TWO YEARS of HOW TO LIVE!
On Milestones and the Sad-Happies.
This is How to Live: A newsletter for those who want to live more easily in a world that often feels too hard.
Today marks two years since I launched this newsletter.
Welcome to the very first "How to Live" newsletter post.
In this space, I will interrogate questions of existence, examine why we are the way we are and wonder aloud about what it means to be human, all to encourage answering the question: How do I want to live?
I am not a psychologist, scientist, or journalist.
My qualifications come from my time spent living the experiences I write about; not from studying them in a more classical setting.
I grew up with a panic disorder that went undiagnosed until I was 25 years old.
The well-meaning adults around me misapprehended my symptoms and sent me, year after year, for myriad intelligence and personality tests.
Growing up as a panicked child shaped the person I am—for better and worse. It led to a lifelong investment in self-inquiry and reflection, while also alerting me to the inadvertent ways well-meaning adults often damage the fragile psyches of children.
Me as a child. Photo by my father, Edwin H. Stern.
My early experiences of being a conscious human being in this world did not go well. First, there was the matter of my emotions and the degree to which they turned against me, threatening my existence every time I had to part from my mother.
Being away from her felt dangerous; the fear of separation created physiological and mental anguish in me that had no name. No matter how many times I left and returned, it always felt like the first time: I wept with grief, my skin needled and burned, my heart tore too far ahead of its own beat, and I vibrated with a fresh, new terror.
Neither my siblings nor my friends felt the way I did, and so I believed early on that my feelings were incorrect. I felt broken; my emotions were too large and dictated every aspect of my life.
I felt incompatible with the world, leading me to believe I was defective. I was ashamed to be the one wrong person in a world of people rightly made.
Then there was the matter of my external self and how it discomfited these rightly made people: I was too small, I didn’t weigh enough. Plot-wise, on the growth chart for height and weight, I landed two grades below my own.
Words looked and sounded blurry; instead of up, I held my hand down in class. Test questions wiggled away from underneath my pencil, resulting in scores lower than my body weight.
Much to my horror, I became the whisper between my teachers and my parents. All evidence suggested something was wrong with the way I learned. No one spoke to me about any of this, but they spoke of me when I was near—when you’re small, you’re invisible.
I heard the story of myself being told before I even knew there was a story of me to tell. Every turn was a reminder that something was wrong with me.
Trapped inside my terror, controlled by my emotions, and my belief in what they signified, I knew the world was too hard for me; I could not get through a weekend visiting my father, which was a stipulation of my parent’s custody agreement.
My fear was all-encompassing; not realizing the harm this would later cause, the adults in my life removed the obstacles that made me panic.
My mother made excuses for me to get me out of sleepovers, and picked me up halfway through a weekend with my dad when I called her crying. Everyone meant well, but helping me avoid what scared me made not only my world smaller, it cemented my belief that the world was too hard for me. Instead of teaching me how to manage hardship, they taught me how to escape it.
And so I ducked just about everything until the feelings of discomfort and uncertainty themselves felt ominous and threatening.
When I was 11 years old, they sent me for an IQ test, a single event that turned into a decade-long testing odyssey.
Clinicians, evaluators, and medical professionals tested and probed me.
I believed the adults would help fix my emotions and help shrink my fear.
But that’s not what happened.
The tests had nothing to do with my internal life, with the constant press of dread and terror tightening from inside my esophagus.
The questions they asked had nothing to do with my emotions but with my brain and with how much information it retained. My body, always in a state of heightened alarm, shut me down whenever they asked me to prove what I knew, so I did not do well on these tests.
Which meant more tests.
It was an inescapable, endless loop.
By the time I was 25, I had gone so long without being diagnosed or treated that I became agoraphobic and experienced suicidal ideation. The therapist who finally diagnosed me expressed alarm that no one had named what was so obvious to him.
My condition was unrelated to learning or test-taking.
No IQ test would have detected that what I suffered from was a panic disorder.
After that diagnosis at age 25 and a devastating breakup at age 27, my pain became unbearable. Often, when anguish becomes too overwhelming, and you want to live a big life, the goal to feel better demands action.
So I began doing something that would become a way of life—facing everything that scared me, trying to turn each fear into a strength.
Since then, I have been driven by a near-obsessive need to face every experience that feels too scary for me: Love, intimate relationships, publishing books, performing live onstage, public speaking, and now, writing this newsletter.
Why did it take so long for doctors and other specialists to recognize what I was grappling with?
Why didn’t anyone listen to me?
Why do adults ignore children?
Who were the doctors who had tested me all those years?
Had their own limitations caused them to see past me?
Or had they seen me and been unable to communicate clearly to my parents?
How much of what we do and who we are bleeds inadvertently into other people’s lives?
Who shapes us and who is the “us” being shaped?
These are the questions that consume me, and “How to Live” seeks to explore them all.
Because of my personal history, I’m interested in the fragile line between helping and hurting, in mining the interior lives of emotionally complicated figures on both sides of the testing table: those whose vast contributions to the world of psychology remain overvalued, while other contributions got erased.
Who were the instrumental figures in the history of psychology and education? What did they contribute? Who were the kids they tested, and what happened to them? And how did their own suffering bleed into both their professional work and into the culture in which we grew—and upon which we are now raising our own children?
Who are the people who have taken their place?
Those who shaped the field of psychological thought, psychometric testing, and education were flawed human beings whose own personal traumas informed their work and the conditions they sought to measure and treat.
imagine if schools actually helped kids identify their strengths by exploring their talents from a young age and growing their skills over the 12 years instead of letting them all follow the same routine like sheep and leaving them confused in life after graduation
— Isla (@deadreachuser)
Nov 29, 2022
In many ways, we continue to operate on an old blueprint. I aim to explore better ways to test and teach our students, treat trauma, and parent our children. Throughout it all, I aim to interrogate the human experience, examine why we are the way we are, and how we can truly become who we were meant to be—all to understand ourselves better and live deeper, more meaningful lives.
Here’s what you can expect:
Once a week, you’ll find a new piece on any number of ideas, methods, and people, all related to the world and realm of psychology, mental health, education, emotion, and their subsets.
I’ll write about my own life-long struggles, bringing you with me as I face or work through my remaining fears, introduce you to radical and original women like Christiana Morgan, a patient, and muse to many powerful men, including Carl Jung, and whose contribution to the field of personality testing was monumental, and yet nearly entirely erased.
I’ll interview present-day clinicians, dig deep into attachment theory, poke my nose into anxious parenting, reveal the distinction between intelligence and information, explore the link between anxiety and learning disabilities, parse the difference between feelings and emotions, and investigate dread, trauma, and the various bruised “parts” of ourselves that continue to steer us.
I’ll review “good” and “bad” self-help books, and generally flog myself about to slay my demons and wrestle with the symptoms of trauma and panic that still resonate inside my body, all to become a calmer, more grounded, and integrated person.
That panicked kid is still inside me.
I can hear her, I can feel her, and I can write about her.
I still struggle with anxiety. The panic attacks are infrequent.
Still, I hope that my openness and ability to share my experiences—and the people, ideas, tools, and methods I write about—will help you face what scares you, so you can turn your avoidance into strength and live your life with intention and purpose.
I have read, researched, spent 23 years in therapy, talked, thought, watched, and learned so much about how to be free from acute emotional pain, and now I want to pass along everything I've learned and continue to learn, to you.
While I am no stranger to email overwhelm, what I offer will (hopefully) help you think about yourself, your loved ones, and your life in different ways.
While there are things I am devoted to exploring and expressing, I want to hear your interests as well. When it comes to your mental health, and to the mental health of the world, what issues preoccupy you? What would you like to read more about—and see less of?
Do you wonder about the trauma of childhood? Are you curious whether celebrities have an obligation to the public regardless of their psychological state?
Have you wanted to know more about who invented the Rorschach inkblots and why?
What do you think about in the cracks of your everyday life? What gnaws at you?
I want to know.
Until next week, I remain...
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