I received the best training on mental health disorders at my first social work position in a community mental health clinic. I was particularly intrigued by personality disorders because people who fall under that large diagnostic umbrella just seem larger than life. They can walk into a room and fill it with their presence. They come forth as self-assured people with grand schemes and fantastic energy. They seek lots of attention and they disregard the feelings of others. Everything they are interested in, think about, or act on, is about benefiting themselves.
When learning about different diagnoses, whether medical or psychological, we often read about symptoms and think they are describing us. I remember worrying at the time that I had a personality disorder because I was frequently absorbed by my own emotional turmoil. Some days it consumed me. I also happened to be in therapy, so I asked my therapist if he thought I had a personality disorder. His response was, “No, you’re just a run-of-the-mill neurotic.”
Neurotic people worry about everything in excess. We are a self-conscious, worried bunch of people who often have difficulty putting our thoughts and feelings into perspective. It’s like having a constant voice inside your head second-guessing, “Are you sure? Well, maybe you shouldn’t.” You never feel lonely being neurotic because there is always that voice of self-doubt in your head. There is often no logic to the things we neurotics worry about, and the amount of time spent worrying is endless. Once, when I was taking a trip, I reserved my car service with plenty of time to get to the airport and to check in. But I worried about not being able to sleep, then about the alarm not working. Both went smoothly, of course, but then I worried about my car not showing up. When it arrived, on time, I worried about traffic, the crowds at the airport, my bag getting lost, taking off my shoes and walking barefoot at the security checkpoint…and on and on the story goes. My anxiety is like a pinball machine: landing on one point for a while then suddenly shooting off into another direction. It’s exhausting.
I think about all this now because being home due to Covid-19 and chemotherapy is certainly not boring when you’re neurotic. There is even more than the usual to worry about, and the amount of cleaning just to avoid this invisible germ is endless. If someone is coughing ten yards away and it’s windy outside, can I get the virus? Newscasters talk about what could happen if you do this or don’t do that. A neurotic person hears the word “could” and wonders about the percentage of likelihood, possibly more than the message itself.
I worry about all this and then some. I have a new concern that occupies my attention these days. My entire career was spent in the social services profession, where caring about the well-being of other people was a priority. It was meaningful work, so no complaints there, but now that it’s time to think of me first, I realize I feel guilty having that desire. I recently discovered as much when I was surrendering to my exhaustion, which, by the way, felt wonderful. I didn’t think of anyone but me. It helped me to see that all that energy spent trying to be the “perfect person” is misspent. In my exhaustion I thought, “Why? How does it benefit me? Will it really make things better?” Maybe it is wiser to just be myself and take care of my own needs.
Life feels different now. First, I am not socializing. I don’t count phone calls, texts, and Zoom as socializing. Also, I am not working and I still have to remind myself that I am not well. I have cancer so it’s time to think about me first. That still sounds a bit too much, like I am making an excuse for thinking about me first. Well, sometimes the benefit of being neurotic is that self-reflection comes easy, so yes, I am still making excuses. Thinking of myself is now unapologetically my mission and it should be easy but it’s not. Sometimes when I do think of me first, I instinctively correct myself to think of another person. For instance, when I get a text asking about how I am, I immediately answer with all my woes of the moment, but then I remember to ask about them and go back and add a sentence of concern for them before my problems, to show I am thinking of them first. Then I feel entitled to move on to my favorite subject: me.
Thinking of “me first” is inherently uncomfortable for many women of my generation, but the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s helped bring this fact to our attention, and as I become more aware of my neurotic tendency towards self-correction, I decide that I am a work in progress, which is an easier, kinder way of living. I am not giving up on self-improvement; it’s an admirable goal, so I try to be more aware of the neurosis that acts up when I’m ignoring who I am. Its aim is to control what is usually uncontrollable. It becomes a frustrating endeavor.
It’s challenging enough to struggle through the symptoms of chemotherapy, so lately, I find myself thinking only of me (not always, but more frequently than in the past). At times, I even have to remind myself to be mindful of other people. I still have to rationalize to myself that I deserve to think of myself first. The transition to this new mindset is like trying on a pair of shoes, an outfit, or a color you don’t usually wear. You like it but it’s not your style; however, each time you try it on, it looks better and better until it feels exciting to have a new look. I’m beginning to feel excited and self-indulgent each time I find myself thinking of me first. That being said, it’s getting to be a chore to read about all the current and intense news stories. When I talk about it with other people, I quickly lose interest and want to go back to talking about myself.
Thinking of me first is not only fun but it’s liberating and honest. I feel happier, strutting around with my new self as if it’s a brand new outfit. Does that mean I have a personality disorder? Well, I believe that a person with a true personality disorder would never ask him or herself that question. Only a “run-of-the-mill neurotic” person would.