“Zara, why do you have to push yourself to a point of such extreme exhaustion?” my therapist asked me three years ago.
“What do you mean?” I bit back, irritated. I felt exposed and raw beneath the harsh fluorescent light of her stale office. I found myself wishing I could throw an Instagram filter over the whole scene, something cool-toned.
"Zara? We just spoke about this. You push yourself to the extreme in everything. Your job. Your love life. Your eating habits … ”
I gazed at the wicker basket clumsily tucked underneath her desk. It was full of children's toys, and I couldn't help but fixate on a stuffed raccoon haphazardly placed front and center. I'm deeply terrified of all rodents, so even a toy raccoon was enough to send me flying over the edge. Clearly, I was fragile as f*ck.
I didn't like being broken down, sitting still like that on the shrink's couch, with nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
“If it's not burning, it's not working," I said.
"You think maybe it's time to question that?"
I handed her a crumpled check for $150 and got the hell out of there.
Ever since my teen years, I always felt like if it didn't HURT, I wasn't doing it right. To me, balance was the death of creativity, which only thrived in the wild extremes.
I got high off the extreme. And I liked being high. It was safe. It protected me from facing reality.
It all kicked off with my first stab at extreme dieting. I was 15, maybe 16, and despite having an army of loyal friends and being pretty high up on the social totem pole, I always knew that I was different. I was attracted to girls. The irrepressible sexual desires toward women were my secret reality.
But like I said before: I hated reality. Because I was the lesbian weirdo.
So I tried to starve the weirdo away. It became a lot easier to fixate on calories and numbers and a "goal weight" than any of the real problems lingering inside of me.
Starving and vomiting offer a creepy, seductive bit of satisfaction that makes you feel superior. It's like what Fiona Apple sings in her song "Paper Bag:" Hunger hurts, but starving works.
I lost a mountain of weight. And while of course I wanted to be pretty and perfect like my idol Kate Moss, vanity only played a minor role in the whole charade. I became attached to the idea that if you could endure suffering, you could get anything you want in the world. And visible ribs were living proof of your suffering.
When you develop these kind of whacked-out theories in your formative years, they're hard to shake. The twisted mantras you say to yourself as a teen follow you into adulthood and play out in every facet of your life.
I thought love wasn't real unless it came with a side of pain. I thought I wasn't working hard enough if I didn't pour every fiber of my being into every single project, leaving me completely drained.
For years, I felt like I was always on the verge of falling into a nervous breakdown. So I did the only thing I knew how to do. I self-medicated like crazy. I popped a Xanax to take the edge off my unhappiness. I had a few glasses of wine to unwind from the incessant anxiety of jacked-up adrenaline. Sometimes I self-medicated with people. Sometimes I self-medicated with work.
I've been on this roller coaster for a decade and a half. I've experienced some pretty mind-blowing highs on this ride. But the older I've gotten, the more the lows outnumber the highs.
I've always known this lifestyle wasn't sustainable forever. As much as I've scoffed at the New Age garble, I've always believed in the deep connection that exists between mental and physical health. I've always been aware of the fact that I was running myself into the ground, and that underneath it all, I wanted a healthy relationship with myself. Kids. Deep friendships. Stuff that you can't hold on to in this fast, crazy wild ride of mental instability.
But damn, the crazy girl inside me has been hard to let go of. I mean, we've been in this together for 15 years!
In the past couple of years, I've been hanging on to crazy girl for dear life. But with age, I've been losing my grip. She's been slipping through my fingers. And I've been afraid to let her go. Because by letting her go, I would only be left with real, raw me. The girl I am without the unstable exterior.
And when your identity has been wrapped up in being extreme and crazy for so long, what will fill those empty spaces?
Recently, my craving for balance has become stronger than my fear of reality. Ever since the year started, I keep finding myself listening to the girl I think I always really was deep down. The girl I was before I started subscribing to the "If it's not burning, it's not working" mentality. The girl I was before the eating disorder sent me spiraling down the extreme vortex.
It was a bunch of little things. I let go of a love that hurt, because the hurting didn't feel good anymore (I know, who AM I?). I had a piece of pizza at work last Friday and didn't want to die. I freaked myself out by my stable reaction of, "Oh Zara, it's just a piece of pizza! It's not going to kill you. Enjoy it." This reaction was so new and foreign to me, but it felt good.
Then one day, after I felt like I phoned in an article, I said to myself, "Oh, this article wasn't your best work, but that's OK, Zara! You write a lot. You can't WIN every single one." Just a year ago, I would have beaten myself into a bloody pulp over it.
And most of all, the self-medicating -- the binge drinking, the Ambien obsession, the incessant need to Xanax reality away -- doesn't F*CKING WORK ANYMORE.
All of a sudden, I don't like starting to feel fuzzy after the third drink. I don't like the Instagram filter of booze or drugs anymore. Life is starting to look prettier when it's a little more sharp and exposed and raw.
I think I'm becoming STABLE.
And while I know deep down inside this is so, so, so GOOD, and that I can still maintain my wild and creative spirit without life BURNING to the point of pain, a part of me is sort of sad about it. I'm mourning the end of a destructive era. Not in a way that's tearing me apart, but like with any death, it's a lot to process.
I officially said goodbye to the unstable girl over the weekend. As I knocked back the booze and didn't enjoy the feeling of being drunk, something in me clicked. All things must come to end, and it's time to let that girl go so the real Zara can come in. There isn't enough space for both of us. We had some good times, but I'm ready for real things.
And as I mourn the death of my mental instability, I wonder what's next. I don't know. I don't know a lot anymore.
But I do know this: If it's burning, I don't think it's working. If it hurts, something is wrong. Now that I've stuck my toe into still waters, I'm starting to think that life isn't supposed to hurt all the time. That pain doesn't have to accompany excitement. So I'm going to dive into this new way of life and see what happens.