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19) Validation Junkie

Yes, I was a junkie. Down and out, hopelessly addicted to cocaine. I was as bad as it gets: days-long benders, horrific crashes, stealing money from family to support my habit. It was bad. But long before my addiction to cocaine, I was addicted to praise. I was always looking for my next “hit.” Usually from adults in my life, when I was still a child. From teachers, my parents, my grandparents, coaches, the adults at our church, anyone would do. I don’t know why my self-worth was so low. I don’t know why I craved praise, like I would later crave cocaine. I always wanted to be seen as “good.” A good girl. As I mentioned in my previous post, I needed to do everything perfectly, even though perfection is an illusion. I chased perfection like I chased that first high from cocaine. I never reached it. Always illusive, always taunting me with its promises of accolades. But I did in fact receive lots of accolades. I was a very good student and performed at a high level academically. Especially in college. I was the best student with the best honors thesis in the Sociology Department when I graduated from Barnard College in NYC. I was clearly destined for great things, academically.

For me, school was always my safe haven. It was only natural that I enter graduate school, first receiving a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Miami, and then my PhD at NYU. I had always used academics as my main vehicle for getting praise. I had figured out the formula from an early age. You just study hard, labor over your papers, and you would receive good grades in return. It was an easy way to get positive external validation. School was easy for me. I had to put in the work, but it was easy work. I knew how to study for a Spanish test. I knew how to write a good paper with a powerful argument. I needed to receive my As or A+s in some cases. I needed that validation to boost my self-esteem. For that reason, I wanted to stay in school forever. I would attend my PhD program and become an academic. It was safe. It was straight-forward. I would continue to receive my accolades.

Surprisingly, I didn’t use Ritalin, Adderall, cocaine, or any stimulants in college or my PhD program to do my scholarly work. I have never had ADHD, so I never needed them. If I had been introduced to them, I’m sure that I would have used and abused them, but I can’t believe it, for the vast majority of my academic career, I was substance free. Finally, when I was writing my dissertation, I got a prescription for Adderall from my psychiatrist. But bizarrely, I never abused it during the 18 months that I took to write my dissertation. It didn’t occur to me to do so. I was able to perform at a high level on the modest dose my psychiatrist prescribed me. I think we only increased my dose a couple times throughout that 18 month period. It’s impressive to look back now, considering the development of my stimulant addiction that would haunt me for years to come.

But going back to being a “good girl.” I wanted to be recognized as a good girl, even though I had a double life. My parents didn’t know that I was doing naughty things as a teenager. I was probably as bad as my little brother, who was out of control, but I just didn’t get caught! In some ways I was worse. I did some things completely alone. That was scary. I carried a flask in high school, which I kept in my locker. I didn’t tell a soul about it. I took surreptitious sips between classes. I would maintain a minor buzz throughout the day, but never enough to get drunk. I did all sorts of things on the downlow, not to destroy my angelic image. Indeed, from the outside, I was the image of perfection, with excellent grades, socially well-adjusted, captain of sports teams, and president of the debate club. I was well-liked. I seemed happy and thriving. But much of it was an act. I was actually very fragile. Lots was going on at home, which made me scared. My father was still in his active addiction to alcohol and prescription medication. My younger brother had behavioral problems due to learning disabilities. He was erratic and destructive.

I had lots of secrets, but secrets keep you sick, as they say in the program. They also say, you’re as sick as your secrets. But initially, my secrets gave me a thrill. I loved being secretly bad. I loved getting away with things. I’m not proud of it, but I’m a good liar. I thoroughly enjoyed living a double life. I enjoyed the secrets and lies. I don’t know why. It allowed me to rebel against my image for one thing. It was my way of saying “fuck you” to the people around me, people I worked so hard to please. You see, that was always the conflict—wanting to be good and wanting praise, but at the same time, engaging in self-destructive behaviors on the side. I couldn’t deal with the pressure I put on myself to be perfect. I couldn’t manage the hard work I had to do in order to perform at the highest levels. It was tiring, trying to be perfect. But I couldn’t stop the endless cycle of performing academically and then receiving an A, like a dog performing tricks for treats.

However, when I graduated with my PhD, I realized that academia didn’t make me happy. It was like an alcoholic working at a bar. I had no limits on how hard I would push myself. I would pursue my work with such single-minded focus and obsession, that everything else in my life came second. I didn’t know how to perform academically in moderation. I had to leave academia in order to preserve myself. I decided to become a therapist—to end the infinite cycle of performance and reward. As a therapist, I still push myself, but it’s completely different. In some ways it’s much more healthy. At the very least, I form intimate and authentic connections with others around me.

I still enjoy praise, as any human. But now that I’m sober, I don’t pour energy into chasing perfectionism. I know that my efforts are good enough. In fact, I now aim for “good enough.” I am a recovering perfectionist and I try not to chase praise. Instead of looking for external validation, I choose to self-soothe, self-regulate, and talk myself up. I’m trying to be independent and self-sufficient. Without secrets anymore, I don’t have to spend any time or energy into protecting an identity that no longer serves me.

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