Petty Bougie Horror

Depression can’t be trusted for its world view, but it can be trusted for a couple insights. Like maybe, the cliché about urban/suburban/small town settings being dissatisfying is true; maybe they hide horror in plain sight.

This can easily come off as teen-angst whining or Ivory Tower elitism, so let me start my “critique” with a wider lens. There is now 10 to 20 times the amount of depression there was in the 50’s[i] (of course there are a myriad amount of reasons this is problematic. Less reporting of depression, less recognition of the disorder, different social expectations that determined when it was and wasn’t a disorder). That is to say, if we have been making progress then we’ve been cultivating a lot of mental disorder along with it. When it comes to the reasons a person has depression in the first place (the disorder as a whole, not the whys and wherefores of drifting into a particular episode at a particular time) the reasons tend to be more systemic than atomistic. In other words social practices and trends can often, unknowingly, help foster the birth of disorders rather than seek to alleviate them. For example, depression tends to increase in periods of great economic disparity, especially amongst the middle and working classes (though, because it is an alien illness it can very easily visit the upper class as well).  Why not target these structural enablers (the bubble system of an unchecked marketplace, lack of safety net) of mental disorder instead of the individual sufferers of disorder? Many treatments seek to simply find a disease within a single person, and while the treatment might include environment, they leave the responsibility while a treatment like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy[ii] can be helpful, especially in dealing with phobias, it makes less sense to demand of every individual a conformation with practices or habits they find sincerely unpleasant just because there’s an unspoken social norm stating everyone should be capable of everything.

Okay, give me a second here. I know this might read the like the sound-bites of a precocious leftist undergrad, but I have reason to think them and experience that gave birth to said reason: I was in a grocery store. I don’t like grocery stores. I don’t like them for specific reasons.

I’m a sensitive person. It’s something I’m pretty ambivalent about because there’s a lot of good and bad that comes with it. It means I’m sensitive emotionally and if you say my comic book collection isn’t rad it’ll hurt my feelings, it also means that stimuli (loud music, crowds, parties, classrooms, bus stops, even a supposedly quiet but overbooked Barnes and Noble) do more than tire me out, they take my consciousness and give it a towel wringing, leaving me with an unpleasant floaty feeling.[iii] I often end up feeling like I’m dreaming and knowing I’m not really connecting to the world around me. For some reason my brain has to put my mind in bubble wrap. I never leave a grocery store in a state of reality.

Grocery stores are over-lit with flat fluorescent lighting, full of busy stressed people making a lot of noise grabbing at a couple water sprayed apples, colorful in a chaotic marketing way rather than a bright film or piece of art (I once heard an ornithologist on NPR talk about how you could tell the health of an environment by the plentitude of its sounds; birds needing to adapt to new scales and chords to distinguish themselves from other birds. Their differentiation was the sound of fecund life.  It seems grocery stores are similar with their colorful displays all vying for consumer attention, but perverse in that, unlike the songs of birds which speak of mating, sex, the turning wheel of life, these colorful displays only speak of money) Grocery stores can range from the gargantuan, like the warehouse heights of a Shaw’s, to the labyrinthine and claustrophobic, with aisles turning into other aisles one selling five flavors of vinegar, the next ten shades of baking powder. They are a special type of American hell.

BUT! Grocery stores are necessary to purchase food. Being a human, I have to buy food and I can’t afford to eat out every day. Therefore, I have to go in grocery stores. I hate this fact. Apparently, to be a functional adult I have to go in them regularly and operate in a smart consumer fashion, with coupons and lists, I think tax auditors are less prepared with bureaucratic recording instruments than the modern American grocery goer.

Here’s the thing, grocery stores were not built with human comfort in mind. They were built on floor space convenience and splashy marketing. They do not care. And yet, when I was going through CBT I had to go through grocery stores repeatedly. This caused three weeks where at some point in the day I’d end up feeling that sickly-stoned depersonalization feeling because CBT said I should have anxiety about grocery stores or large crowds of people or carnivals etc. etc. and if I do it enough I’ll stop being so deviant.

It didn’t work.

When one thinks about it, grocery stores, as we Americans know them, are an aberration of the 20th-21st century, they never existed before Piggly Wiggly opened in Memphis in 1916. How is my ability to be an adult now hung on the horror of visiting a grocery store? How is this a criteria of my mental health? People have been getting depressed since Aristotle was writing (and possibly much longer) and yet, because grocery stores are institutional in that they replaced marketplaces in providing food, and because they went from experimental business model to thriving economic beacons of vulgar opulence, they must be good for people.

What I’m getting at is this: Just because something is part of our social fabric does not mean that those who deviate are the unhealthy ones. Nor am I casting a condescending scowl at the entire social fabric. I am entreating you, the reader, to perhaps think of mental disorder itself as a symptom of an increasingly lonely, disconnected, harsh, environment. And if you do think this way, remember, your love starts to matter. In fact, all your efforts to be good to others start to matter. That one smile to the person across the street brightens things a bit, things are stitched a little closer. I know it would help me, wouldn’t it help you?

[i] Info taken from this excellent Salon article.

[ii] AKA CBT, Cognitive Behavior Therapy claims to change the neurological wiring of a person by instantiating more “healthy” practices. It often includes exposure therapy, in which a person is exposed to an anxiety inducing stimulus enough times that they become desensitized to the stimulus (e.g. I’m afraid of snakes, I look at pictures of snakes until they no longer cause anxiety, then look at a real snake until there isn’t any anxiety, then maybe I can touch a snake! Boom! Cured!) Don’t get me wrong CBT can be very effect, but I do have an axe to grind with it. It seems to have its roots directly in ole’ BF Skinner’s behaviorism. I find it dehumanizing. It says, this person’s fears, anxieties, where they came from, what they represent, do not matter, we must program the person so as not to fear the thing, with little regard for what the thing is. It is also the most cookie cutter of the treatments. Work one way with all patients and it will work with all patients. But that’s my own axe don’t take it as truth.

[iii] The technical term for this is depersonalization. But that term does nothing to convey the surrealism of the state.

Boredom and the Dry Imagination

My Dear Reader,

I promise I won’t treat this as a journal very often, but this week I need to. What’s happening right now is something I was planning on writing about anyways, so why not try while it’s happening?

One trick of depression is that no two depressive experiences are ever the same. The overarching themes might be similar, the times and context, but the texture of the misery can move between a 200 thread count to 1000 thread count; it’s hard to notice. Depression is also tricky in that it feels new every time it climbs out of the muck to start chewing on you. It does not suffer from habituation, it grows from it.

This isn’t a cry for help (granted one might argue all writing is some kind of cry). However, I’ve had a few stresses this week that would push me towards the depressive side of things: the stress of starting classes (both teaching and taking), the loneliness of my apartment, the fact that my neighbors had my car towed (it was blocking there driveway a little), that annoying feeling that there’s something missing. I like to think of each depression as its own Jackson Pollack: hectic, splattered, some clearly darker than others, some less overwhelming. This Pollack might be done in mostly lighter earth tones.

The lighter shades of depression shift from misery to boredom, though the two are never fully without each other. I can flicker into a feeling of total boredom. This might better be referred to as dysthymia, an inability to experience pleasure. Of course, dysthymia is a clinical term, so it isn’t designed to carry the weight of being-in-the-world. Also the term ignores the subtleties of boredom. As I said, I can flick in and out of it for a while. There’s a long period of time that’s like a slow motion shot of someone losing their grip on the ledge of a skyscraper and falling down, their face is staunch and cold, like they don’t recognize their own fall. At first the mood state is scary at how abrupt it is. I can walk across UVM’s beautiful campus, the crystalline sunlight branching down through the scattered evergreens, warmed in my coat, inwardly laughing my beard freezing followed by the feeling that nothing I do matters and nothing I do is interesting and it will always be this way. I am not a good writer, I am not a worthwhile friend and more significantly I’m no longer interested in pursuing those two things that matter most. Best if I close off from the world.

Here, my practiced defense mechanisms kick in (I’ve worked on these things for years, like the way someone might fix up an old car, they run smooth). I can intellectually (read as, unemotionally) assess my inner world and say: this is a moment of dysthymia it will pass. Do you remember two months ago when you felt it and it passed? It will do the same. The words won’t convince me to feel better (remember you can never argue with an emotion, only the context it sits in) but they do keep my verbal thoughts busy so I don’t start panicking. It is possible to be totally bored while in the midst of a panic.

But I’ve left something out of depression’s special boredom; it’s also not a boredom that seeks to rectify itself. In fact, the usual stuff that might help me out (I could play my stupid GameBoy, or read that pile of comics) sounds not only unappealing, but almost revolting, and then a bit frustrating because until this specific moment I loved those things. It’s not the kind of boredom kids complain about on summer break. They’re ready for stimulation. The world seems dry, and you only want it to get drier, if you want anything at all, that is.

And yet, just as I might flicker into this state, I can flicker out of it. The lighter is struck and put out.

I can tell you right now, something in me is striking and snuffing the lighter. As I write this stage sets in fully and I grit my teeth and decide to add another fucking word and then it’s gone, as if a visitor without boundaries, wandering in and out of my consciousness. It is the closest anyone can get to an alien abduction.

This might happen ten times a day or once a week or twice a minute for a week or once in six months and the context is somewhere between random and predictable in that I’m sure it will happen again, I just don’t know when.  It’s as if my soul (the thing that makes me a thinking thing, a caring thing) is forced to play peekaboo with dissonance itself.

I value imagination (the thing that colors the world with shades unseen on the visible spectrum, the thing that adds new vectors to old shapes and seeks liveliness in all capacities) but when depressed boredom walks into town, it very quickly dries up one’s imagination. Colors are duller, food has less of a taste (and consequently I look for more sugary and salty foods to make up for it), my sex drive dries and the same pretty girl I made small chat with in the library not only bores me when I see her, but makes me angry. I’m angry I can’t look at her or talk to her the same way. I’m angry that flare of orange brightness in my gut in seeing just how attractive she is isn’t there to flare and blossom again. Most of all I’m wrung out.

Yet there’s another thing that persists. As I sit here, now, listening to Music with Changing Parts by Philip Glass, sitting in an ugly brown chair with wood grain that looks like a five o’clock shadow, and feeling what little I can feel as it ebbs and flows with the bizarre pulsing of Blade Runner like tones, I am writing. This might seem small, maybe like the ineffectual middle finger of a teenager to a principle, or the rantings of the hard right evangelist on a busy and atheistic college campus, but it is more than that. It is a personal victory in all of victory’s definition. You see, I now know there is a me that persists beyond pleasures and needs. There is a thing in me that will create with no impetus to do so, no inspiration, no muse. I can exist as a creative thing even in the dry nightmare scape where my mind is nothing but chalky bones in a stone covered desert.

This is not some kind of egotism, nor is it a riff on Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. For me it is something more profound. No matter how destitute depression makes existence, I can defy it. In response to stogy ole Descartes, I know I exist because I’m in enough pain that I have to do something about it, no point dawdling. But furthermore I know my existence can matter, if only in some roundabout manner, to me, and I know then that I can hang on long enough to feel that it matters as well.

If I am dried up I can wait until I’m full.

Anger, Anger Burning Bright

If variety is the spice of life, frustration is the spice of depression.  While variety offers new experience and sensation; an epicurean promise of a greater self, frustration allows the depressed person to get up and do what they need to. It is equally myopic as depression, but allows one to live with just a little bit more verve. This is not really a good thing, but in the maw of depression it’s not always bad.
In terms of gender identity and emotion, our socially constructed expectations for “man” or “woman”[i], it’s common knowledge that the acceptable masculine emotion is anger. In fact the first time I can remember feeling proud of myself was as an eight year old soccer player (I’d never really tasted pride as a demonstration of desirable social traits in a social environment until then. I was not aware I was filling a gender role. I was, until that point, only aware of the social world insomuch as someone was nice or funny or mean or an adult [and thus wielded a kind of primordial authority]). I was a gawky little kid that had a gait similar to a spider monkey and the best I could do for the team was run fast and try to kick the ball towards the other goal. No sports IQ (still no sports IQ). During one practice my coach had yelled at the team about our lack of hustle and lack of toughness. He yelled at a couple kids that started crying. I got scared and mad. In one drill, snorting in and out like a crazed horse, I slide tackled a friend and he fell over. He was dazed and bleeding as my coach looked at me and told me that that was a good job and I wanted to see a lot more of it.[ii]

But in terms of messages that one was much more overt than other ways the rules of gender are passed on. Usually it’s by role modelling. For years I never saw my father cry. A basic and important method of grieving and I did not see him cry. Even when he lost his father I didn’t see my dad cry. I think that if he did, he hid it from me because he didn’t want to scare me. His desires were noble but they were perverted by notions like sadness scares kids and has to be hidden from them (some kids get scared, but others are innately caring and empathic and wish to sooth anyone that’s upset. What is this invisible wall that leaves us mourning in separate cubicles?).

Unfortunately, there’s a great circular logic that underlies men and anger. Anger, more than sadness, seeks to act. Anger simply wants to get angrier until one acts. Anger is also a drive that tricks us into thinking we’re holding the wheel. Action is the province of masculinity (just see what a big deal people make out of women heading action movies. Is it seriously that difficult to imagine a woman being decisive that it’s a big shock that has to be rabidly covered and commented on? I know plenty of decisive women. There are no “strong women,” there are women who, due to their character make tough decision with integrity. Just because your genitalia lives inside you or hangs outside or something between says nothing of how “strong” you might be. This might have something to do with violence being equivocated with strength, but it’s so silly to be shocked by a woman portrayed as strong that frustrates the hell out of me) Anger in action falsely sooths and covers an insecurities. Action and decisiveness are the provence of men. Why? Because not acting is for girls and pussies (just look at Hamlet). Why? Because men get angry.

There’s a hidden trap here: emotions need practice to stay immediate and vital. The more someone shuts of their desire to weep or laugh or feel, the less these things live in them. The person’s capacity is reduced. It can get to the point that someone becomes unknowingly dysthymic. They can laugh without feeling the joy of humor, cry without feeling true sorrow. This is what men do to men when anger is the pinnacle of masculinity: we rob each other of simple humanities.

But depression, as usual, turns the tables. One of the easiest ways to get a depressed person out of bed is to make them mad. In fact, in Freud’s famous paper “Mourning and Melancholia” he sees anger as the vital difference between the two states. Anger is turned toward the ego (or inward) during Melancholia. Even in depressions most sluggish moments, the moments where someone can’t get out of bed/off the couch/out of the chair there’s a low fever of anger (along with a slew of other unpleasant emotions). In an “activated” major depression the depressed person is anxious and irritable. It’s also in this state that the depressed person is most likely to commit suicide (or self-murder).

I could tell you that it feels better to be in emotional pain and mobile rather than emotional pain and bedridden, but that’s not entirely true. While we tend to talk about people being “overcome” or “overwhelmed” by anger most of the time angry people[iii] are aware they are angry and may fight desperately with their angry urges. I’ve been in that place. It might go something like this:

I’m getting in the card to drive to work and a can feel a thrumming in my chest that’s tight and energizing and wants someone to hurt. I’ve gotta buckle my seatbelt but I hate the fucking zipping sound it makes and who the fuck is anyone to tell me when to buckle my fucking seat belt? I start the car up and the radio doesn’t work and any little corner that can catch me up now gets all of my attention instead of 10% of it. And who broke my fucking radio. Some schmoe walks by and I wish it was that dirty piece of shit. And another lighter voice asks: why am I so mad? And I feel a little ashamed and then fuck that I’ll fucking feel how I’ll feel and then there’s an automatic and involuntary picture of me sinking my thumbs into that guy’s eye sockets and I feel revulsion and release and some part of me is saying I need to stop while the other part starts driving me forward. And after a few hours of this I’m terrified of myself and just want to be alone so I don’t hurt anyone (but I know if I’m alone too long this might all turn on me and anger is okay with that; it just wants to devour) but I’m eating dinner with my family and my dad starts talking about Ted Cruz and that thrumming erupts inside and I snort and try to hold it back but it feels so right so fuck this “Ted Cruz is a piece of shit” and now I’ve offended my dad but who cares, I said my truth and Cruz is an asshole and so on and so on until the mood ebbs on its own and I sit back and pray I didn’t do anything irreparable.

Anger may bring action, but it’s also a constant cage, and deeply difficult to tame. And remember what’s on the line: suicide, the ultimate endpoint of untreated depression is self-murder. It is anger-run-amok turned inwards. [iv]

You can tell the merit of an emotion by how it ages. Anger does not age well. I mentioned this to a friend/former professor who responded: that’s quite right, whereas some emotions are like wine, breathing, deepening becoming richer anger is like milk; it spoils quickly when left out and becomes hard.

The first step is breathing, the second compassion, the third and fourth and fifth and so forth are time/practice.

Thanks to Gina Barreca and Mark Hengstler for their helpful discussions and wise input.

[i] I am not claiming men or women are the only gender identities. I don’t want to ignore trans either, but I don’t feel confident in my ability to speak to the pains and trials of someone who identifies as trans. I’m sure it must be difficult just trying to be recognized by some, and traumatizing when others act with repulsion. As much as I wish I could write about this, I can’t do it yet. I have no real experience with a trans identity and should not speak for the community.

[ii] But he really was a good person. A few years later I was at a track meet and he was reffing. I was perched on the track line with five other boys ready to run a spirit. I was also jittery and nervous as hell. He blew the whistle for us to run and the five of us took off. Except, I lost my balance and crashed into the track’s grits shoulder first. I got up, and instead of running I just looked around plaintively at the parents on the sidelines. After a few cold moments he blew his whistle again and said there’d been a false start. There hadn’t been a false start. We restarted the race and I came in some position (it doesn’t really matter). The point being, he did not have to do that, but he saved me a whole lot of embarrassment. And even though this seems trivial, a less sensitive person might have ignored it, said tough luck, not even realized they were in a position to save a clumsy kid from some humiliation. He did realize this and he acted on it. It was a thoughtful, generous thing to do. He was just as capable of sincere generosity as he was imposing angry cruelty.

[iii] People who are consistently angry are not always categorically depressed, but they do have what’s called a “mood disorder” in which their basic state has somehow (read somehow as abuse, whether physical or emotional [although all physical abuse is also emotional abuse] and years of others modelling anger as an agent of action etc. everything we’ve talked about so far) has been rooted in a single basic emotion that is limiting to them in some fashion.

[iv] I’m not saying it should be controlled. The way I try and help my anger is to treat it with compassion (as I’ve mentioned in the post “Hot Glued to the Cold Screen.”

The Horror Pictures

I think in pictures. That means, as I write these words here I see and hear them but I relate to them, or make sense of them, first through somewhat amorphous shapes that are specific to the words and at the same time unintelligible outside the confines of my head. For example, the word “word” often appears in me as a long white bubble made of chewing gum. When I read a sentence it appears as a growing structure, each word both an instance on the structure and part of its essence.  This is actually pretty common. There are a few terms for it, “visual thinking” being among the more popular. However, I do it for everything. Images in front of me automatically and subconsciously become mental images as well. For another example, Darth Vader appears as a black hole vortex, spinning inward, sometimes strobing light. I can watch a still image and see a laser light show, for better or worse.

Emotions also render themselves this way, so while the bodily sensations accompanying fear and the word fear are entirely different they have a mutual language of hermetically sealed hieroglyphs that grow and swirl. I had no idea if this had any value or significance until I realized, like most things, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.

Because sometimes if I’m in a just-bad-enough mood that mental landscape is stormy. It’s hard to get out of my own head because I’m always picturing those pronounced abstract images (a room with white walls spilling out fungal fingers that make me feel sick and claustrophobic) and thinking about them only makes them more pronounced. But in calmer tides it’s a way for supposedly divided realms of sensation to find a solid middle ground.[i]

When I’m depressed I might have a whole greenhouse of wild flora growing and twisting in me, but it always seems dark. I can never pay attention to it. I need atavistic emotions to distract me from my deadness. It’s why I like watching horror movies.

I do not watch Saw, Hostel, or any torture porn. While I can understand the sick thrill one gets from it, it’s just a wolf I don’t want to feed. The less gore, the more it relies on sustained tension, the better.  Unlike thrillers or dramas, horror requires a specific mood to be created and slowly notched up. Silence of the Lamb in all its brilliance and splatter, is not a full on horror movie. Lambs still relies mostly on its plot point to bring the audience through (what will Hannibal Lector do next? Will they find the killer?). The tension and fear of the movie are byproducts of a tightly knit plot. Good horror, on the other hand, uses plot points to intensify an atmosphere of dread. This is one of the reasons a well laid out setting is so key to horror. We have to be familiar enough with the mansion in The Shining or the Nostromo in Alien (remember that both films very quickly give us a tour of the setting through characters placed in various important locales that the film then cuts to) so that the setting itself can turn on us. Like the castle in A Turn of the Screw, it must invite us only to devolve into something Other. A place we are introduced to and familiar with must reveal its hidden deviance.

It’s this emphasis on setting as emotional place that I find so appealing about good horror. It gives me a mental image that is also an emotional blueprint that the movie will be walking around, pinging specific areas with specific emotions. It’s easy to imagine The Shining’s Danny big wheeling down the long corridors of The Stanley Hotel as a dotted line extending on the 2-dimensional floor plans of the building itself, each hallway he turns down building tension and anxiety, the map warping a bit before he witnesses something truly frightful.

Horror movies in general often look the way depression looks: a black hole with the unknowable at the center. And in a weird way this mirroring of images often helps me cope with my depression. One of my favorite horror movies plays with setting in a really interesting way. In The Blair Witch Project we’re given multiple shots of the map which doesn’t matter because the victims don’t really know where they’re headed, and when they do circle around onto familiar terror it yields to fear rather than relief. They know they’re trapped and have to live another dark night of the soul. The only way they can make progress is by encountering areas that are terrifying in context of where they’re been. A bunch of stick men hanging in trees is not in itself creepy and, with a different emotional context, be sort of magical. But when they find the hanging stick figures its throat chokingly creepy. They’ve been here before only now some other intelligence has left behind some unknowable ritual. The three documenters circle the dark noumenon that seems to be at the center of the forest. The whole movie hangs in me like an old, yellowing projector screen. A dark nothing at the very center surrounded by footsteps that weave in and out of the blanks arms reaching out of that center. Depression often looks the same way. For a brief while I’m able to watch, from a safe distance, that haunts me. And for a brief while I feel like can understand something that can’t really be understood. For a brief while I feel like I have knowledge over depression; I can learn its shape and texture without having to delve into it again. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it’s not.

But the further point is this: finding patterns in myself that are out of the way and difficult to get to can help me. Even if it’s just a bit. I have a feeling that if I only thought in sounds there would be some way that could help my depression. My point is one has to be resourceful when looking for ways to cope. I’m mostly sure that no doctor would have recommended a dash of self-obsession with a whole bunch of horror movies as a way to deal with depression. But it is something that works, if only for an image or two.

[i] Thinking in moving objects is one thing that’s always made it hard for me to buy into the Kantian Post-Romantic divide of emotions and reason. For myself they’re always overlapping, interwoven, sown up into one and the same. The urge for anger is accompanied by a maroon slush that bursts forth, just as the internal self-talk “Hey buddy, calm yourself” is a crack of bluish light that wraps itself around said slush and sooths it.” And that’s the most pronounced and stereotypical reason-as-master-of-passion that I could think of. Moreover, thinking compassionately requires us to use emotional reasoning. A step by step assessment that engages our feelings of empathy, care, understanding. Notice that understanding is both emotional and not. The point being there is a place beyond the dualistic thinking of the self as divided.

Earplugs

I was 25. I was walking around one of those new mall-complexes (the ones with mostly high end stores and restaurants and apartments/condos on top that try to recreate an old city feel of market and residence, only it doesn’t have any feeling of community and feels like hollow capitalist posturing [the streets, as packed as they might be, feel consistently empty, because that community feeling just doesn’t exist. A lot of people coming to a place to shop at a bunch of high end stores doesn’t bind people, unless it’s in only the most superficial manner[i]]).  The street was new enough that the black asphalt had a slight laminated look, even in the dull winter sun when streets tend to seem laconic and sleepy rather than sharp and sparkling, the way they do when the summer sun burns of them. The shops effectively built a wind tunnel, albeit one walled with high end consumer products (Apple, gourmet chocolate, a bunch of inscrutable clothing stores that carry three blouses a piece it seems like). All I can really hear is the dim thump of my heart. I’m walking around, face red and windblown and squinting, with thick orange earplugs expertly embedded in my ear canals. I say expertly because by this point in my life I’ve put earplugs in a few thousand times; multiple times a day, every day for years. I’ve honed it from a practice to a craft to an art: Cock my head to one side, open my jaw to open the ear canal, right hand goes up and pulls on ear lobe to extend opening, left hand is rolling earplug into needle like shape, earplug is inserted without hesitance, wait and let ear plug, repeat the process for the left ear changing hands as needed.

I’ve done this multiple times a day for years because I have (had then, still do now even though it’s in a different form) PTSD; post-traumatic stress disorder. Basically, I lived through something (which I’ll get to, but not in this particular post) which peeled back what little was covering my nerves and left them to the cold winds. The worst was being in a perfectly peaceful shopping area with complete strangers going about their own business in that bickering-giggling way that I imagined contentment might sound like. It was the worst because I knew that the fact I was overwhelmed in a nice area was weird. I probably looked weird, or at least I was really worried. In fact every stimulus gave me something to worry about. My brain was rewired to look for possible threats. This is often explained with a guy coming back from Iraq hitting the floor after hearing a car backfire, and this can be true, but the example does enough wrong to mislead those without PTSD into thinking they can never understand it[ii]. This example does a few things: it highlights the external reactions to stimuli, it downplays in incessant rumble of anxiety that causes the above reaction, and it allocates PTSD to an Other place (war). All of these distance the listener from the idea that they might be able to—under case “u”—understand PTSD. I’d like to extend the example a bit. Afterwards the man is embarrassed and angry and confused. He thinks he shouldn’t feel any of these things so he only becomes more embarrassed. He puts his hands in his jackets and squeezes his fists so hard that the whiteness extends from his knuckles to the whole back of his shaking hands. He chews the inside of his cheek until a bleeds a bit because it somehow calms the tightness in his chest. He can hardly hear anything besides voices that are obviously his own thoughts and also something other. The voices seem girlish. Was it those women who gasped and hightailed it away from him? He hears them talk about being a psycho. He was determined not to let this happen. Maybe he drinks, maybe he yells, maybe he cries, but eventually that hard edged anxiety fills him up again.

The thing is, everything I added is uncomfortable stuff I’ve held in my head and heart and I sure as hell didn’t get sent to war. So I tried to cope with it by controlling the intensity of the stimuli. Thus the earplugs. It was not a great strategy.  Or rather, it wasn’t a great strategy because it worked too well. I could walk down the side of the road no longer feeling jarred by a dog barking five miles away. If I stumbled into the road I’d only be jarred by the force of a car, rather than the sound of it coming. But, more than that, I started shutting off stimulus wherever I could unless I was perfectly in control of a situation. I spent more time playing video games and less time reading and writing[iii]. I was living in a consistently more frightening place. No one really knew why. I didn’t even know it was happening. And then something would upset me and I’d have to go outside and furiously chop at a stump with a hatchet or hit a boulder with a sledge hammer, both cases until my hands bled and I’d spent all my strength so I could finally cry because I had nothing to hold myself back. All of this getting worse because I was hurt and I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t put the earplugs in to block the world out; I put them in to stop hearing myself.

The shoppers at the mall-complex weren’t cackling, they were laughing. I was involuntarily creating a terrifying world and warning myself about how dangerous it was to the point where I was so numbed with pain that I would get afraid I was some kind of sociopath with the capacity to take life because I swear that guy on the corner in front of the Barnes and Noble has a knife and I’d take that fucker out before he got to me and this whole train of thought would end up scaring me even more. If it sounds crazy I’m a little glad, but there’s also an ingenious logic to anxiety spirals that makes them all the more frustrating and dangerous (if confused, follow logic set in fn. III but use anxiety instead of compassion).

I can say this with some finality. I don’t use earplugs to avoid myself anymore. Most days I can be good to my pain. Not every day, but most days. It also isn’t steady progress. I have to trust the progress is happening and only in retrospect does it seem like I’ve been anywhere. But I have to believe, I don’t have a real choice. I have to believe I really have made progress, right?

[i] In fact it was actually right outside the mall-complex Blue Back Square where I saw two white men, one around sixty, but a money-healthy sixty (tan skin, white button down with a little chest hair showing) and another one with pitch dark hair, talking about their respective Benz’s. They both owned the same model, just different colors. The thing is, there was nothing weary or jaded about their conversation. Each man’s eyes beamed with the exuberant excitement I know I get from having a damn good conversation with a stranger: connecting and feeling connected too. The sad part though was that it was through the parlance of their cars’ accoutrements (not even the workings of the engine, the kind of car stuff I’ve always admired and wanted to know more about, what makes the damn things work and all their intricacies). It was stuff like “Oh did you get the heated seat?” “Yeah I love them”. There’s nothing inherently bad about this kind of discussion, it’s just the material stuff seemed to get in the way of what the men really enjoyed about the interaction with each other. The exciting part was the fact they were both so open to talk, not that they had similar cars. The cars became really expensive excuses to realize a stranger can be fully real and open and revitalizing to us, rather than an anonymous face. But, once the amenities of the cars were all listed the conversation started stalling until it came to a halt and they said well nice talking but gotta go. I like to think (as childish and naïve as it may sound) that they became friends, but I really doubt it. There are so many weird rules about making friends as men. It’s frowned upon to just meet someone randomly and become friends because it seems too close to romantic and quite possibly gay (Eve Sedgewick goes into great and interesting detail about this in her work on homosociality among men. Epistemology of the Closet is a good place to start). It is not sad that they had something in common, it is upsetting that this commonality was also a limitation to their interaction. Something ventured and nothing gained.

[ii] If I have a strong bias it’s this: I believe humans (some more than others) are incapable of incredible compassion and imaginative force. I believe that there is a meeting ground upon which differences can be understood. The idea that depression can never be understood or PTSD can never be understood are helpful in an argument against some a-hole that thinks they’re just a failure to have a strong will, but they stop being helpful once they tell those untouched by the emotional violence of these conditions that they shouldn’t even try to understand. No, you should, and if not for the benefit of those around you then at least for your own benefit. Cynical as this argument is, attempting to really truly hear someone’s pain and the particular ways it cuts them can deepen you capacity for compassion, your ability to tolerate stress, your ability to deal with your own special pain. I’m serious with this. So, of course you can never truly understand the particular pain of a cold dark afternoon when depression rears its head and sinks and teeth, but the attempt can deepen you as a listener. There’s a lot of talk about how millennials are self-absorbed and materialistic, but I haven’t found this to be true. I found that people really do want to “connect,” we just aren’t great at it. What tended to be left out of the narrative (or at least mine) was the fact that real connection has nothing to do with pure euphoric love and a whole lot to do with the ability to hold the anger or sadness of others in your chest and let it sit without reacting back in a defensive way. Look, before this gets too long, obviously anecdotal evidence and assertion won’t win any arguments and they shouldn’t, but what would you rather believe—that Millennials are narcissistic knuckleheads that’ll screw the whole world up or that maybe there are thing about our generation that are like every damn generation before us and some things that are a lot different and that most of us want to work hard and connect and feel enough to be able to look back and say “okay I really did live”? What do you think would be better for you, in your gut, to believe”

[iii] This might not sound like it makes sense, but hear me out: Part of PTSD is a constant running away from how I really feel. I never wanted to engage with anything I had to really concentrate on because that meant that outside my own cone of concentration my subconscious was allowed to bring up any old painful thing it felt was necessary. Painful memories or even simple feelings that don’t really have a home, raise to consciousness because they need attention and compassion. I didn’t want this. I’d feel my fear and anger and get confused and angry, spiraling out into a panic attack. If there’s any big change I’ve been allowed to work on it’s been how I react to my reactions. It sounds too subtle to matter but it does. The more I tell myself it’s okay to be in pain the less pain, conversely, I’ll be in because when said pain rises to conscious thought I can coddle it, play catch with it, let it hang out in my mental house until it changes a bit.