Cognitive Dissonance: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.
“We have a term for that, it’s called cognitive dissonance”, the words excitedly leaped from my therapist's mouth. Some days, I believe people who work in mental health get more joy from being able to label a behavior, than those of us they are labeling get from finally having a term for our mental state. I sat there, digging my nails into the delicate Styrofoam cup rim, leaving evenly spaced indentations of anxiety behind. Cognitive dissonance. The words swirled in my mind as she went on. I’m familiar with the term, I’ve used it to explain unyielding and illogical religious beliefs. Surely, I'm immune from such a label, I thought. But I’m not. In at least one way, or another, we all fall victim to cognitive dissonance. For me, it’s been my marriage and the repeated belief that if I waited long enough, and loved hard enough, the man I married could and would change the hurtful behaviors he exhibited. In the process, I ignored my own harmful mental gymnastics.
When it came to religion, I could easily examine the inconsistencies and toss the breaks in logic into the wastebasket where they belonged. Eventually, leaving nothing but godlessness and unabashed skepticism. With love, oh love, it hasn’t been that easy. If there was a disconnect between words and actions, then I clearly wasn’t seeing it correctly. A belief supported by my spouse. I simply needed to look at everything differently. To be patient. To hold on. Give him time and trust. Always more time and trust. I could do this. To give superficial change, that quickly faded, more weight than years of peer-reviewed data. Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them; the first time.” We rarely do, though. Why do we do this? Why do we allow our hearts to cloud our logic? How can we observe years of behavior, and at the mere notion of change, throw all our chips in and declare this time around it will be better?
This isn’t a post with answers. Because, frankly, I don't have any damn answers. So, if you’re waiting for that you’re going to be shit out of luck. I’m still tracing the rim of a Styrofoam cup attempting to make sense of this one life we’re given and fighting with the cognitive dissonance emotional attachments create.
I’ve spent months dissecting why I allow myself to distort things until they are easy to swallow. Instead of, accepting them for what they are and cutting the cord.
He says he’s never hit me. So, despite everything else, I should be happy. True, he’s never hit me. But, when did that become an acceptable bar to reach instead of an universally unacceptable behavior? And why is physical abuse the only recognized form of domestic violence? Do the words and actions that don’t leave physical scars not count? And if they don’t count, why do I have to do mental gymnastics to reason them away? If this is a person I can feel safe with and trust, why does simply typing this fill me with soul-crushing fear? I’m doing wrong by sharing the truth. Is love when the truth is an act of rebellion?
The emotional part of my mind says yes. It also wants to say people change. It wants to believe the fantasy.
You’re not seeing it clearly, Rayven. His words. Or are they mine? It’s hard to determine whose words they are. I can only determine that they suffocate me. They whisper in my mind, “you’re not perfect, how can you expect so much”, “calm down, you don’t see things how they really are”, “no, you’re just crazy”, “it’s not control, it’s concern”, “I love you”, “so much of this is your fault”, “you’ve brought this on yourself”, “just fix you, try more, bend more, give more, you don't do enough" "learn to take a joke", "I'm only kidding", "stop complaining this is the best you'll ever get”, "no one would want you anyways", "it's not settling, it's being smart", "don't be selfish", “don’t you see how it’s all your fault”. The words work to choke out the discrepancies. The discrepancies exist because of me, I deduce. This notion makes my mind an Olympic performer in mental gymnastics. Always in search of a reason for the unreasonable.
Therapy works to give the discrepancies the oxygen they need to breathe, so I can acknowledge them and move forward. But still, I sit rubbing the anxiety indentations in my cup, waiting for the oxygen to reach my lungs so I can finally breathe, too.
It all started with a boy. Well, that’s not entirely true. It started with a long hot summer in the time before smartphones, wifi, or even a desktop with dial-up. My children compare this time to the dark ages, it was simply 1994 to me. During the sticky summer of ‘94, my acquiescent neighbor and I sat on his bedroom floor debating the possibilities of our day. Watch television? No, his mother’s soaps were on. Go for a bike ride? Ugh, much too hot for that. Being military brats, our homes were filled with random knickknacks from around the world. As we ticked through the list, and our options faded, I observed the knickknacks in his room. My eyes eventually landed on the large Japanese glass float that rested in the corner of his bedroom. “Let’s put on a play", the words danced from my lips as my brain began to piece together bits of dialogue.
An hour later, we were calling his mother and sisters into his room to watch our play.
That’s how a good chunk of our summer went before my parents decided that boys and girls our age were no longer allowed to play alone in rooms and his mother reluctantly agreed with them. Those moments of freedom and creativity were the catalyst to my writing desires. I don’t remember any of the plays we created that summer, but I remember how they made me feel. We rivaled Shakespeare and brought our tiny audience to their feet every time. I learned in those moments that the words that lived in my head had a place in the world.
When the playwriting stopped, I turned to a spiral notebook. I kept it hidden under a pile stuff in my dresser drawer. It contained sections of my life. Moments of pain, joy, and fear. It flowed from me and brought me peace. It also hid my fantasy world largely concocted around crushes I had. Romantic comedies were my forte in the mid-90s. While my writing has changed as I’ve aged and become a bit darker, working in a variety of heavy themes, I still enjoy reliving my hormonally charged youth every once in awhile.
In middle school, my notebooks and diaries were taken because my father didn’t agree with the subject matter and fearing further retribution I stopped writing unless required to for school. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, the best laid plans often go awry. My 8th-grade poetry landed me a one-on-one session with my teacher. She was concerned. It was clear to her that I was struggling with depression and my orientation. What was the purpose to life? Was there really more beyond my current existence? Would I ever know love? And could I love boys and girls? And what if I only loved girls, then what? She assured me there was nothing wrong with me and she was available if I wanted to talk. I chose to write. It felt safe to write again and not the fluff, but the nitty gritty of who I was and who I wanted to be. I don’t know what she did with my writings, judging by the fact that my father never left a parent-teacher conference in a rage it’s safe to say she didn’t show them to him.
A year later I had the teacher who would make me a better writer. So, naturally, I hated her class. I understand now why she was so hard on us, I really do. But Ms. Eagles, if you’re reading this, I still believe there is absolutely nothing wrong with doodling during class. I still do it. In meetings, at conferences, and at the doctor’s office. You can’t stop the doodling, but you can make the doodlers better writers. Which you did, so thank you.
For the next four years, my writing life was a blur of research papers, essays, and an occasional creative writing piece that brought me freedom from the world I lived in. Then, one brisk afternoon, a friend sat me down at his computer and introduced me to LiveJournal. He said it was just what I needed, and it was. I longed for a safe space to bear my soul and LiveJournal offered that. Over the next ten years, I posted there, on various social media platforms as they came into existence, and eventually on blogger.
Creatively, though, the stories rarely found themselves on paper or a computer hard drive. Instead, they found their way to my children’s ears. Stories of far off places, knights, friendly dragons, and daring adventures in which they were the heroes. Beautiful stories meant only for them. Over the years, I found great joy in writing about our schooling efforts, secular parenting, a variety of social justice issues, and the few creative pieces that found their way to ink. Then, one morning I awoke to find that joy was gone, stolen by a thief in the night.
Depression is a bitch without a care or concern for the life you wish to live.
I’ve spent the last four years struggling to find the will to write. I doubted myself and allowed the negativity of a select few to impact the one thing that has always been an act of freedom for me. I realized not too long ago, as ideas rolled through my mind, that the will to write will never be given back to me; I would have to take it back. With each keystroke, with each scribble in a notebook or on a wall, I would have to take back my freedom.
You know you've found your passion when you fear never trying more than you fear failing.
This craft has been in my blood since the day they placed a pen in my hand. I’ve attempted to silence it, ignore it, and neglected it out of fear because the pen is mighty. The pen cares not about the thoughts, opinions, and feelings of others or even the writer. The pen simply wants to tell a story. When you’re the one holding the pen that’s a scary and liberating place to be, especially when the story is your own. As I've moved through this journey we call life, I’ve always known the pen is mighty, but now I’m no longer afraid to hold it.
“Writing is a dangerous profession. There is no telling what hole you may rip in society’s carefully woven master narrative.” - Danielle Orner
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