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What You Don’t Know About Perfectionism

November 7
by
Amber Wolfe
in
Overcoming Challenges
with
.

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” – Jack Kerouac

You have a 3.9 GPA. .1 away from perfection. After your friends and family define you as a perfectionist, they rub it in your face when you get one question wrong on a Cognitive Psychology exam. They will say things like, “You got a ‘B’ on that Research Methods exam? How tragic.” They don’t realize that you became a perfectionist based on a tragedy—a traumatic childhood with abuse you did not know how to handle on your own. Controlling your grades is like following a mathematical equation because numbers stop you from fearing the unknown.


You are in a writing class, and your professor talks about a game he plays with his daughter. Your parents never did that with you. Your dad left you. As your professor explains the game, you stare at the chalkboard and analyze his handwriting. Some of the letters look like cursive. The letters at the end of each word trail off, and you can barely read them.

This professor is someone you can look up to. This professor is not a neglectful drug addict to his daughter. He cares about your writing; your family doesn’t care at all. Your desire to reach perfection is influenced by your low self-esteem. Your self-esteem is influenced by what professors say about you. You look at each student in the classroom, going down the rows of desks as if you are examining a perfect line. You wonder if anyone feels this way, too.

You cannot find the perfect equation for your writing. You are a writer who still tries to find the right words. After being diagnosed with DID, you decide to call your autobiography Paper cut: Sybil Writes. You write numerous drafts on your computer. You trash them all. When you handwrite in a journal, you crumple up all the pieces of paper. Before you find the right words, you will get too many paper cuts. It will take too much work, too much bleeding on paper to find that perfect sentence.

How are you supposed to describe the pain you feel from your trauma and make others feel the same pain, too?

Years later, you and your friends are sitting in a bar: The Horse You Came In On. Edgar Allan Poe supposedly haunts this bar late at night. You hear the loud rap music playing and watch the people dancing who should probably grab a hotel room by now. You say, “Edgar Allan Poe is rolling in his grave.” Like Poe, you have loved, alone. How can someone fully understand what is going on in your head? You are alone in your thoughts, in your pain.

“Why are you staring off into space?” your friend asks. You ignore the flashing lights and feel nostalgic about a time before you were born. “I want Edgar Allan Poe to possess me so I can become a better writer,” you say. Your friends roll their eyes. How are you supposed to write about what hurts you when it might not hurt others, too?

You bought a Royal antique typewriter. You have fantasies about a writer coming back from the dead to write a perfect story on your “haunted” typewriter. This piece, however, would not be yours. Wanting to be perfect at everything is like wanting to be someone else.

You wish your mind would stop racing, that your perfectionism wouldn’t make you crawl up into a fetal position on the floor.

You cry until you vomit. You feel like you are vomiting up all of those terrible sentences you wrote. The only thing that brings you comfort is the sound the period makes on that typewriter. You wish you could be satisfied with the last period at the end of your story. You wonder if other people are this wishful, too.

You feel like you have to prove your pain if you cannot write about it. As you recite poems by your favorite poets in your head, you decide to kill yourself. The pill bottles—dressed in orange tuxedos and white top hats—beg for your attention. You take 21 pills. You can control whether or not you are going to die. That .1 you continue to obsess over gets in your way. You fall into a deep sleep.

You wake up in a haze. You stare at the freckles on your arm and imagine them as points. You connect the points together to make perfect triangles. This does not help you stay in control. You are not disappointed. You are angry. You failed. Your best friend finds you and takes you to the emergency room. You feel dizzy; the room is spinning in circles. The room does not look like it is real. All you see are white walls that continue to darken.

You fight the nurses. You scream. You kick them. They all huddle together like animals in a stampede. They push you down on the bed. They put you in restraints. You shake. You shake, and that’s the only way you can move. One of the nurses grabs a tube to stick down your throat. They want to force charcoal into your body, so that you are detoxed from all the poisons.

“Fine. Fine. I will drink the charcoal,” you say.

“Are you sure?” she asks.

“Yes. Just please… Please let me out of here.”

You chug the charcoal. You scrub the charcoal off your teeth with your index finger. You use your hand to wipe the charcoal off your mouth.

If only you had that .1: a gun. If only. If only your perfectionism didn’t already make you feel like you’re dead.

Dorothy Parker and Sylvia Plath wrote famous poems about suicide. You wonder if this suicide attempt will make for a perfect poem, too.

You go to the trauma disorders unit at Sheppard Pratt Hospital and still try to find that perfect sentence. This mental hospital is like a prison. That .1 is your prison. You sit in your small bed. You look up to a window that is too high to see anything outside. You cannot go to class. You cannot meet your professors during office hours. You cannot get grades back.

Your perfectionism becomes out of control when the seconds on the clock represent the different neurotransmitters, the different feelings, the different words in your mind. You close your eyes, and each one of your story ideas tries to be center stage.


How can you write about this? Words are not numbers. Words cannot be measured. Words can never be perfect. Stop trying to find the right words. Simply find words. Find your voice. Do right words exist?

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