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.
I look pretty damn happy, don’t I? I learned a long time ago that a well-placed smile can hide a multitude of sins. We are taught not to question the smile. The smile is a warm and inviting sign that everything is ok. The smile is a lie.
On the clinical level, depression is a feeling of intense sadness often coupled with feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and helplessness. For those of us with it, depression is the ability to lie so well about how you really feel that some days even you start to believe your own bullshit. The longer you’ve been in the game, the better you are at exploiting it to create an illusion of stability.
Depression and I go way back. To pigtails and hopscotch. To fighting, flying household items, and a broken home. To lost innocence and unheard screams. Depression was there to remind me that the world is dark, cold, and unloving. To make me doubt joy and descend into sadness. Depression helped me see that the world wanted me to shut up and smile because everyone has problems. So I did. We all do. We close our mouths and swallow our tears. We make excuses for why our bodies can’t leave our beds. We choke on the words we wish to speak and the world around us turns in its blissful ignorance.
We get up every day and we fight with our minds. There are moments of respite, our medication takes off the edge, our therapist gives us a place to scream, the lemons stop flying so we can finally make a cocktail. We breathe in those moments and then as we exhale once more a hand emerges from the cloud that follows us. We try to evade it, the longer we fight the harder this becomes. We swear we’re ok as the fingers slowly tighten around our throats. We aren’t ok, though, and no amount of positive thinking or prayer fixes it.
One of the hardest lessons I've had to learn this year is that it’s ok to not be ok. Not everyone will support you when you come to terms with that. I strongly suggest cutting ties with people who want you to keep faking it for their comfort, but that's up to you. Either way, we have the right to say “I’m not ok” and take the steps needed to cope. Because there is no “getting back to normal” for us.
There is no “back to normal”, that’s a lie society sells so they can blame the fighter instead of addressing the illness. For me, always having a lingering sense of sadness and loneliness is normal. It’s why I am who I am. There is no other normal and I would rather embrace that than try to “fix it”. Much to my future ex-husband’s distaste, but I’m ok with that. Furthermore, I don’t believe I or anyone else with depression needs “fixing”. I believe we need love, compassion, and the freedom to not be ok.
There is more power in a simple "I’m here for you” than in Deepak Chopra level advice on how to handle the clusterfuck that is life. As much as people mean well, sometimes the best thing anyone can do is shut the fuck up and hold someone’s hand. So shut up, take someone’s hand and know that we aren’t ok, and that’s ok.
“There’s a lot of things you need to get across this universe. Warp drive… wormhole refractors… You know the thing you need most of all? You need a hand to hold.” - The Doctor
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