzing anxiety and insecurity.
No, worthiness has to come from within, from knowing that I’m good enough, and smart enough, and I do enough that I can be proud of myself and not be forever plagued with the sinister shadows of self-doubt and self-hatred.
I was worried that getting back into therapy would be like opening a Pandora’s Box that forces me to confront all of the ugliness and doubt I’ve been violently suppressing for the last four years. Instead I think it’s about working through that ugliness and darkness so I can get to a place of light, where I can feel worthy because I am a goddamn human being with dignity, not because the latest My World of Flops piece is a page-view champion.
It’s a process, a long, long process but I’m grateful and appreciative to be on the path to filling that internal emptiness not with the empty calories of professional accomplishments or fleeting external validation but with the nourishing soul food of self-love and self-acceptance.
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