Prince Albert in a Can

I hate April fools. I hate practical jokes.

They’re almost never funny. The whole point is to get someone to look ridiculous.

prince albert
“Have you got Prince Albert in a can? You do? You better go out and stop it! Wait, no, hold on…”

If it works, what you’ve probably done is tricked somebody. You made them believe a lie. You made them think you were being straight with them when you weren’t. Well done, you.

fridge
“Is your fridge running? Yes? Well, you better let it out! No. Shit. Damn. Hang up!”

It’s rudeness and dishonesty masquerading as humor. It’s the emotional equivalent of sarcasm or eye rolling.

Except, once in a while, it is kinda funny. For example, when you tie somebody’s shoes together when they’re not looking, and they stumble, but don’t get hurt or anything. Pretty funny. (Just nod and move along.)

Or… you turn out the light in the laundry room every time your wife goes in there. (This is a f’rinstance.) Just for a couple seconds. You know, until she shouts at you. That one’s always funny. (I’m being told I’m wrong in this case. Hold on–the judges… yes, the judges are ruling in my favor.)

Brother Steve insists that flipping the switch on and off to the outlet your electric mower is plugged into is fricking hilarious.

lawnmower
It makes no sense. Why does it keep shutting off?

Wait, here’s a good one. Convince somebody that they haven’t fed the hamster in like a month. Wake’em up with that. Get their heart pumping. Make’em jump up and try to find it to take care of it. Then remind them–they don’t have a hamster!

Hungry_hungry_hamster
So… you’re not gonna feed me?

That’s the one I get, with variations, almost every night. Freak out. Wake up. Sit up. (“I forgot to take out my contacts! No, there they are.” “I left my watch on! Oh, no I didn’t. And I guess it’s not that that serious, anyway.”) Always the same time, about half an hour after I fall asleep. Apparently, it’s a unique kind of panic attack (I checked). It’s cute. Sort of. And it only takes about 10 seconds. I usually just go back to sleep.

So, I get a freaky little practical joke, almost every night. A prank phone call from my subconscious. Anxiety provides the jolt; my imagination provides the storyline.

Some nights, I jump out of bed and turn on the light, waking up my long-suffering wife. (“What are you doing?” “I have to find the puppy! It’s loose.” “We don’t have a puppy!” “Oooooh, right…”) Then I turn out the light and do the walk of shame back to the bed. “Sorry, honey…”

too bright
Not my wife–ed.

Sometimes I remember the crazy thing I said or did. Sometimes she does. Later, it makes an amusing anecdote, like telling people what your toddler got into. Or your grandpa with Alzheimers. Or your golden retriever.

So I guess these are my peeps:

mandog dogboy manboy

Oh. Okay. That’s cool, then.

Smell this

A friend pulls something nasty from the fridge. He smells it, makes a face, and says, “C’mere! Smell this!” What do you do?

A. Smell it to see what all the fuss is about (recommended) or:

B. Pass up the opportunity, confident that you have a pretty clear notion of what bad smells like.

(If you answered B, you’re way ahead of me. Hold on a sec. Just… hang out while I talk to my peeps. Here’s a magazine.)

Okay, A people, so here’s the idea: supposedly, if you suffer from depression, what you need to do is keep a daily journal. You write down all the negative, painful, illogical thoughts that make up the beating heart of the experience.

Silly-Walks-2
Advice from the Ministry of Bad Ideas

The logic of it is that you get the bad ideas out of your head, and leave them on the paper. You exorcise them. You expose them to the light of day, to make them shrivel up and die.

Journal as trash can. Priest. Disinfectant. Simple.

I liked the idea, so I got me a journal. It was nice, too: a beautiful leather book with lots of pages of creamy, heavy-weight paper. Says “Journal” on the cover, so you know what it’s for. A pleasure to own. Lovely to hold. It’s the the sort of volume you’d like to see Bohemian Val Kilmer fill with sensitive poetry, landscape sketches, deep thoughts, and the like.

valkilmer
I’m sketching you in my head right now.

I didn’t have none of that stuff. I just had my “creative” thinking. In the course of a day, I could generate about a thousand destructive, hurtful, soul-crushing thoughts, each a fully-formed statement of belief detailing my uniquely wretched place in creation. These thoughts spanned the full spectrum of wrongness, from silly nonsense to pure invention to utter falsehood, but by the magic of faulty brain chemistry (yay!) they were transformed into TRUTH! with a capital all of it.

stinkin

My journal was my purgative. I would write every toxic notion there, and it made sense to lovingly recreate each one in its fullest glory. After all, if you’re exorcising demons, you don’t want to leave splinters behind. Get it all. Really dig. Scrape. Write up a complete report, and if you can supply charts and graphs, all the better. Remember to include support.

There! Another day’s crap smeared all over my pretty journal. I should feel pretty darn good any minute now.

kangaroo
Hello, ladies. Looking good. Feeling good.

I would like to report that it worked as advertised. That would be awesome. Failing that, I would like to report that I gave up on a seriously flawed strategy early on.

Nope. Neither. I gave this really bad idea my best effort.

don't give up

Months of curdled id went into that journal. Every day, instead of letting malformed thoughts go extinct, I preserved them on beautiful paper, in the process handling every poisonous idea a second time, making myself feel as miserable as I did the first time around. You know, like a helpful friend poking at your bruises. “How’d you get that?” (Ouch. Stop it.) Sometimes, I’d reread stuff from previous days, and it was just like it was the first two times. Oh, look, it still hurts!

You do something stupid two, three hundred times, eventually you gonna learn. C’mere. Smell this!

dog-nose

No, thank you.

Brother Dave, when asked something he wasn’t interested in answering, would say, “What, you writing a book?” [Yes, I am, I would cleverly answer.] “Well, tear that page out.”

Good advice. Better yet, just don’t write it in the first place.

They’re Wafer Thin!

We all have our limits.

limit

We can try to ignore them, but when you bump up against one, the laws of physics take over.

Camels, for example, can carry a great deal. Seriously. You would almost be forgiven for thinking they have no limit at all. Check this out:

Another bale? Sure, that seems totally reasonable. Pile it on!

Nevertheless, the limit is still in effect. One more more straw and this guy’d snap like a twig. That’s just science.

Popeye, as we know, is powerfully fueled by rage, black coffee, and leafy greens, and can tolerate more than most men, sailor or not. But even he can only stands so much, at which point he can’t stands no more.

And Mr. Creosote has an enormous appetite, but he should not eat the mint at the end of the meal. Yes, of course, they’re wafer thin–but there are still limits, which even a 1000-pound man should know.

mr creosote
Perhaps a diet mint…

There’s a limit on how much pressure people can take. Most of us have a finite supply of nerves for family, friends, and coworkers to twang. For example, if any of us had had five daughters, in England, during the frickin’ Regency era, we’d feel just like this put-upon mother:

bennetmeme
Beyond her limit, or overacting. They look quite similar.

In any case, if you have ever battled depression or anxiety or one of their sinister cousins, you know the feeling. Well, anyone does, I suppose, more or less. Everyone has opened their eyes at the thin edge of a new day and weighed their options, deciding whether they really want to face the world or not. Generally, we get up. But if you’re depressed or have social anxiety or some other challenge, the sense of impending doom is cruelly exaggerated, and you may have decided more than once to really not get up. I lost half a summer that way once, along with about 20 pounds. ISYN.

Young woman lying in bed doesn't want to wake up
Even in bed, the day will find you.

If you do get out of bed, you are committing yourself to putting on your “I’m fine!” face, and dredging up all the energy it takes to behave as if you really are fine. Talking to people. Doing your job. Caring about things you don’t care about. Meeting all of your obligations.

fake-smile
Me? Wonderful, thank you! And a lovely Monday morning to you, sir.

All the while, you feel like the rubber has peeled off your tires and you’re riding the rims, throwing up rooster-tails of sparks that nobody else can see. You may hear a little keening in the back of your brain, like the sound a child makes while compulsively rocking in a chair, chewing on the end of his sleeve, but you keep going, just like you’re fine, because you have to, even after you get home, since there’s still stuff to do there.

I make it that far every day. Maybe you do, too. But you know my limit, my one-straw-too many? You know where I stop?  At the basket of clothes in the closet that needs to be put away.

I’m not gonna do it. Not now, maybe not ever.

basket of clothes
Rant approaching. Take cover.

Because fuck those clothes. I’m done. I was done a while ago. I don’t care if it’d only take two minutes to put them away. Don’t tell me what to do, laundry basket. I don’t even know if I’m gonna brush my teeth tonight; I’m damn well not gonna worry about whether the socks and t-shirts are nicely tucked away and comfy in their places. They can just sit in the basket a while longer and shut up about it. I hit the bottom of the barrel of energy and caring a long time ago; I’ve been pretty much just scraping up sawdust and mold since lunch, looking for one more go at normal, and it ain’t gonna happen. Running on fumes and pushing my luck. I feel about like a marathon runner looks at the end of the race.

So no, clothes basket. No.

And you know what? I’m not kidding.

not kidding

The Wisdom of the Six-Fingered Man

Count Rugen was a cruel, murdering bastard, besides being a thief and a liar. But he wasn’t wrong about everything. Let me explain…

No, there is too much.

Let me sum up.

Be grateful

The whole “What I’m grateful for today!” trend is so filled with saccharine platitudes and phony sentiment that it can be damn near indistinguishable from sarcasm.

happy-young-woman-at-work
I’m grateful for 55 hour work weeks. And getting up at 4:30. And leaving in the dark. And getting home in the dark.

It’s a very positive way to see life and challenges and whatnot. Just seems about a half a bubble out of plumb (a Dad saying).

And the bieberesque, semi-religious, mainstream use of the word “blessed” just makes me feel icky.

But still… the blessed and the grateful apparently have a point. Daniel Gilbert (in his book Stumbling on Happinessclaims that being grateful is something that will actually make you happier.

grateful
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means…

And even Sheryl Crow, who usually has my back, agrees in principle with the focus-on-the-positive thing: “It’s not having what you want/It’s wanting what you’ve got.”

Et tu, Sheryl?

Here’s the message: If you’re not happy, it’s your own fault. You’re just selfish and ungrateful. Can’t you see all that you’ve got?

crow
Sheryl Crow, seen here soaking up the sun.

It’s not that I don’t recognize all the nice things I have. I get that. A loving family. Comfortable home. Lotsa stuff. But sometimes I’m not feeling it. (And for folks with pointless generalized anxiety, “sometimes” can be pretty much all of the time.) Anxiety is a loud, sharp feeling; it drowns out the happy.

A is for Ataraxia

The Greeks used the word ataraxia. It translates as “robust tranquility” or “freedom from distress and worry.” It’s the feeling I fight toward every day. That’s what I want.

Freedom from distress and worry. What a relief! The ability to feel the good fortune that is mine. That would be genuine mental health. That would be happiness.

no worries
Be the plank.

Because, as the six-fingered man says, “If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.”

Even if you have everything.

 

Shut up, Dory

Exactly. That Dory.

I remember, very clearly, how she looked at me and and said–halfway singing, with such pure, silly innocence–“Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…”

Pissed me off.

bed
How about “Just stay in bed”? Can that be a thing?

Okay, she was talking to Nemo’s dad (Marlin; I looked it up) not me, exactly. But it felt like she was talking to me. And she seemed to be speaking for everybody who feels whole and wonders at those that don’t.  I remember that day: me and wifey, with the kids between us, sitting down front, having a nice visit to the movies. And there I was, not right, not good, when things were the about the worst, but I was trying to keep it together, relating to Nemo’s grieving father in a much darker way than Pixar ever imagined. “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…”

just_keep_swimming-843955
Don’t aim your happy at me…

For me, two things:

  1. Duh.
  2. Shut up.

See, it’s not that it’s bad advice. Not really. Between getting on with it and giving up, it’s better, in pretty much every life situation, to get on with it, and keep on going. That’s as true for tired workers at the start of another day or athletes late in the game as it is for the defeated, the depressed, the grieving, or the overwhelmed. Life means movement. So, yeah, Dory, we know. We (the depressed and the anxious, the grieving and the overwhelmed) do it more intentionally than most other people, keenly aware moment by moment that we are keeping on. Thus the duh.

But don’t pretend it’s easy. Or worse, don’t rub it in, with your rubbery grin and googly eyes. It isn’t easy for everybody.

 

Thus the shut up.

A lot of people with mental health challenges have played the “You don’t know what it feels like to be me!” card. I’ve played that one in my head often enough. But it’s trite, and rarely useful. We’re all locked inside our headcages. Nobody knows exactly what anybody’s thinking or feeling, and we’ve all got stuff we’re dealing with. Being sad doesn’t make that any truer.

brain
Feeling orangey today…

However, what’s still worth pointing out is that… well… seriously, people really don’t know what it feels like. When living hurts, and no place feels better than any other, and improvement is utterly, utterly impossible (at least, from the warped perspective of a depressed human), all movement feels pointless. Why keep swimming? Why go to any effort to feel like shit over there when I can feel like shit right here?

At the heart of it, it’s a math problem, with only negative numbers.

Under duress, I will admit the following: when you finally start to feel better, you can see that the only way you could have gotten from there to here was to… just keep swimming.

Shut up, Dory. Don’t smile.

Control-Alt-Delete

The trick is to stop thinking. It’s just as easy and just as hard as that.

The pernicious train of thought that is destroying your peace of mind, refusing to leave you alone, is like an earworm replaying itself without mercy; it’s the burr twisted in your dog’s fur; it’s the melted gum making your shoe go snik every second step… but it’s crueler by far than all of them. That thing needs to be dislodged. Cut out. Scraped off. Removed. But it doesn’t want to go. It really doesn’t.

Chewing-gum-on-shoe
Great. Got some life-sucks-nothing-is-good on my shoe.

You’re not supposed to give it life, but it has one. And it has things it wants. It wants you to think about it, to focus on it. It will keep presenting itself to be handled, worried like a smooth stone you found along the river, looked at endlessly from every side, except it’s not nice like that smooth stone. It hurts to handle it. Somehow it’s barbed, and it’s tearing little jagged chunks of peace and joy from you every time it tears through your brain, like an evil drain snake (brain snake?) designed by you to torment you.

You suck. You’re stupid. Everybody else knew that thing you forgot. Even kids. You’re ugly/fat/bald/old. You’re losing control at work. Stuff like that. Fill in the blank with your own brand of ugliness. (Don’t, actually. That’s what we’re getting away from. Shiny object. Over here…) Depression and anxiety are endlessly inventive.

Shinny-penny
Oooohhh…. purty…

I suspect that is why so many people who are depressed or anxious sleep a lot, or drink too much, or self-medicate in other ways. Those are all ways to try to dislodge a persistent thought. You’ve gotta stop ruminating somehow, so you check out. You hide. But that’s cheating, because even though it works, in a way, it is self-destructive.

Control-alt-delete. That’s the key. Reset. Start again.

controlaltdelete
Push it… push it… you know you want to…. push it…

You can’t think your way out of evil thoughts. (I can’t. People can’t.) You can’t work it out. You can’t defeat the logic of depression or anxiety (hereafter “the evil twins”). You will lose. Like Matthew Broderick discovered, the only way to win at thermonuclear war is not to play. Don’t play.

The evil twins like to immobilize you–so this is the hardest part–but you must do something. You don’t want to do anything. DO IT ANYWAY. You feel black inside, and defeated. Do something anyway. Not TV. That does nothing for you. Read a book. Your brain says that everything is boring and not worth it and it won’t do anything and you want to just sit. Be tough. Read your damn book. Read it hard enough that you forget that you’re reading. The evil twins tell you to stop. Keep going.

busy
Fancy doodling

Or build something. Crafts work. Draw a picture. Doodle! Cook a meal. All the things you DON’T WANT TO DO because it all seems worthless. But if you do it, you will stop thinking. You will reset. Control-alt-delete.