It’s 2:30 in the morning. You roll over and wake yourself up. Should you A) go back to sleep? or B) grab hold of that teeth-rattling worry-train that was dragging you around the day before and go for another ride?
I’m asking for a friend.
Everybody’s got worries. Even JC had worries. I recall that Mary Magdalene told him:
Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to Problems that upset you, oh. Don’t you know Everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine. And we want you to sleep well tonight. Let the world turn without you tonight. If we try, we’ll get by, so forget all about us tonight…
She’s sweet. Unfortunately, “don’t worry” is crap advice.
Anxiety is a clever opponent. It uses brain-jitsu against you. Here’s how:
You know that certain topics get your brain in turmoil, destroying your serenity, and naturally you want to avoid that. So, if you’re like me (I always assume everyone is like me, just for convenience) you have a helpful voice in your head reminding you what not to think about.
So you make a list of thoughts to avoid. For safety’s sake, you will keep the list handy, on the tip of your brain. And you refer to it often. Especially in the middle of the night. That’s the best time for running through the list of things to avoid.
Shit, shit, shit, shit.
But there is hope, in the form of actual good advice. Practical advice. And it comes from the world of mountain biking, just like you would expect.
Too often, beginner mountain bikers see an obstacle on the trail, like a big buried rock, and they hit it. (Pro tip: you want to NOT hit it. [We’re not to the advice yet. That’s good stuff, though.])
No, here’s the real point: if you look at the thing that you don’t want to hit, you willhit it. That’s just where you bike will go, and you will make a whomp-crunch sound when you superman over the bars and then come to rest in a tidy heap along the side of the trail.
What to do, then? (This is the advice. Get ready.) Look at the bit of the trail where you want to go instead, and your bike will naturally follow that path around the obstacle.
In other words, look to the solution; don’t watch the problem.
That’s such beautiful advice, I want you to re-read it in the voice of Dr. Phil:
Thank you, Dr. Phil. You make everything better.
So, to sum up: if you wake up in the middle of the night, remember to think about nice things. Go straight there. Like bright flowers. And maybe fluffy sheep. Think on it like you mean it. Give your fluffy sheep something fun to do.
That’s it. That’s all.
Be well. Aim for the pretty stuff. Keep your eyes on the happy things. Look to the solution; don’t watch the problem. And, most of all…
I’ll save you the trouble of finishing that thought. The answer is A. Everybody knows the answer is A.
If anybody wanted to know the real truth about your current level of happy-joyousness– –exactly how little sleep you got last night, or how hard this new diet is, or how hung over you are, or how those stilettos are killing you, or how that rash you were telling him about yesterday is starting to freak you out– –they wouldn’t have waited until a random three-second passing in the hallway or at Target to ask.
They would have called. Or texted. Or visited.
Did they call? Or text? Or visit? Hmm?
Anything more than “Good–and you?” is uncalled for detail. Give a guy a break. Kevin has got 500 other people to greet this morning before he can get his coffee. Keep the line moving. Let’s go. Let’s go.
But what if you feel really bad, and you want somebody to know? And you’ve got their ear, and feel like, come on, you’re both human, and maybe they should know you better so you can be a little more human with each other.
Well, I’ll tell you what– –even if you do tell them what’s up with you, there is nothing they can do with that information. Not really.
Do you want commiseration? Is that it? Sympathy. Support, maybe.
Sure, right? Sometimes. Everybody wants that sometimes. Except maybe the silent hero type.
When you’re with a friend and blurt, “Oh, I’ve got such a headache,” what do you think is going to happen? Nothing, right? Nothing was ever going to happen. They say, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” That’s it. You just want someone to know, and maybe, magically, take an ounce of your pain– –but it doesn’t really work that way. Your head still hurts.
But there we are, saying it anyway, thinking something might be different this time.
If you were walking around outside, and the sky looked bright red to you, and the grass was purple, and cats were talking and gerbils were driving cars and and pandas were playing chess in the park, and you knew that nobody else was seeing it, you’d want to mention it to somebody. Otherwise, it’s like you’re alone in that world with the red sky and purple grass and mammals savant.
But they’re not going to get it. If you are feeling depressed, or anxious, and try to explain it to someone, it just sounds foolish. Unless you’re weeping. Then it’s foolish and awkward.
Here’s why: it sounds like bitching, no matter how you play it. And it’s lame. You might as well be saying, “I have a real bad problem with gas. I know it doesn’t look like it. I try to hide it. But every day, all the time, every time you see me, the truth is that I really, really want to fart. It’s everything I can do to hold it in.”
Oh. Charming. Thanks for stopping by.
They might try to understand. Some people do. They make an effort. But they’ll have questions.
“You’re saying you’re on fire. But I don’t see any flames. How could it hurt if I don’t see any flames?
OK, they’ll probably say something more like, “But I don’t get it. You don’t look like you’re depressed. You do normal stuff and sound like everybody else. I heard you laughing a little bit ago.”
Or, “What are you worried about? Everything is fine. And you seem okay. Just learn to let it go! You’re making too big a deal about stuff.”
Well, you can’t walk around sobbing just to demonstrate your emotional situation, right? Or jump at every sound to try to mime “anxious.” You can, but then the whole “bring-them-into-your-world” motivation has been discarded in favor of drama and deception, in favor of self-serving pity. I think there was probably a very special episode of Facts of Life where Tootie discovered this bit of wisdom. It certainly feels like the sort of thing Cindy Brady would learn after a series of hijinks on a Friday night circa 1970.
So, you do you best to act normal. Put on your normal face and normal skin and wear them around, and train your voice to sound normal, and practice including your eyes when you smile so you don’t spook people. And if anybody asks how you’re doing, for the love of all that’s holy, just say,
“Good. And you?”
Keep clicking your heels, Dorothy. Maybe you’ll get there.
I am wishing for more time. There’s too little of the right kind. And way, way too much of the wrong kind.
I gotta get where I’m going, do what I’ve gotta do, and then I’ve gotta get back to home base. To the person on the freeway in rush hour in front of me–I’m already on the fence about you, just on principle. It’s nothing against you personally; I’m sure you’re lovely. But if we are to coexist, you need to keep it moving.
And if you’re protecting extra space in front of you, please be aware that I’m arming photon torpedoes in my head.
And back to the loving place…
Days are already long for most of us. Between work and commute, picking up a few groceries, trying to exercise, dinner, dishes, and homework, you can maybe watch a TV show before you go to bed, get up, and do it again.
It’s killing me. I swear it’s killing me. Isn’t it killing you?
I see people totally chill with this type of schedule, or having even less free time than that, and I don’t understand them. It’s like their brains are made of different stuff.
And that could be literally true.
You see, we are creating our own evolution. Not only are we learning how to live in cities (and not kill each other) we are learning how to work all day. Humans didn’t always have a go go go go idle-hands-are-the-devil’s-worshop Puritan work ethic.
Depending on whose version you accept, hunter-gatherers either work less than the rest of us—-or they work a LOT less than the rest of us. And that’s who we all were, not too many generations ago. Imagine that now… working a few hours a day gathering and hunting, hunting and gathering, then hanging out together for the every-single-day community barbecue. Sitting around the fire, telling stories. Chilling.
It sounds like camp. But, you know, with lions and hyenas visiting every so often.
Some anthropologists call this time in our history–the first 99% of our history–the “original affluent society.” Our ancestors had what they needed, which includes the same things we need: enough to meet their physical needs, a society to belong to, and time to enjoy life.
Freaking farmers went and messed it up for us. Their new way had some advantages, but they had to work all day to make their system work. They had to organize into communities, communities into cities, and civilize us. No more hunting and gathering in the morning, hanging out the rest of the day.
Now we gotta work all day. Thanks, Obama!
This is when humans were told that life stinks, and then you die. These are not my words. According to Moses, that’s [almost exactly] what YHWH said: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground.”
Seriously–the farmers got us kicked out of paradise.
My current theory is that some people have evolved to be okay with the new regime. They evolved more completely into modern “Work all day” humans, while some of us are still largely “Work a bit and then chill” humans. I know I’m definitely in this camp.
I mean, it’s not that I’m lazy.
Wait. No. It’s exactly that. That’s exactly what it is.
There’s a lot going on in the world that can make us want to hide, or run, or fight, or freeze, or faint. Every day there’s a new story on your Facebook newsfeed in the actual news that you just don’t want to hear. What to do? How to deal?
What we need is a philosophy of life that steers us through the bad times.
Instead of such a philosophy, it seems that the disappointments of life drive us to find comfort and absolution in meaningless cliches. When, you ask?
When it is what it is.
What does that even mean? Shut up? Give up? Don’t talk about it anymore? Or is it just the sound we make when our brains are shifting into neutral?
We have actual problems that are looking for solutions. The world keeps spinning, and bunches of us keep flying off into space. Earthquakes strike in Oklahoma; tornadoes hit Bangladesh; water levels rise in Florida; the middle class declines; homelessness rises; rain stops falling in California; pesticides show up in mothers’ milk; little kids cry when their school goes on lockdown.
Our joint response to events beyond, or apparently beyond, our control, is to turn to this philosophy of futility.
Helpfully, we have a hundred other ways to express the same blithe impotence. Here are some of my favorites, placed in elucidating context:
Shit happens! [Shrug shoulders.]
Oh, well! [Shrug shoulders.]
Your job description is now whatever the hell they say it is, and includes a demeaning pile of crap?
Suck it up, buttercup! [Shrug shoulders.]
Can’t make the house payment?
Don’t sweat the small stuff! [Shrug shoulders.]
Antibiotic-resistant superbugs are threatening the nation and our way of life?
Whatevs! [Shrug shoulders.]
Your water supply is now polluted?
Whaddaya gonna do? [Shrug shoulders.]
Insane clown muppet won the election?
Cowboy up! [Shrug shoulders.]
A thermonuclear device is descending on your location?
It is what it is! [Shrug brain.]
Is resignation in the face of life’s trials really the pinnacle of personal ethical development? Is that the best we can do?
Albert Schweitzer once said that shit happens, but oh, well, whatever, whaddaya gonna do? Except he said it this way:
True resignation is this: that man, feeling his subordination to the course of world events, makes his way toward inward freedom from the fate that shapes his external existence. Inward freedom gives him the strength to triumph over the difficulties of everyday life and to become a deeper and more inward person, calm and peaceful. Resignation, therefore, is the spiritual and ethical affirmation of one’s own existence. Only he who has gone through the trial of resignation is capable of accepting the world.
I can’t argue with that mustache. You win, Albert. I’ll totally affirm my own existence by accepting my subordination to the matrix world that shapes my external existence. That sounds liberating…
Of course, this is more progressive than some philosophies. Doris Day used to sing to us, “Que sera sera”: whatever will be, will be. Grammarians are quick to recognize the future tense. This is an unusually proactive form of submission and capitulation in which our doughty heroine is surrendering to stuff that hasn’t even attacked her yet. Not for beginners. Degree of difficulty: religion.
I’m gonna stick to the present, and I know just how to go about it. Famed ironist* and deep-voiced skinny guy Steve Taylor gave his take on this almost 30 years ago:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change… How do you know you can’t change it?
That’s what the wisdom’s for.
Maybe “wisdom” is just an excuse for giving up too soon. Ever think of that? Ha!
Okay, I get it. There are some unchangeable things. Especially stuff in the past.
Except for a few Dr. Who-type scenarios, you can’t change the past, and you’ve just gotta learn to accept it. What’s done is done, and all that. It’s all over but the shouting. Katie bar the door. The generous-lunged professional female singer has performed the final aria.
Live with the outcome. Accept that you cannot change it. Your team lost? Bummer. Hey, wanna watch Supernatural?
I remember when I was like that, sort of. Through most of the 90s, I lived and breathed Phoenix Suns. The best possible thing available on TV was a Suns game. Watching it live, as it happened, commercial breaks and all. Charles Barkley. Dan Majerle. KJ. And since they were good back then, they usually ended the night on a good note. Suns win. Suns win. The next morning, my whole reason for opening the newspaper was to read the recap and enjoy the win again.
But even if it was a loss, I would read the paper to find like-minded souls to commiserate with. It didn’t wipe me out if they lost. I knew they’d bounce back, and I was like all chill and stuff.
Until that got harder and harder. A loss would put me in a funk. I took it badly, and it got worse all the time.
My solution? Stop watching the NBA. And then all sports, completely. (And Grey’s Anatomy, and other shows that deal too much in tragedy. Yes, I know it’s all fake. Shut up. I still can’t watch it.)
Ignorance is bliss. Avoid seeing it. I can’t feel bad about a game I am paying no attention to.
I couldn’t/still can’t bear the tension involved in watching the back-and-forth of basketball, football, baseball. Unless I don’t care who wins. And why would I watch if I don’t care?
(I envy those fans who care but don’t really really care. Know what I mean?)
But maybe that’s cheating–trying to find serenity that way. Avoiding the issue. Not by actually accepting difficult things, but instead by putting my fingers in my ears and chanting, “La la la la la!!! I can’t hear you!!!” I suspect I’m not the only one using this strategy, however. (I’m looking at you, climate change deniers.)
But what about things that haven’t happened yet? Stuff waiting to happen? Anxiety is mostly about things on the horizon, things yet to be, pain waiting to hurt. How much of that do we have to accept as inevitable?
Like in politics–a vile, reprehensible, crude bigot won a very important election. And now he wants to do horrible things that hurt a lot of people. Wisdom, whaddaya say? Isn’t accepting this what sheep do? Isn’t this how they control us? Teach us to go to our happy place while men without conscience steal and corrupt and destroy?
Same thing in our individual lives–how much of the shit coming down the track do we have to accept?
The courage to change the things I can…
If the door is closed, and wisdom says it’s probably locked, doesn’t courage say, “Try it anyway”? Give it a rattle. Maybe it’ll open.
I’m up for trying a few doors, seeing what opens. What did Janis Joplin say? “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” So is courage, I think. And at my age, courage also looks a lot like doing something stupid.
With it being almost time to vote, and me having mentioned the apocalypse, one would be forgiven for thinking I was gonna talk about Donald Trump.
Instead, today’s lesson comes from the Book of Shelly, the prophet who tells us of the fate of Ozymandias, with his colossal statue lying broken in a wasteland.
With a frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command….
Here’s the end of the sonnet:
And on the pedestal, these words appear: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Solomon of Jerusalem penned the following lyrics (found on his classic album Ecclesiastes):
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. All things are full of weariness; What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
(TL:DNR? Okay, pick up the thread again here…)
So, the point, Ozymandias and King Solomon? You’ll be forgotten, no matter who you are.
Good lesson, in any case, even if numerous modern-day prophets have made the same point:
All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see… Dust in the wind… All we are is dust in the wind…”
(Livgren, as found in the Prophecies of Kansas.)
For all of these men–and they’re all men, fwiw–I must pose a question:
Why do you care? About your “legacy,” I mean. Being “remembered” by people not even alive yet.
And why are so many of us kinda like that?
What makes us want to spread our image and our name across the land, like a lightning bug smeared across the inside wall of a church-camp quonset hut on a mosquito-infested night? (That’s an oddly specific image…) What makes us want to carve our names into history, leaving a reputation-shaped scar to last all time? What good does that do us when the sands will still come and cover us up?
What good does it do? There is an answer: No good. none at all. None good.
Life has its own scale, and it isn’t monumental. It is human-sized–if you’re living right.
It’s today. And when tomorrow comes, it’s that day. And if you’re lucky, you’ll share it with the right people. And when you’re gone, and when they’re gone, and the sands come, it won’t matter, because you have already had your days, and you knew it when it was happening, and it was enough. More than enough.
Between love today and future glory, I’ll take love. Speaking for me is the prophet Nesmith in the book of Monkees:
I have no more than I did before But now I’ve got all that I need For I love you and I know you love me
(Note to my beloved wife–I’m talking about you.) 🙂
Living inside anxiety, I can’t help but think I may actually be the worst person to explain it. I’m certain that it looks entirely different from the inside, and would be unrecognizable to people on the outside.
I feel this is best expressed through a peyote-inspired scene from “I dream of Jeannie”:
Me: “Okay, it’s a round room, about twenty feet across, with jewels on the wall, and cushions that fit together, and pillows all around. And kinda pink and purple. Mostly purple. Weird ceiling. Do you see it?”
Some human: “Dude… you’re high. All I see a shiny bottle about as long as my arm.”
Me: “Open it!”
Anxious person emerges, blinking.
From this side, it feels like anxiety is connected to time somehow–like everything is coming in too fast, and nothing I do can slow it down. It feels like stress, but in more dimensions than emotions are supposed to have. (Apparently, that feeling is a real thing and much discussed at one time, in certain circles.)
Alvin Toffler definition of future shock: “Too much change in too short a period of time.” Published 1970.
Part of my brain keeps saying, “Hurry up! You’re not making it. If you fall behind…!!” (Not sure what happens if I fall behind. Something bad.)
Without meaning to, I’m aware of every responsibility, every job I’ve got to do in the next ten minutes, hour, rest of the morning, day, week, semester, year, all at once… as well as the time crunch I have trying to accomplish each one while doing all of the others, facing the scrutiny and scorn of the (imagined?) authorities looming over my shoulder.
And all the time, all the time, all the time, I keep thinking about the years–how many I’ve passed, how many since this movie came out or that album was released, how many years I’ve taught, how many I still need to work, how many years since Mom and Dad passed away, and how many more I can hope to see, like an old man counting down to zero.
So it’s simultaneously time by the fraction of a second, and time by the year and decade, with me trapped between.
And with the thinking is the feeling of anxiety–a true, physical feeling–like a fever that gives you chills all over; or like razor-blade poison traveling through your veins; or like frost on your skin, a quarter inch deep; or like molten lead in your gut, sending its metallic tendrils every direction.
It makes me grit my teeth until I have a headache. And jiggle my knees. And crack my knuckles over and over.
See? I can’t describe it properly. Maybe that’s close enough.
But I know what I want instead.
I crave slow time. Maybe no time. Sitting on the porch, reading books by natural sunlight, hearing the sound of the wind and the flutter of the curtains, with the dogs puttering around and the leaves rustling. Nothing much happening. Nothing needing to be done. No critic at my shoulder. No deadline. No existential angst.
The deepest calm I feel is when a scent, like cut grass, or a combination of clouds and sun, or some chance word, or crickets outside at night, or some other perfect accident of life conjures up not just the memory of my youth but an actual moment, a time when I didn’t inhabit this strange space, this bizarro version of my inner life. Then, for a blissful instant, I step out of the bottle, out of time, out of the fever-poison-frost, and feel…
But only for, like, you know, a second. A good second.
That’s not how I feel at work. I don’t know many people who do. But sometimes, once in a while, there’s a tiny spark of it.
Normally (though it shouldn’t be normal) work is where everything is coming in so fast–for real, for everybody, not just in my imagination–that an actual happy, healthy human can barely keep up. Teaching is like managing a party for eight-year-olds at McDonald’s, except it’s with 30 or more kids at a time, all day, every day, and they’ve all been eating bowls full of red frosting for the last 24 hours, and your party games are super stupid, like essays and multiple choice quizzes.
Teaching is a job for masochists and martyrs and people who didn’t read the job description very well, though it is sometimes kinda fun. Not very peaceful, though. Unless you’re a paperclip.
Not a metaphor. An actual paperclip.
About a year ago, when I entered work feeling feverish-poisoned-frozen every day, I started to notice a paperclip on the sidewalk a few doors down from my classroom. A simple aluminum paperclip, dropped by a passerby, and probably never missed. Unassuming little tool. Modestly useful. Fragile, typically–even a child can destroy it, if it comes into their hands.
What do you make of this?
It was there every day. Day after day. In perfect condition. The students would walk on it, and the leaf blower would blow around it, and the rain would wash over it, and nothing troubled it. It wasn’t worth picking up, and it wasn’t worth worrying about, and it wasn’t important enough to bother destroying in a fit of “Take that!” And for months that paperclip lay there. Tenacious. Resilient. An outrageously unlikely survivor. I noticed it, and left it there, silently rooting for it to outlast the school, the way crocodiles out-survived the dinosaurs.
Okay: picture one of those Notting Hill-type season montages, where it’s fall then winter then spring–and watch the paperclip, still there, unchanged, through it all.
Every day when I saw it, I felt a little lift. Though conditions shifted every minute at school, the paperclip stayed the same. It went unnoticed, unmoved, untroubled. Just enduring, an unlikely hero to me in my anxiety-drenched days. I would show up–another day–and it would be there–another day–and I would remind myself:
I half-expected I’d be rich by this point in my life. That’s what I supposed back when I was a smartish kid, and I never totally shook the notion. College and marriage and life and a hundred thousand separate choices–both foolish and wise–have filled up the intervening forty years or so, and now I’m pretty sure that the rich thing isn’t going to happen. Most of the routes to wealth went dark a long time ago.
Only a handful of options remain, and they’re not great: bank robbery… buried treasure… a generous Nigerian prince…
And the lottery.
Problem is, I don’t play the lottery. Not quite never–I’ve had three or four tickets in my life, I think all as gifts–but I don’t buy them myself. It’s neither laziness nor a political statement. It’s just that I understand the odds. Still, once in awhile, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to win a big payday.
The electronic billboard along the I-10 in downtown Phoenix tells me every day what the Powerball is up to. It’s always a number in the millions, except when it hit a billion. And since I’m on my way to work, and not always happy about it, the thought of being too rich to care is attractive. Somebody’s gotta win, amiright?
I put too much on work, maybe. I mean, my battle with the evil twins isn’t work’s fault. I encountered depression and anxiety on my own. Some bullshit alchemical process turns the sugar water in one’s brain to vinegar; it’s not disappointment or weariness or some other work-related emotional excess that does it.
Besides, in many ways, I still like my job, especially the creative parts. But work makes it harder to find the time I need (most people need) to heal and recharge. It makes its demands on all of us, relentlessly, mercilessly, indifferent to our wishes, like the weather, or a really bad SNL episode.
My job is probably like yours; it gives me a paycheck in exchange for most of my hours on most of my days for most of my life. That’s the deal, and I signed up like everyone else. I would take a better deal if one came along, but I don’t see that on the horizon.
So on work days, I do what I’ve gotta do. Then, on my days off, I look to maximize serenity.
Evenings are too short, with too many other responsibilities, to even attempt the zen thing. But weekends are my chance. And vacations are the best chance. That’s when I aim for calm, and tranquil, and slow. That’s where relief lives.
The other day, as my spring break got started, and I was somewhat more cheerful than usual, my daughter said, without intending or giving offense, “I like spring-break dad.”
You and me both, kid. You and me both.
That’s when I think I’d like to win the lottery. A rest-of-your-life vacation. I could be spring-break dad all of the time. Better me, better dad, better husband, better life. Maybe, if I bought a ticket, I could win, and do what I want to do forever, like the best Saturdays, except it never gets over. I could take a deep breath without being reminded again and again of the thousand jobs I have to finish before Monday’s classes.
Dammit. It feels like cheating. Undeserved. A shortcut that would heap guilt onto the end of all the zeros on the check. Nobody’s happiness should depend on one-in-a-million (or billion) luck. Whatever happiness I’m gonna get, I’ve gotta get on my own. Or at least that’s how it feels like it should be.
So, no, lottery, I’m not gonna win you. You almost got me. I say no.
What do I want to do? Nothing. Not a damn thing. There is nothing whatsoever that I want to do.
You ever been there?
If you’ve ever been depressed enough that you literally don’t want to do anything at all, nothing in the universe, you will realize what a tremendous luxury it is to want to do something. For reals. “Wanting”might seem like “breathing,” if you think it’s something that just happens as long as you’re alive, no matter what. I’m alive, so I want stuff. Except that isn’t how it works. I learned this some years ago, and get helpful echoes of the lesson from time to time.
Normal folks who are feeling okay want stuff all the time. They want to be entertained, and they want to eat, and they want to drink. They want to sleep, and they want to make money just enough that they “want” to go to work.
But there’s more.
They want to watch their favorite TV shows, they want to check their social media, they want to watch a basketball game, they want to go out of town on the weekend, they want to have sex, they want buy some stuff for the house, they want to visit with friends, and they want dessert.
And and and…
Because they want things, they do things, which is awesome. But what happens if you don’t want anything anymore? What happens when depression settles in your bones and nothing is good and nothing appeals to you and nothing is worth getting out of bed for?
I looked into this about thirteen years ago–you’re welcome–and you wanna know what I found? You do nothing. You go to bed, because that’s ground zero, and you stop doing. You stop planning, you stop caring, and you stop thinking. It’s like dead, except dead supposedly doesn’t hurt like depression does. (Depression feels like a broken heart all over. That’s my best approximation.)
It has a word, which makes it feel all medical. Anhedonia. Without pleasure.
If your brain has too little want-to-do-stuff juice, you don’t even want to eat. That’s the weirdest thing. You literally do not want to chew food and swallow it. No appetite. No desire for food. Eating becomes an imposition, an intrusion, an annoyance. I ate a handful of saltines each day because I retained enough humanity to realize that this was literally the least I could do. I also drank a glass of water because I was only mostly dead.
Life went on in the house around me. I was the ghost in the bedroom. I forget how long. A month? Six weeks? I came out a couple of times, play-acting at “living person,” all plastic-faced and dead-eyed, but would go right back when I was done with whatever human interaction had been forced on me.
I had the TV on even though I couldn’t stand to watch any shows. I didn’t want to be entertained. But noise and movement was good, for some reason, so I watched every second of the French Open tennis tournament. I didn’t really watch; it just played in my general direction. I think it kept me from thinking. I didn’t want to do that, either.
The French Open lasted a while. When that ended, I endured this and that until the British Open golf tournament came on, and then something else after that. If I had had an “ocean wave” channel, I would have put that on.
Eventually, with a new doctor, some meds, and slow, incremental improvement, I started to do some things again. I went to other rooms in the house. I started to see other humans again. Nothing was fun for a long time, but I ate food again. I actually wanted food. I kinda needed to put back on the 25 pounds or so I had lost on the saltine cracker diet. In time, I’d go way past that, but them’s the breaks…
I got better. Not everybody does.
So here’s the moral of the story, boys and girls: go do stuff. Have fun, and notice that it’s fun.
Because if you feel like doing something and then do it, and you feel the least bit of joy in doing that thing–whether it’s eating a snickers or watching the Kardashians or petting your dog–you’re alive, and doing okay. You need to appreciate that moment, and the fricking chemical in your brain that made that moment possible. Tell the chemicals thank you. Wanting is awesome. It’s human and happy and absolutely not to be taken for granted.
Then go do something else that you want to do, and enjoy the hell out of it.
Smokey Robinson famously boasted, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day; when it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May…”
That sounds great! But now I have questions. (Somehow, he knew I would. He anticipated.)
“I guess you’d say, ‘what can make me feel this way?'”
Exactly! Hook me up, man.
“What can make me feel this way? My girl…”
Fine. If you don’t want to tell me…
I’m not trying to be cynical. What I’m saying is that trying to “feel this way”–sunshiny and springy–is a sore point with me, as well as a matter of particular interest.
And Smokey leaves me hanging.
A couple other singers took up the torch and sang the songs of my people. But I didn’t want to hear them.
You see, back when I was younger and depression was all exciting and new, I lovehated anything that had Smokey’s sun and clouds reversed. The first song I recall fitting that category was “Bad Day” by Fuel.
The singer repeats what his troubled girlfriend says to him:
“I had a bad day again She said I would not understand She left a note that said I’m sorry, I I had a bad day again”
I understood. I liked it because I understood it. But I didn’t want to hear it because I understood it too well. Lovehate.
“And she swears there’s nothing wrong I hear her playing that same old song She puts me up and puts me on I had a bad day again”
This song fit into the category of “freaking me out because it reminds me how fragile and confusable brains are.” That’s totally a thing. Look it up.
For a period of time, I hated to see dream sequences or representations of drug trips or depression or even sadness, anything that showed normal perceptions being altered. The clinical term for the feeling I got whenever I saw something psychedelic was “icky.”
Like when the memory-impaired Dory tries to motivate the grieving and depressed Marlin with her creepy little crackpot song. (See my homage to that moment in “Shut Up, Dory.”)
That’s why I liked the next song “Unwell,” by Matchbox 20, even more, and far less. (And not because I have anything against Rob Thomas.)
“All day staring at the ceiling making friends with shadows on my wall All night hearing voices telling me that I should get some sleep because tomorrow might be good for something”
Okay. I did some ceiling-staring. I’ll own up to that. That’s on me. But I made no friends there.
Still, too real by lots.
Does he leave it there?
Nope. He keeps going. He goes so far as to enunciate the fear I carried around unsaid.
“But I’m not crazy I’m just a little unwell I know right now you can’t tell but stay awhile and maybe then you’ll see a different side of me”
The song hits all the right notes: uncertain hope, fear of abandonment, hallucinations, paranoia, stigma…
This is cheery.
“I can hear them whisper and it makes me feel like there must be something wrong… with me”
I liked that the song existed, but I turned to another channel whenever it came on. I did not like how it felt to hear it.
On the one hand, I was relieved that I was not as bad off as the people in the songs. On the other hand, I felt bad that I was callous towards the suffering of others. And after that I suspected I was looking for ways to beat myself up….