Welcome. In this space, I 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? Past posts can be read HERE.
I am not a psychologist, scientist, or journalist. I’m just a person whose first 25 years of life were spent suffering from an undiagnosed and untreated panic disorder, as the 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. It has led to a life-long investment in self-interrogation and reflection, while also alerting me to the inadvertent ways well-meaning adults often damage the fragile psyches of children.
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 was broken, my emotions were too large, the wrong shape; 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 weighed too little. 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. At every turn, I was reminded there was something wrong with me.
I was trapped inside my own terror, controlled by my emotions and my belief in what they foretold: The world was too hard for me; I could not get through a weekend visiting my father, which was a stipulation of joint custody. My fear was so all-encompassing; not realizing the harm this would later cause, the adults around me removed all obstacles that made me panic. My mother made excuses for me to get me out of sleepovers, 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 didn’t only make 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 began to duck just about everything until the feelings of discomfort and uncertainty themselves felt ominous and threatening.
When I was 11 years old, I was sent for an IQ test, a single event that turned into a decade-long testing odyssey. No matter the day of the week, I was tested and probed by clinicians, evaluators, and medical professionals. I believed the adults would help fix my emotions, 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 enfolding my throat. The questions they asked had nothing at all to do with my emotions, but with my brain and with how much information it held. My body, always in a state of heightened alarm, shut me down whenever I was asked to prove what I knew, and so I did not do well on these tests. Which meant more tests were needed. 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 ideations. The therapist who finally diagnosed me expressed alarm that no one had been able to name what was so obvious to him. As it turned out, 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, I began an undertaking that has turned into a way of life: going toward my emotion instead of away from it. In order to take control and repair the damage of living untreated and undiagnosed for so long, I began to face every single thing that scared me, trying to turn each fear into a strength. More than two decades later, I’m still doing it.
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 own 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 have been overvalued, others whose contributions have been erased, and the subjects they tested upon. 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, for better or worse, how did their own suffering bleed into both their professional work and into the culture in which we were raised—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.
In a variety of areas, 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, my aim is 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 better understand ourselves 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, education, emotion, and psychometric testing. I’ll write more 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. You’ll meet her lover, Henry Murray, the man who helped erase her. You’ll get to know Francis Cecil Sumner, the man known as the father of Black psychology, and Inez Beverly Prosser, the first Black woman to receive her doctoral degree in psychology.
I’ll often use myself as a test subject and try out therapies that seek to help treat and heal trauma and panic disorders, like Somatic Experiencing Therapy Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I’ll take you along with me on a visit to the Museum of Psychology. 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, wrestle 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 and panic attacks, but 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 own avoidance into a strength, and live your life with intention and purpose.
Until next week, I am...