Born to Fail

I wanted to be a psychologist since I was a junior in high school. One day the therapist didn’t show up for a group therapy session at the mental hospital I stayed at for a month, so I ran the group. My time at that hospital was the first time I realized that I was not alone, and my optimism was helpful to others who were hurting. I decided then, that I wanted to dedicate my life to helping fucked up kids like myself.

I graduated a year early because I was bullied and bored, and started college at the age of 16. Starting at 18, I interned at a mental institution, a homeless shelter,  a child abuse prevention center, and even worked alongside the woman who counseled my mother at a domestic violence agency. I was a great counselor and advocate for all of my clients. I gave them unconditional love and I never judged them, because I had been them. I graduated at 19, with my associate’s in human services, and started working on my bachelor’s degree immediately.

I’ve come to accept that life is cyclical, sequences of peace and chaos. My life had been 16 years of chaos. I had two years of peace during my associate’s degree, followed by the second longest sequence of chaos in my life.

Since childhood, I’ve had an array of physical health problems, in addition to the gallery of mental problems I display. Just like everything else about me, my problems were not typical. Doctor after doctor had no idea what was wrong with me. They would simply attribute any physical problems I had to my mental ones, or purely side effects of the medications I was taking for them. Then, they’d take out their prescription pads, and scribble the solution to my problems.  

Turns out, the medications were just making me worse since the problem was in fact physical. At 19, I was diagnosed with Chronic Neurological Lyme Disease. Lyme Disease, also known as the mimic disease, can feel like every mental and physical illness all at once. The Lyme causing bacteria, called spirochetes, attack every part of your body they can, from your heart, your joints, your brain, and everything in between. I could write an entire book explaining how those damn spirochetes drilled into my cells and took over my life. In summation, it’s fucking horrible.

To add insult to injury, there was a scandal involving Chronic Lyme Disease. There is an abundance of literature and a film, called Under Our Skin, about how the corrupt health care system caused the Lyme epidemic by withholding information from doctors. Why would they do this? Let’s just say, it’s a lot more profitable to treat someone for Schizophrenia or Multiple Sclerosis for the rest of their lives, than to treat someone with three weeks of antibiotics for Lyme. To this day, doctors disagree on what Lyme is, and patients desperately in need of answers and relief from their agony are coming up empty. Doctors do not know how to read the blood tests correctly, so as in my case, the results are false negatives. And while the pockets of America’s most corrupt corporations fill up, brilliant minds and healthy bodies are being hollowed out and chewed up by greed.

Getting the diagnosis was only half the battle. Once these little bastards take over, they’re impossible to evict. The treatment was even worse the disease itself. I spent my entire junior year of college on antibiotics. I’ve never had chemotherapy, but I imagine the symptoms of long-term antibiotics are similar. My entire immune system was wiped out. I spent most of my time in bed or in the bathroom. So much shit and vomit came out of me that year, I’m pretty sure I was empty inside. I had migraines and couldn’t think straight. My blood pressure was so low, when I sat up everything went black. I had no energy; I felt so heavy I couldn’t move sometimes. I obviously didn’t make it to class as much as I needed to.

In between antibiotics treatments, I did alternative treatments. They weren’t as bad as the antibiotics but still gave me wicked migraines, since they were ripping toxins out of my brain. Taking off from work was never an option, but in hindsight, I should have taken some time off from school. But I had momentum that I was deathly afraid would abandon me if I stopped for a moment, and deadlines on every dream.

When you’re young, you’re in a hurry to become somebody, but you lose track of the fact that it’s the journey that makes you who you’re supposed to be.

 

As I learned about my unique conditions, Lyme disease, with a hint of TBI (traumatic brain injury), served with a side of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), I became interested in neuroscience.  Dr. G., the neuropsychologist who helped me get finally get the correct diagnoses, became my biggest inspiration. He had co-invented a treatment and diagnostic tool which can map a brain’s electrical activity more accurately than an EEG. My tests would all come back slightly abnormal, but after running more tests, the doctors would all conclude it’s nothing severe. Dr. G. showed me the scars carved into my brain by the physical and emotional assaults I’ve faced in my life and explained how those scars create my mental problems as well. He gave me answers, he gave me hope that I will not have to suffer for the rest of my life.

Example of brain mapping

Not only did he help me get my Lyme under control, he taught me that there are other treatments for my mental problems. I got to thinking, there have to be more treatments that haven’t been discovered yet, treatments for people like me, where medication does not work and actually makes things worse. Treatments that were more effective for everyone, treatments with fewer side effects. I wanted to help make those treatments. I wanted to discover the physical cause of mental illnesses and neurodegenerative disorders, and find a cure. We’re allowed to dream…aren’t we?

Two weeks before my 21st birthday, and the start of my senior year, my sister’s long-term boyfriend, who was like a brother to me, commit suicide. With one phone call, my life came unraveled. I spent the next two years battling PTSD, depression, and alcoholism. I also struggled financially and lost two other people very close to me tragically.  Eventually, I got back on my feet, and I graduated. I fought tears my entire ceremony, with every cheesy speech the lump in my throat grew. Words cannot possibly contain the pride I felt in myself. I understood how David must have felt, standing above Goliath’s corpse, looking at the empty sling in hand, confused and in shock of what he’d accomplished.

I applied to behavioral psychology and investigative psychology graduate school programs in California. When I opened my rejection letter, I wasn’t surprised at all. I almost expected to fail. Taking into consideration all of the things I was dealing with, I obviously didn’t have a 4.0. I didn’t have time or energy to put in the extra effort I always had to make as a lower class, disabled woman, working two jobs and an internship on top of it. Still, my GPA was the bare minimum for most grad schools.

I also didn’t have a great experience at my university, to put it lightly. It was a good school for research, but as a result, I felt a lot of teachers didn’t want to be teaching. I had a professor hide from me in his office, during his office hours. My neuroanatomy professor literally just wrote equations on the whiteboard the entire class, he never even turned around to call on all of the raised hands.

Then there was Dr. Sanchez. Lovely, brilliant, insane Dr. Sanchez. I interned in her behavioral neuro-endocrinological lab, in non-nerd terms, we studied how hormones affect behavior in rats and mice… by chopping their heads off and examining their brain. I’m pretty sure Dr. Sanchez’s interest in hormones came from her own imbalances. She was a narcissist and verbally abused her staff on a regular basis. We were all on edge every day. The air was so thick with tension, you had to thresh it as you moved about the lab I feared one of the other lab assistants was going to commit suicide, Dr. Sanchez was so especially cruel to her. I still felt confident I was doing a good job. I worked twice as many hours as I needed to show her how serious I was. I loved what I did there, minus the hostile work environment, to put it lightly. In the end, I didn’t get a reference letter, class credit, or a co-publishment for the work I did for those six months, which would’ve made me a more competitive candidate for the programs for which I applied. She was fired a few months later.

All that said, the main reason for my rejection was that according to my GRE scores, I am an idiot. The GRE is like the SAT for graduate school. I studied for two years for that test. I bought a GRE practice book.  I practiced each type of math problem and made flashcards for every ridiculous vocabulary word, such as skulduggery and vituperative. The only time I’ve ever heard half of these words was when I was with my ex-boyfriend’s family and their acquaintances. Both of his parents were lawyers. His family was one of the families in my town who were descendants of affluent English settlers. The wealth disparity between our two families goes back so far, my ancestors were stowaways on his ancestors’ boat.

The day I took the test was a damp, stormy day. Because of my neurological problems, I get horrible migraines when it rains. My head was pounding. It was autumn in New York, and nearly dark when I got to the testing center at 5:00 pm. My stomach was gurgling acid; I couldn’t tell if it was because I hadn’t eaten since noon, and had to rush from my last class to the testing center, or anxiety. On average, women have higher amounts of test anxiety, and I have more anxiety than average. Plus, this wasn’t just any test. This was the test that would decide the rest of my life, determine whether I’d wasted four years getting a useless degree because you can’t make a decent living in psychology without a master’s degree.

I was having flashbacks to taking the SAT. I had just gotten out of the mental hospital. I had diarrhea from the food, a staph infection on my ass so it hurt to sit, and diabetes insipidus from the lithium shutting down my kidneys. Plus, my brain was flooded with performance reducing drugs, and I still scored average. I know that I am intelligent, I always wondered how intelligent I’d be if I hadn’t been drugged my entire adolescence, and bombarded with stress my entire life. But I do know, drugs or not, I’m still smarter than a lot of people I know who did well on the bombastic GRE.

I ended up scoring about average on the verbal section, below average on math, and ironically, I scored in the 8th percentile on the writing section! That means I scored worse than 82% of people who took the test! If you’re reading this post, or if you’ve read anything I’ve written, I think you’ll agree the GRE is an inaccurate indicator of academic abilities. Even if you disagree, science doesn’t. The GRE, like other standardized tests, is biased. A Nature article says that graduate schools relying too heavily on GRE scores prevents women and minorities from entering the sciences. The article also says:

“According to data from Educational Testing Service (ETS), based in Princeton, New Jersey, the company that administers the GRE, women score 80 points lower on average in the physical sciences than do men, and African Americans score 200 points below white people. In simple terms, the GRE is a better indicator of sex and skin colour than of ability and ultimate success.”

It certainly didn’t predict my success in the field of psychology, since by the time I took the damn thing I had already worked in the field for six years, and helped so many people. So why the hell is it still used to determine our futures when it’s been proven for decades, that it does not correlate with success, but rather with race, sex, and socioeconomic status? 

 Although not surprising, my rejection was still devastating. I fell into a deep depression. With one letter, my future vanished. What was I going to do? Work for minimum wage forever? Maybe I should have never gone to college in the first place since I’d make the same amount, work the same jobs, but at least I wouldn’t be buried in student debt. Even more than the money I wasted, I wasted my life! Six years chasing a dream only to be shot down by some numbers on a piece of paper which supposedly reflect my integrity, intelligence, and my ability to impact others.

I could take the GRE again, retake classes to get my GPA up, or volunteer in a lab again, but all of those things cost money or take up time that I didn’t have because I was working three jobs just to pay my car payments, rent, and default on my student loans.

I always knew, because of my handicaps and disadvantages, I had to work twice as hard to get half as far as more prosperous people, and I always said I would, but I just didn’t have it in me anymore. I had reached my mental limit. I was beaten down, my energy to fight had fleeted. I had been defeated.  I had given up on dreams, given up all hope that I would ever amount to anything that I could look back at the end of my life with pride on.

I beat myself up over what I could have done differently. Maybe if I applied to more schools or different programs that weren’t as research stressed, I would have been accepted. What if I picked an easier minor than neuroscience because those difficult science classes brought my GPA down? What if I had taken a GRE prep course, instead of just doing the books? I wanted to, but I couldn’t afford a $500 prep course on top of the $200  I already paid for the test.

Maybe if I retook the GRE now I’d do better, after spending the last two years preparing impoverished, first generation, English learning, Latinos for standardized tests that are biased against them. Perhaps if I had mentioned the reason why I took two years off or explained that I was a victim of child abuse, have brain damage, and deal with chronic physical and mental illnesses, they would have judged me as an average student with average grades. But they would have seen me as the remarkable student that I am, who should have never even made it to college in the first place, who persevered through hardship after hardship and graduated, despite all odds stacked against her…But I didn’t tell them…because I didn’t want to seem like I was looking for pity or making excuses…because this very blog post is the first time I’ve ever been able to call myself disabled, and not feel ashamed.

I imagine we’re all running a race, and we’re all forced to carry different loads. My load is particularly heavy, but there are many who are far heavier than mine. The people with the lightest loads are obviously ahead of the rest of us. I might be last to the cross the finish line, but  I will finish, and by the time I get there, I will be much stronger than the ones who finished first. Who is the true winner? What is more important? The meaningless competition, the shiny trophy? Or becoming your best self?

So I made a backup plan. One thing I’ve learned from all of this, is to have a backup plan, and then have back up plans for those backup plans. And always trust your intuition. Perhaps the universe has other plans in mind for me, since twice now It’s tried to keep me away from psychology. So I decided to listen to It, and move to California anyway, but to chase my creative passions: music and writing.

The irony is I’ve wanted to be a singer since I was a child, and as passionate as I was about psychology, music has always been my true passion. But when it came time to choose a major I chose the safe route, because I figured it was less competitive and more likely I’d have a job as a psychologist than a singer. But I found out the hard way, nowadays, there’s not just starving artists, but starving scientists too. Everyone wants to study psychology. No one wants to study opera, and as good as I am at psychology, I’m much better at opera. And luckily, they care about how you sing, rather than how well you remember things and can bubble in the correct answer.

I berate myself, “You should’ve just studied opera to begin with! If you had only believed in yourself, you could have been successful by now!” Now I’m older, I’ve grown weary, and my mind is not as fertile for sprouting knowledge as it once was. But I have learned so much working in psychology for 10 years now. I’ve worked with people from all walks of life, I’ve held their hands, I’ve wiped their tears, and I’ve felt their gratitude. I’ve looked every facet of the human condition dead in the eyes. This will certainly help me become a great singer. Or maybe I’ll write my experiences and share them. It could be, my purpose is something I’ve yet to discover, but these are the experiences which prepare me for my destiny, which make me into the person I need to be to reach my potential. Until then, I suffer with dignity, with certainty that all of this suffering will amount to greatness. Because of my torment, others will flourish.

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried”-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance

 

LA Eloi

Her glowing, porcelain face protruded from the brick background, then faded into the blue stage lights. Every stroke of her features, handmade with care. She hasn’t been used much, barely taken out of the box. Too afraid of damage, she’s fragile. So fragile, if you bumped into her on the street, she might shatter like china.

You see, even to hold her is to warp her unscathed skin. If she touches too much, her hands will blister and crack. Every step calluses her feet. Don’t you want her to be soft? If she has to worry about anything, or if you make her sad, or mad, crevices will carve themselves into her forehead.  And if she loses sleep, craters will nap under her eyes, endlessly taunting her. Don’t you want her to be pretty?  

She was Weena*, daughter of a famous Hollywood actress and musician. Now it’s her turn to become the star she was primed to be. She stood before us, not as a woman proudly owning her destiny, but as someone who just realized she was naked in front of a crowd. Her bones glued at the joints, she was petrified.

Her voice was beautiful. Her songs were simple but catchy. Melodic runs really showcased her expansive range. We all rocked and swayed to the feel-good beats. But there was something missing, passion.

Passion comes from suffering. What revolutionary painter or poet never had to struggle too much? I believe art has the power to transform the world. How can you heal if you’ve never been torn apart by life’s shrapnel, and then had to lick your wounds, and limp away with your tail between your legs?

Like an Eloi from H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, her environment never presented many challenges. Therefore, she knew how to enjoy life, but not overcome obstacles, endure pain. Poor Weena was paralyzed by her fear: fear of being exposed, fear of looking stupid, fear of failing. The only time she looked at ease was after her set while dancing with her celebrity friends.

Woman in yellow and blue with a guitar, by Henri Matisse

She has the disorienting beauty, decorated in ornate garments, encompassed by the faces of Hollywood’s past, present, and future elite. She even has the voice, but she lacks courage and she lacks affliction.

She has had every opportunity at her disposal, dancing then acting, now singing…but I wonder had she not, would she have the grit it would take an average person?

I always wondered what my life would have been like if I had half of the opportunities Weena has. What if my mom could have afforded the voice lessons I begged her for each birthday? What if I grew up in safe, loving home? What if I wasn’t at constant war with myself, battling the voice in my head echoing “you’ll never be good enough?”

What would I write about without my struggles? What painful memories would I channel when I performed? How could I teach lessons I haven’t learned? How could I help those who are suffering, if I’ve never suffered? How can I change the world, if I am blind to its problems?

Ironically, all of my talents would vanish with my struggles.

Just because you have all of the advantages, doesn’t mean you can cash them in, or even know how to. You may have an audience, power and influence, and nothing to say, no wisdom to share. Or in my case, have plenty to say, but no voice to speak it with, and no one to listen.  But let me just say this, I do believe in the power of passion, and the impact of endurance. 

Given the option, I’d choose adversity every time. 

*The artist’s name has been changed.

“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no need of change.”-H.G. Wells, The Time Machine