Editors’ note: This story contains mentions of self harm. Reader discretion is advised.
As the old saying goes, a cluttered desk is a sign of a mind at work. I may be paraphrasing, but all I know is I’ve always read that as a vindication of how messy my workspace can get.
I have the habit of jumping between assignments and tasks. Much like a raccoon diving into a dumpster, I’m in search of something that can satisfy my stimulation-starved mind – anything worth staying up for.
Often, though, that quote is understood as a measurement of an individual’s worth. The messier the desk, the more likely the soul at work is some kind of savant. It becomes easier to place unrealistic expectations on someone. But, it turns out that not everyone wishes to attain greatness. In cases like these, nothing else really matters besides the delight that comes from the act of creation. In an ideal world, that’s all that would matter.
Is it obvious yet that I’m a writer?
I have the tendency to hyper-fixate on tasks in short bursts at odd intervals. It comes in brief flashes of energy that I can’t control. Whatever bit of work is before me at that moment, I devote my entire being to it.
The thing about brevity though is that it doesn’t last long. Who’d have thought, right?
As I ride out the last bit of current that flows throughout my body, I feel my focus start to waver as other things stimulate my brain. The homework before me means nothing compared to the gratification I feel when I listen to singer-songwriter Will Wood’s music. As I hum along to the song, all I can think about are the lyrics, rather than the task at hand.
“And I don’t know why you would care, but I’m really trying
Oh, I’m sorry, I promise I’m doing my best.
I just haven’t learned how to be human as you are yet.”
This is how I’ve lived much of my life, I realize as I start looking back. If something doesn’t stimulate my picky brain, then I won’t give it a second thought. I’ve spent much of this life starved of the energy that others can call upon so easily. In my case, my fate is left at the hands of a monkey banging a rock on a spigot until water starts rushing out, be it as a result of loosening said spigot or breaking it off entirely.
I’m not brilliant or talented. I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m not in a place to receive your praise and the kindness that bore it. Every time I hear someone praise my work, it only serves to feed the anger I feel for myself every time I fail to meet the expectations set out before me.
See, I grew up in an environment that preached academic excellence as the way to carve a better life for myself in this country. When I started proving that I was capable of excellence, my family and teachers began expecting only the best out of me. Over time, I adopted their expectations because I was just a kid.
What was I supposed to do? It wasn’t like I had a counterpoint to argue anyway; I was getting the stimulation needed to keep me invested in the work that teachers put on my desk.
I eventually reached a point where, no matter how much I tried to engage with the material, I wasn’t getting anything out of it.
I was supposed to be smart! “Gifted,” all my teachers said! I should be able to work this out on my own. I didn’t need anyone else’s help.
Spoiler alert: I did.
17-year-old Juan (I’m 20 now) wouldn’t learn that lesson for some time. I did learn how to have a mental breakdown though.
I’m not proud of it. There were classes where I just grew frustrated at not being able to comprehend the material with ease. I would rest my head on the desk I was working on, pushing my papers aside as the cold surface made contact with my forehead.
I would raise my head one more time, before bringing it back down on the desk repeatedly. Over and over, until the teacher took me out into the hallway to talk.
I won’t dwell on the other ways I expressed my frustration with myself. They don’t get any less violent or vulgar.
I was supposed to be this genius, according to my family and teachers. They loved talking about how I had so much potential; that I just didn’t apply myself enough. I just had to give things a bit more effort, they would insist. I’d tell myself that their expectations were realistic; I’d already shown them the kind of quality work I could produce. They wouldn’t have put the finish line where they did if they thought I couldn’t cross it.
So why am I struggling to even get started? Why can’t I be bothered to start on an assignment until the day of? Why is it that I feel a surge of energy then, but absolutely nothing in the days leading up?
I’ve started thinking of it in this way: I’m tending to my mother’s garden. She trusts me with it. She loves it with her whole being. It’s something that keeps her motivated and happy, something she takes immense joy in. I step outside to go water her crops, only to find that the water valve won’t budge. It’s an odd occurrence, considering I’d already done this earlier that day.
So I try with both hands. The valve remains shut.
By the five-minute mark, I’m starting to curse myself out for struggling so much with a stupid little thing like this.
Two minutes later, I start kicking the bricks nearby out of frustration. In a flash of desperation, I grab one of them and start whaling on the valve, hoping that that works.
I throw it into the nearby pond. By this point, I’m holding onto my demeanor by a thread.
What sets me off is when my mom comes to check and see how things are going.
I’m not mad at her –– God no –– I’m mad at myself for being unable to do one simple thing. That’s why I start shouting.
But my mom isn’t in the mood to put up with it that day. She won’t be shouted at.
Pretty soon she leaves me to go back inside to check on the dinner she’s preparing.
I immediately start to feel my frustration waning. I slump by the side of the house where the spigot lies and I just start crying.
I’m tired of this frustration being something that lingers in the background. I’m tired of being angry at myself for the way that I am. I’m just not built to be consistent in my work all the time. I’ll give you great results, but you have to be willing to wait for the day that the valve decides to loosen and start letting the water flow freely.
Knowing that, I realize that I’m not built to give my all on a daily schedule. I hate that that’s how my brain’s wired, and I want to do better. Not just for myself, but for my friends and family, for my loved ones and for those that depend on me.
Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll find myself a place where I can be at ease, where I don’t feel that frustration of mine lurking in the woods. Maybe then I can finally rest my eyes for the last time.
Until that time, I owe you an apology. I’m trying my best, I swear. I just haven’t figured out how to navigate this world the way you all seem to.