At my last job, most of my cases were people with ADHD, depression, anxiety and mild bipolar disorder. I saw lots of people for their first ever psychiatry appointment and this was a phrase that frequently came up: “ I just want to feel like my old self.”
At first I wasn’t sure what to say to this. It sounded like a really reasonable request. More reasonable for the 20 year old college student having his first bout of depression, than the 63 year old who was looking back on her 20s as the example of “old self,” but still…how do you go backwards?
I related to it. Some circumstances are temporary. School feels this way. There is always the end of the semester, a winter break, after that next test…maybe that’s part of what teaches us early on that we should just hold on until the other side of this thing. The thing being abnormal, so once it’s over we can go back to normal.
But what about the experiences that forever changed me? Or forever changed my circumstances? Things that it seems there is no “other side” to get to? Mark Nepo described this as going through a door and you turn around to go back through it but the door is gone. Where is my old self in all of this?
When I sat across the table from patients who had been clawing or pining for the old self for years, I wanted to yell, “SHE’S DEAD! YOU’LL NEVER FIND HER AGAIN! STOP LOOKING!” That’s not therapeutic—and it’s not true. What actually came out of my mouth was a nudging toward new self. Maybe that person you used to be, maybe she had never experienced the death of a child, twenty years in a loveless marriage, sexual assault, a major professional setback, or being diagnosed with a chronic illness.
Maybe that old self is irrelevant now. Maybe she doesn’t know enough of the reality of life. But irrelevant seems inaccurate too.
What I am hinting at is acceptance. Acceptance that the world may look completely different on the other side of a major life event. Things may shift in dramatic ways. And my brain wants to tell me that there will be a back-to-normal moment again. That is when I will feel like my old self.
But what I’ve realized is that on both sides and in the middle of all of these circumstances, it’s just me. There is no other side to get to. I am waiting there for myself already, just as I am here with me now.
I’ve been thinking about it with this COVID-19 noise. I’ve been in a lot of anxiety, mostly because I’m afraid life will look different for a long time. And I really liked my pre-pandemic life. I am not unique in that I have had to cancel travel plans, scramble for childcare, worry about toilet paper and canned goods and old people who seem to keep going out despite the warnings.
I worry about whether I (and we) are being careful enough with this or taking it too seriously. I worry because I’m not doing my regular fitness stuff and because I’m stress-eating more carbs. I worry about responsibly consuming all of the produce I’ve purchased. I worry I will fritter my time away watching TV or talking this all over for the fiftieth time on the phone with a friend or family member. I worry I won’t take advantage of the sunshine when it’s out. That’s right! I have FOMO for sunshine.
There is so much available to be worried about. And my brain wants to tell me that when things go back to normal, then I can be my old self again. But my old self isn’t waiting in the wings. She’s here with me right now. Along with the 75 other versions of my old self that I’ve been in the last 36 years. Along with the new self that is growing out of the worry and the sunshine and the produce and the yoga and conversation I am feeding her today.
All selfs are welcome on all sides of life’s challenges. They’re all here to stay anyway.
I heard Tracy Ellis Ross say that her most frequent prayer was, “Gentle, gentle, Tracy. Give yourself a thousand breaks and a thousand more.” I think I will adopt this.
Gentle, gentle, Michelle. There is room for all of you, the old and the new, in this beautiful, chaotic world.