Weightless Burdens

This brief Easter Morning I was sitting on a picnic table in my friends’ apartment’s backyard. They’d invited me for brunch, but had yet to return from Church service. The sun was blunt and hot despite the drafty air and intermittent clouds. A few minutes earlier their landlord had come outside, (understandably) asking what I was doing, as I didn’t look like one of his tenants. I explained and he went off to talk with a tall man with a jaw the shape of a dangling slide. I noticed how much I was staring and tried to refocus.

I watched the sky for nothing and I heard the two men talking over each other. There was nothing sharp about their conversation, but in my head it was getting barbed. Soon enough I was sitting outside on a lovely Sunday afternoon imagining the jawless man shooting the landlord in the upper shoulder. As a few song birds twittered by I imagined the blood gurgling from his shoulder and mouth as I applied pressure. I was also somehow talking to an ambulance driver who was the 911 operator who was telling me I was killing the man, and if I let up pressure he would bleed out. Then I was arrested, my face pressed up against the girth of his chest. A bird tweeted and I looked up from my clenched hands at the nice morning and wondered why I’d slipped into a thought pattern that was so frightening.

There’s a wonderful misnomer about mental illness: it’s all in your head. It’s wonderful on the basis of how patently false it is. Sure without a brain I wouldn’t live with mental illness, but without a brain… need I even continue that line of thought? Feelings tend to live in our bodies. Those butterflies are in your stomach, not because you ate them, but because the nervous system as a lot of receptors in the guts. Things are literally felt in your guts.

See, when I came to and convinced my thoughts they were way off base, my body was the shape of a clenched fist and held just as tight.  In fact, it had been tense and clenched before I started thinking of such grisly stuff.

One of the stranger parts of PTSD is that it keeps the Sympathetic Nervous System (this would be the part of us that gets sent into fight or flight mode) on high alert. I am constantly set to run up on someone or run off. Eventually this state is the new normal. I don’t even really register that my hands are shaking, I’m staring out the window to feel safe, or a single loud noise gives me a small anxiety attack, because it all happens so often that it seems par for the course.

The thing is, my idle imagination picks up a lot of clues from my bodily state. My mind and body, like some karmic wheel rolling to hell, set each other off. I physically feel like I’m prepared for a threat so my brain starts thinking about something threatening using whatever’s at hand (and does a pretty good job, not to be too self-congratulatory or anything). I’m torn over whether to tell you any of the gruesome chains of thoughts I’ve had because they’re horrific enough that I feel ashamed of them, like they’re my fault or something. And yeah, they do come from me, but should I add shame onto the pile difficult emotions? The easy answer is no. But try this on for size. I was sitting on a beach next to a lake and there was a little kid five feet away. He seemed a year and a half at the oldest. He had this lovely dopey smile with his tongue sticking out has he smacked the dirt in this spastic burst of movement. And there was his father who looked young enough, had a beard, sunglasses, was reading. And I wondered what would happen if the little kid tried to fit his shovel (it was about the size of his head) into and down his throat? What if the father got sick of the child and did? What if I did? That was the worst question. What if I did? Because I stopped trusting myself. What kind of person could think of this evil shit? That’s what I thought to myself. I’m not a bad person and I’d never do that. That’s how I comforted myself. Why did these terrible thoughts keep popping up? I still didn’t trust myself.

And if you thought that way quite frequently, could you forgive yourself? If every time your brain idled, you thought of the most gruesome scenario (run someone over, bash your teeth out one by one with a rock) and they weren’t even desires, they were fears (tear out that girl’s fingernails, snap that dog’s leg feeling the fur and bones in your warm hands) that you were afraid could exist because you’d been a part of something equally as frightening and brutal and objectifying and humiliating, then what? How would you comfort yourself? It becomes very difficult not to blame oneself, if only to feel like you have control over something, even if that something does not help you.

When I was younger I spent my imagination of friendly creatures in the woods and giant animals and planet hopping aliens landing to find friends. There were darker moments, but not like this, not like the inner slaughterhouse I’m afraid to show anyone (should anyone even see it? Does that help?)

I am certain it’s exhausting. I am certain exercise really truly helps. I am certain my friends and family (as fraught as I might be around them) help. I am certain writing does something. But who am I, this person that thinks these sinful things? Certainly I don’t think these things and something else should be blamed. In my desperate moments everyone would be my priest and I’d spill my evil thoughts and beg for forgiveness; but that wouldn’t really help.

I can tell myself they’re just thoughts, but when that grow out of nothing but a conversation in the distance on a lovely spring morning while I’m waiting for my friends; it’s hard to see these thoughts as just thoughts.

Praying the Pen is Mightier

Yesterday I was in therapy creating this terrifying choice: graduate and get a nine to five and work my way into a position with a title something along the lines of “Assistant Vice Executive Sales in Marketing Strategy” and enjoy a steady income, but see a large part of myself leak out or die or be forcibly removed from my sense of self or just wither away in darkness like a now useless memory OR exist as a self-imposed starving writer, struggling in to make meaning while hating myself for knowing, deep down, the fact that this was self-imposed made it a front and thus meaningless. Like I said, I don’t rationally think my future will go either way, but emotionally those two lanes represent very real fears that I’ve been carrying along for a very long time.

Earlier in the week I’d needed to use an old external hard drive to show a movie clip in one of my classes and I found my first “real” journal on the hard drive. It’s almost a decade old at this point. The first entry was titled “Why Do I Want to Write?” and it reeked of the same self-obsessed confusion my binary future reeks of. There was an Ouroboros like element to both the question and the entry in that I was attempting to deal with a feeling or drive by trying to write/think my way out of it, hoping that the action of writing/thinking might be enough stave off the feeling or drive which in turn begs the question of why I want to write to begin with.  Many writers who are asked why they want to write (wisely) reply they just always have. There’s no need to go making up stories over it. None the less sometimes knowingly crafting a fiction and holding it as truth can settle things if it’s crafted in a way that the emotions are similar in both truth and fiction.

Mine might go something like this: In third grade I spent a lot of time wishing things were different; more interesting. I wanted monsters to plod through the woods while I slept, so I willfully created some. Our house was surrounded by woods and prickers and I’d spend lots of time with my brother and sister carefully traversing all the pricker bushes. It was a labor intensive process. There was one bush that was so dense and wrapped up in itself that it looked like a cave, there was even an opening. And like the best imaginary places, it was impossible to get inside the cave because the walls and floor were bloodletting thorns. I imagined a group of giant foxes lived there; foxes that sneered before they chewed your neck. My siblings and I treated the whole forest this way. Different plants were places of mystery and fear and joy. Dionysus was still very alive in my woods.

In sixth grade I wrote a short story about the time my dad and my brother and me rode the wooden rollercoaster at Lake Compounce. My dad loves rollercoasters (aaand so do I) and belonged to a rollercoaster club (I still don’t know what that was or is). One of the best things about wooden roller coasters is their sounds. They actually clack in a way that’s nearly soothing. My dad, instead of yelling, would burst out laughing while he was riding. I loved those moments because he was exuberant and alive and I had no idea what he was laughing at. I was seated with my dad and brother and being in sixth/fifth grade between us, when the restraint bar was put in place it secured my dad more than us. This was supposedly the longest rollercoaster in the northeast or something, but the story didn’t start until the end of the ride when there was a series of hillocks you road over at great speed. My brother, not being well strapped in, started hitting his head on the bar, and my dad, alive and exuberant and unaware of my brother’s head banging, started laughing. Sitting between two people I loved, I heard the clacking of the track, the laughter of my dad, and my brother yelling at my dad between forehead hits to the bar saying, “Don’t!” Whumph “Laugh” Whumph “AT ME” Whumph. I gave this story to my teacher and she laughed and it felt good. And it felt good because it hadn’t happened that neatly. My dad laughed and my brother yelled at him but the rest was my invention.

And this is what seemed attractive and good. I could invite experience, scary experience, traumatic experience and pull yarn from it, weave and knit with it. I felt some control. It’s no wonder my fears have to do with losing control and moreover losing the thing that gives me the fantasy of controller.

But there’s something else, that I haven’t told you yet.

There have been too many times I’ve found myself lying in bed, immobilized by thought, praying it might mean something. The answer something gave me to give to myself was writing. It can be fodder John, all of this. I didn’t have any way of knowing if it was a good or a bad thing to fetishize writing in this manner, to turn it from a pastime to a lifeline. The older I got the more it took on that role. But here’s the thing about really good fiction, believe it long enough and it comes true.

There was a night with my brother where we fought. It was bad. It left me with PTSD. It was no one’s fault but it would have been easy to turn an evening where I thought my brother was going to kill himself so in stopping him he almost killed me into a belief that the world was cruel, he was cruel, but I didn’t do that. That night, under the light of a single lamp, in the near dark, my rage against his rage it was as if my consciousness was broken into different strands. One of them was screaming, crying, reacting in a human way, a caring way. One of them was simply seeing, comparing how big he’d grown from when we’d wrestle when we were younger, another simply told me over and over you will write about this. That was the only strand that sought to rescue the moment from what it could have become. In a perverse manner, what I’d been through with Tom became valuable. I could still love him because of it. Or, that’s what I tell myself. Probably I would still love him no matter what.

Of course all this still leaves me in a pretty complicated place. I love something I’ve fetishized, something that’s sometimes unrealistic in ambition, something I’m doing right now. And I think I love it out of fear. I think I love it the way one loves a golden calf: because it feels like it protects me in a world that feels very scary. And I know cognitively that the world isn’t always scary, but for now, for me, it is. And for now I have this.

What We Do We Do in the Dark

The other evening I was meditating. I had not meditated in a long time. I was sitting in my room. There’s a sodium orange streetlamp that hangs level with my bedroom windows. At night it casts my room, with the windows’ rough cotton curtains, in a pale orange, like a red light district as dawn creeps in. To be honest, the light glow of the room is quite nice, the orange-pink light is received by the bed and bureau, but not reflected, as if the light itself is consumed. It looks empty and lifeless outside. Sometimes a cars  pass, and sheering sound of tires of on a wet road are muffled by the fact that I am inside.

Eventually I get to a point in meditation where thoughts appear like comets, leaving flecks of themselves on earth as they pass my point of consciousness. Often times I simply sit and hurt. Though you would not be able to tell.

I was meditating and an old voice that hangs around at the dive bar that is my head and started miming words, so I started paying attention. Or rather, my attention was effortlessly drawn to in idea I’d known intimately once, but long forgotten, like the way one forgets the precise and peculiar peccadillos of a lover. And it was saying, “Everyone deserves love” “why?” “Just for existing, there is no why” “Everyone deserves love.” And in that moment my chest and bowels and throat were tight but I felt a lifting, as if sighing actually worked again. I felt a valve open and some of this weird faith comes in.

I remember the last time I started thinking this way. It was, maybe six years ago, maybe more, it was everything my continually skeptical, cynical, unknowingly nihilistic self-hated. And to be honest there was some decent reasoning in disliking the mantra: it was a cliché. It hurt when people would chant something to others as advice or comfort (these are totally different things that tend to be mixed up. Never ask for comfort from someone who traffics primarily in advice) and there would be a totally lack of connection, as if the cliché itself kept people from engage with each other.[i]

And of course, this makes sense. Intimacy is scary, we aren’t taught much about our emotions and what we’re taught tends to be really fucked up and maybe most importantly, it is so difficult to capture any essence of what travels around in us from one moment to the next and hope to share that in an understandable manner. It’s damn near impossible and yet we have to continue trying. Don’t ask why; just take my word for it.

I used to ask why after every question. I loved my curiosity, but it kills cats for a reason: it’s not that it delivers us dangerous answer, but rather, that we can’t live on a life line of constant questions, or at least I can’t when basic self-acceptance is something I have to work for. And this, I think, is the purpose of faith; not to believe in ideas or constructs, but to trust certain feelings that are in themselves explanations of why they should stick around. I could just as easily put faith in depression and start thinking (again, like a rational egotist/neo-Darwinian who doesn’t seem to care about existential problems) humans are by default self-serving and desire is the only thing to satiate (or will, or whatever other boogeyman like drive you want to insert). The world is a much scarier place if it put faith into that feeling of fear and competition and domination. I would rather leave it in the hands of a generous idea and an intelligently compassionate feeling: everybody deserves love. Even when I hate myself for being a jealous, self-serving bastard: still deserve it. And you, yeah you deserve it all the time. And it’s sappy and that’s hard for me to stand behind such a sappy cliché and evangelize it, but, fuck it: I do.

The thing is, I have to remember this emotionally which is really hard to do during the day when I’m busy with less meaningful shit. I have to do it in the dark and hope that I can share those dark moments with someone might agree.

[i] Quick example: Trevor walks into the office. “How are you Trisha?” he says with good intention. “Not great Trev, broke up with Jake a few days ago. I’m having a hard time.” “That stinks, but life goes on, right? Now’s a great time to work on yourself” “Yeah… So how are you?” “Same, not great. We caught Jeremy starting a fight. I don’t get it. I never fought, I feel like I might be spending too much time here.” “Well, this too shall pass, right? Maybe it’s a phase” “Yeah” Trevor goes to his cubicle and later talks to Trisha about the weather. Then they get in separate cars and drive on separate roads and sleep.

Q is for Questioning

One wonderful thing about anxiety disorders is the moment the anxiety takes a break. At nineteen I was deep inside my first extended bought of anxiety; the kind of anxiety that made me feel as if there were maggots having an ungodly orgy under my skin, squirming relentlessly. I was sitting on the couch in my room; it was a dark and otherwise pleasant summer night. I was trying to pay attention to “Mind Games” by John Lennon when the anxiety broke, if only for a moment. It was as if my subconscious had heard his lyrics and decided to cut me a break. I felt relief. I felt like a gently rocking rowboat in an endless ocean, slowly bobbing, waiting for the next wave to come, but laughing in the meantime. What else could I do?

In retrospect it’s hard to make sense of this initial anxiety order. It came out of nowhere and clung to me like an Alien face-hugger for months (until I started taking the numbing, but welcome medication Paxil). I was afraid and convinced I was gay.

Full disclosure: when I was in middle school I was a fearful bigot. It was actually my church Pastor that challenged me about sexuality. I was a 12 year-old and we were discussing sexuality in relation to the church for some Boy Scout thing. She asked me if I thought it would be alright for two men or two women to get married. I said I didn’t agree with homosexuality (whatever the fuck that actually means[i]). She asked me why and answered that I couldn’t answer. In fact, part of me thought she wanted to hear that I agreed with Leviticus and Romans II and that it was a doggone sin. That was not the case—in addition to that neither Leviticus or Romans II, when read critically, actually say much about homosexuality, but that’s a whole ‘nother argument.

So I was 12 and in middle school and trying to make sense of  what the hell queerness was and why everyone seemed to hate it so much. I probably let a lot of that environment leak into my own opinions. I probably got afraid I could be gay, the same way someone in the USSR might have gotten afraid they didn’t really believe in Stalin and his communism. I problem held deep seated and uncomfortable feelings that queerness was still “bad” despite consciously trying to change this idea.

I cannot date when it really started, but I do remember driving with my father up a hill in Glastobury, CT thinking, okay, if I’m gay I’m just gonna accept it right here and now. I had an anxiety attack. I kept it hidden from my dad by clenching every muscle in my body. He didn’t know because I was scared to let him. The ironic part? He would have talked to me in a calm and levelheaded manner, telling me that being gay was fine. It was also fine if I was straight.

Not only was this uncomfortable, it was new. I didn’t know anything about anxiety disorders; my mind was a great untamed landscape that was more to be feared than trusted, with its roving thought patterns and flora that would lash out with stinging words. Needless to say, I wasn’t able to accept my gayness. Mostly because I wasn’t gay; but, I don’t think I had a compassionate place inside me to examine these frustrations without judging myself, so instead I started developing obsessive compulsive tendencies.

I spent hours researching “ways to tell if you’re gay” (even writing that still makes me shudder with trepidation). I came across a now infamous and largely stupid study that showed gay men had a longer ring finger than pointer finger… or was it that the fingers were about even? It had something to do with testosterone because obviously gay men are less masculine than heterosexual men (again an entire ‘nother problem to unpack). But this wasn’t enough because I could make my fingers look about equal or make my ring finder look longer; and I did, for hours.

Things started reaching a fever pitch. I was working at a golf course taking care of golf carts and I stopped talking to my fellow co-workers because I was going over that last fact I’d just looked up on the internet, like: a gay man’s hair tends to swirl counter-clockwise, mine is clockwise, why doesn’t that make me feel better?

Eventually it reached a point where I decided to masturbate to gay porn as some ultimate test. I waited ‘til the house was empty, opened up my laptop, did the search, watched for a moment and felt a deep and ugly revulsion come up inside me that I was sure could have been arousal. Shaking and shaken, I went to the garage and grabbed a sledgehammer and went to the woods and smashed a boulder until my hands blend. Then assume this hammer use was just sublimation.

The thing is, I felt like I was wrong for daring to asking these questions, like sexuality was a given and everyone knew theirs. I took it as a sign that if I was struggling I was by default gay. Most of this anxiety came from a homophobic place and I knew it. If I was queer I just wanted to accept myself as being queer, but something kept getting in the way. In a weird way, I’d dug out a closet that never existed before; I was hiding from people the fact that I felt hurt because I couldn’t find a solid foundation in my sexuality. Yes, I recalled the countless times I’d had some awkward woody around a girl I thought was attractive, but my anxiety riddled mind just assumed those were all fetishized moments or repressed homosexual urges or whatever psychological/psychoanalytic theory I’d recently read.

And then there was that break: John Lennon singing “Mind Games.” It was an unexpected moment of synchronicity. My mind was at rest for a moment and I saw the structure of what was going on. In a very strange way my obsession with sexuality had nothing to do with sexuality and I certainly wasn’t going to learn what turned me on in my homemade laboratories. You see, the best I can understand was that I had a lot of failures with girls in the past and I took that to mean I wasn’t ever really attracted to them, or not meant to be with them. Girls scared me, sex scared me, but everything I saw told me I needed to be having sex as much as possible all the time. And, living in a society that emphasized sexuality as a binary rather than a spectrum or a multiplicity, the only logical alternative was the seeming fact I was gay. That’s why there were some girls I wasn’t interested in. That’s why I felt uncomfortable having sex with the idea of sex at that point in my life.

This insight didn’t “cure” me (it goes without saying that queerness never needs curing, it’s a compassionate take on sexuality that widens what we know to be human) but, it did give me some weird insight I could repeat to myself once I started slipping into another anxiety pit.

But this still left me with something I was not at all comfortable with: my desire to prove I wasn’t gay. Why was it such a big deal? And it was answered after I got to know some gay men and women: it shouldn’t be the sole signifier of a person. It is not the single most important definition. Important, yes, but the definitive statement on who someone is? No. I cared because there were still vestigial religious traits in me that said your sexuality is your self-worth. I’ve found sexuality to be an expression, whether alone or with someone else.

The best part? I now know a whole lot of people that have gone through something similar. I just wished we talked about this more, everyone. Why is it a weakness to admit you’re unsure, let alone tell others?

[i] I actually think a lot of this ugly homophobia comes from the well-worn tread of ignorance, but maybe more importantly, a lack of compassion. It’s hard to be compassionate for someone, some group of people you know nothing about, it’s hard to imagine their pain.

Tension in the Transition

Again, trigger warning. The following contains a discussion of suicide. If you yourself are dealing with suicidal desire please, I beg you, call someone, a friend, a family member. You won’t be bothering or burdening them, I swear it. If that seems like too much right now then call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. I swear they help.

You can always tell a cheap New Age self-help movement by its emphasis on “Visualizing Your Successful Future.” It asks you to imagine when you’ve moved up three pay grades and can finally get that company lease and other sleazy middle-class marginalia that has nothing to do with who you actually might someday become.

I might be a little bitter with all this forward thinking stuff because I suck at imagining the future. I can imagine a complex beehive type dystopia where each person is genetically mutated to fit somewhere on a new food chain of differing hominids, but five years from now? Hell no. You could tell me I’d find ruby shoes and end up in Oz and I wouldn’t doubt you.

Like all things with me, this isn’t due to lack of imagination or work ethic (I like to think), but because, since I was seven years old my future plans were suicide. I am not being hyperbolic. I spent a grand total of twenty something hours anxiously thinking about how I could hurt or kill myself between 5th grade’s fall ball and spring baseball. It mostly amounted to dropping a rock on my foot. Or walking into the pond near my Connecticut family house with a rock. Or dropping a rock from my top bunk bed onto my head. I was hung up on rocks, and as inappropriate as it seems to laugh here, it always makes me smile. I was a bright kid who made up colorful worlds. The best I could do was drop rocks on things? But, as I’ve gotten older and more knowledgeable in adult ways, the scenarios have become more complex and feelings have gotten stronger.

There’s a pattern. There’s two general time’s I start thinking suicide (please forgive my casual use, but I’ve lived with the proclivity for suicide for so long, thought about it so much, lived through it, wrestled with the fucking thing that it’s not scary to me anymore… in certain situations. It’s scary when I start to desire it, when it feels comfortable. Somehow I still get flustered when I hear someone casually remark “I’ll kill myself if I have to—fill with inane complaint”[i]). I start thinking of suicide when I feel bored, purposeless and when there’s a transition, say for example, driving home from my VT digs for a week to sit in my house only to drive back to life as a graduate student.

I can tell you that I spent my Friday night buying a bunch of crap (actually graphic novels, so it was pretty awesome stuff, but you get the picture) on Amazon to assure myself I wouldn’t crash my car on the way to Burlington. I had to dangle a carrot in front of my nose so as not to purposefully drive off the road.

The thing is I’m not sure this desire actually comes from a dislike of Burlington, VT or a special love for my house in CT. I think these tensions are built into my changes. I think I’ve been so afraid of being hurt for so long that my immediate thought has been to head it off at the pass because no one can hurt me if I’m dead. I think I’m at the point where this is not useful anymore because the one thing I’m most afraid of hurting me is myself.  Through involuntary practice (were talking starting around seven) I’ve used suicide as a way out and now I’m afraid it’s the only a through.

But that’s not true, is it. Every morning is a reminder that that isn’t true. Actually every ticking second is proof to me that my future is not suicide, if only because of the basest fact: I’m not committing it. Not now, not this next second, or the one after, or again, the second that is now.

This might seem small but there’s a deep reclamation in it for me. It allows me some small feeling of control, and a very strange metaphor for life at large.

In Infinite Jest one of the struggling heroes of the story, Don Gately, tells himself,

Any one second: he remembered: the thought of feeling like he’d be feeling this second for 60 more of these seconds—he couldn’t deal. He could not f—-ing deal. He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down into like one second—less: the space between two heartbeats. A breath and a second, the pause and gather between each cramp. An endless Now stretching its gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat. And he’d never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive. Living in the Present between pulses.

To parrot Wallace further, it’s hard to be present and alive, for me especially, but enough of this type of unspoken faith gets me between crossroads and through them and into whatever the fuck the future holds.

[i] I think my comes from the fact that I know that person has not suffered as I have. I don’t say this in any kind of sanctimonious manner, but rather, to point out that it would be easy for me to be righteously indignant all the time. Think of all the jokes about suicide: the biggest losers are the people who can’t even kill themselves etc. This stuff bothers me but I know I would just start to pity myself if I was angry over it all the time. And sometimes I do get angry and self-pitying about the whole thing, but then that’s followed by shame because who am I to say what suffering really is? And what if everyone I meet really is suffering worse than I am and the starving children, the starving children in Africa and gratefulness and… It just turns into a fucking mess.

Will You Give an Ear for a Moment?

I’m lonely right now. And I’ve been lonely for a while. Everyone gets lonely; it’s such a basic idea it might be considered trite. I know all this and I’m still ashamed to admit I’m lonely. It’s even hard for me to tell my friends. A silence tends to waft in and settle after. I’m lonely. I’m scared of telling people that. And all that makes me ashamed. Thing is, I don’t know where this shame came from. It’s not like anyone sat me down and said “John, look, sometimes you’ll be lonely and it’s a bad thing” but admitting loneliness is socially uncomfortable enough to be seen as a social faux pas. Again, let me repeat, we are all lonely at point in our life and it generally isn’t by choice. It’s not like we’re revealing an intimately placed tattoo of the “WHASSSAAAPP” Budweiser commercial to a group of strangers. Loneliness is not only normal, it’s inevitable, and can in fact be capital “g” Good at the right moments and in the right mind mindsets. But what about when it isn’t Good and we need to be able to talk to someone because we feel locked away? I remember I was in group therapy years ago and a woman was describing how she and her husband had grown apart. She described in great detail, the gentle but firm way he used to hold the space between her breasts and push his chest against her back and would quietly exhale on her neck as she slept. She said that in the past months they’d inched farther and farther from each other until they were on opposite sides of the bed, both slightly colder at night. She described the weight on her shoulders and the weight in her stomach. Then one day she just got out of bed and just drove. She was supposed to bring her daughter to school, but her husband could handle it so she just drove until she got to the great American void all of us at least consider visiting: The Grand Canyon. She said she stood out there and it was grey but it didn’t matter because she felt free, but sad. And yet it was a better sensation than the cold bed. The group psychiatrist, a wizened old fellow who commanded a room by being soft spoken said, “Sometimes it’s the moments that we feel alone that mean the most, because not only do we die alone, but often times we live alone as well. It is actually the moments we connect that are rare. It sounds like you felt, for the first time, that it was okay to be lonely.” To which she responded with a reactionary staccato, “Oh no, I wasn’t lonely, I think it was just nice getting away from my husband and our kid.” I remember being uncomfortable with how defensive she was, or at least, being uncomfortable and picking up on her defensiveness. The easiest thing to do with anything uncomfortable is shove it away (but loneliness is inside us, maybe even when we’re with others) or make fun of it. I do a whole lot of the latter. Doesn’t help much. I also know I picked that one up from TV. I could talk about being lonely without upsetting the mood. I could have my lonely cake and sit in the corner watching it as it sat on the table too. Of course, these efforts at humor (lord, how not-funny is that phrase?) were passable about best. Maybe I’d go on about wondering if there was a kind of lycanthropy that turned people into a cat lady. I think I got it when I started feeding the neighborhood stray every morning etc. etc. This didn’t work, the humor that is. Then there’s another attempt at defending myself: drinking and going on social media. This is another thing I do an uncomfortable amount. It’s the usual ploy of trying to drown a feeling and heal it with the third best thing: digital interaction. I think loneliness may be the most common Western-Developed-Nation form of suffering. It is a key part of depression (which might be thought of an acid loneliness that seeps into every cell). I think we aren’t very good at talking or working with loneliness. To me, Camus was right to ask is suicide worth committing. Not because I think it’s a valid question, but because the drive behind it was, is there something in all this (lonely) suffering worth hanging on to. He recommended we imagine Sisyphus happy. The unspoken key to this philosophical as that we are there to witness Sisyphus endlessly role his boulder. We are there to be happy with him. Loneliness might be considered the foundation of modern philosophical thought. When Descartes wrote Cogito Ergo Sum (I think therefore I am) he was only proving the existence of the one who thought. When he realized this cast everyone else’s existence into doubt, it meant he had to scrabble to prove other’s existed. He decided that by viewing other’s over time, one could surmise they really exist. There’s something absolutely wrong and something dead right about this idea. People around us do tend to be shades. We don’t know their passions, how they interact, how they make love. And we can’t know the exact experience someone is having at a single moment: their thoughts, bodily sensations, rising temperatures, and swirling passions are forever locked inside them. But just as they are locked from us, we are locked from them. What I’m saying is loneliness is etched on human bones. It is a fundamental difficulty of being a singular subject that we’re forced to struggle with. Sometimes we’re given the tools to do it, sometimes we aren’t.  The rituals we practice, whether in private social circles, institutional places (school, church etc.) end up determining how we feel about and handle loneliness. So why am I so fucking afraid and ashamed of mine? I cannot conclude this topic. To be totally honest I had this silly notion that I could write my way out of the hurt in my chest, write my way out of my loneliness. I think that’s why I write in general. To feel like someone is there, listening. I guess that’s what I might want (not that I don’t already have it), probably something everyone would want, a person to listen, to share with. I’m not the only one who feels like this, right?

The Hum

Trigger Warning for those struggling with suicidal ideation. If you are I urge you to call a friend and tell them how scared you are. The disorder will tell you not to: don’t listen to it. If you don’t have someone to call then call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They help. I swear it.

It comes to the surface every so often. I’ll be strolling along, capturing or being captured by my inner verbal/pictorial dialogue, and there will be a resurgence from my balls to my guts to my chest to my thoughts–from emotional center to intellectual center—and I’ll think, “oh, that’s right, that’s how I feel. I feel like if I sat down now I’d never get up.”

This is my “Water.” In his 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College David Foster Wallace, something of a hero to me, and also something of a warning story, starts off by telling the students a parable in which two young fish encounter an older fish who says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” Wallace uses this story to demonstrate the idea that, “The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” He then goes on to say this is a banal platitude when stated as a sentence. My water (and if you read the commencement closely, Wallace’s water) is emotion. Unfortunately, every time I stop and wonder how the water feels I’m met by a disturbed thrill. It feels like the underside of bad. It feels like the shallow levels are bright and cheery and when the dark water inevitably bubbles up it reminds me that sometimes I’d rather not be living.

I don’t use that idea lightly. There is a dark streak in me that would rather have me not existing, not necessarily dead; just not existing. I like to think of that thing that keeps humans going as a kind of hum, maybe the warm hum of a machine or computer, the hum of a beehive or the hum of a river or the hum of an uncle as he sits a cold beer on the swinging porch as the sun sets, ready for rest. Nonetheless, a continual linking inside people that chains each moment to the next and keeps them contented between intensities. I see it my father as he contentedly sorts papers and types on the computer. I see it in my students in class when they sit quietly while I read a work sheet to present. I see it in my friends as they work day in and out at jobs I couldn’t. I do not see it in me. I don’t hear it in me. I’m afraid I don’t have it. In fact, I’m not sure I ever did.

Don’t get me wrong, there are things in life that keep me here. I love my family and friends and will fight tooth and nail to keep from hurting them more than I already have. I have bursts of excitement; moments of jouissance that leave me wanting to fill the nearest moleskin with notes or the closest stranger with ideas, but between those moments there often hangs a hollowness that seems to be, well, for now at least, my default state.

In one of the more moving (in an admittedly disturbing fashion) of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy he recounts a line from an old Greek myth, Silenus. In it King Midas is searching for Silenus, Dionysus’ companion. When Midas finally catches Silenus, Silenus turns to him and says, “Miserable, ephemeral race, children of hazard and hardship, why do you force me to say what it would be much more fruitful for you not to hear? The best of all things is something entirely outside your grasp: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing.” I read this as a college freshman and felt soothed. Something dim and frustrated in me was named and gentle nuzzled in the tougher parts of Nietzsche’s writing. This also scared the living hell out of me because it brought a consistent feeling into full view. I remembered being 7 years old and wanted to ride my bike down the driveway into the stonewall at the bottom, and there was a Boy Scout Swiss army knife at 12 and again and again, I was shown in full the dangerous weight of my own internal hum. I knew there was something different in my basic self, or at least was convinced there was a difference.

But ironically, it was reading more Nietzsche that made me understand the flip side of my pessimistic self. In The Gay Science Nietzsche, ever the pessimism defines true grit and from this true passion when he writes:

The greatest weight.– What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

In my better moments I like to think I live this way, embracing eternal recurrence so that even the hum I don’t have is a moment of celebration just for being. I like to think the constant hurt makes sense due to some primordial philosophy. But maybe I keep going, not out of concerted effort, but because I do have that hum; it’s just set to a different frequency, lower and darker, inaudible like an elephant call, but there, stringing me together. I can’t really be sure.

There’s that old adage that you can’t really love someone else until you love yourself. I say fuck that. I can’t feel my own love but that isn’t going to stop me from loving others. It occurs to me that love might have a whole lot less to do with immediate sensation (though that’s a part of it) and a whole lot more with effort and connection, the willingness to enter the stream of someone else’s hum, to embrace them however they’re able to embrace. Maybe love is in the action of seeking to hold another whether that’s literally or figuratively. Maybe whether or not I feel it or believe it, and whether or not I cringe at the very word, love is a thing that reaches places I can’t, and brings me closer to others in a way I never thought I could be.

For now, that’s the goddamn tune I’m gonna hum.

Self-Loathing

Trigger Warning for those struggling with suicidal ideation. If you are I urge you to call a friend and tell them how scared you are. The disorder will tell you not to: don’t listen to it. If you don’t have someone to call then call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They help. I swear it.

It usually doesn’t make sense to rank emotions (they are multifarious sensations that can seemingly control us at times, theirs not best or worst), but I think there’s an ugliest emotion. It’s ugly in that it, like king Midas’ touch, makes everything it comes in contact with of similar substance. It can taint in a certain way. It even hard to talk about and hard to see due to what it invokes in the lookers or listeners: self-loathing.

Like any emotion self-loathing is a mix of other, less complex feelings that then employs itself in various particular forms. But a lot of times it’ll look like this: someone in the corner of an unevenly lit room, still wearing their jacket, with their greasy, un-showered hair hanging down as they viciously swear at themselves again and again and again. The person is both isolating themselves, but speaking audibly enough that others don’t hear and this, perhaps, is the unstable crux of self-loathing: it is both directed at the individual who hates, while still being directed outwardly. It contains the rage of a despair that says “Why couldn’t you love me enough?” while being unable to accept any love as honest or genuine. It can also go from a dense point of anger to a wide, subtle pattern of self-sabotage. It, like everything part of the depressive attitude, is cunning as hell.

I can tell you that shame plays a large part in self-loathing. The idea that you’ve done something wrong around other people and they knew you’ve done something wrong and that now they might think ill of you seems to bring out in people a tendency to mentally and verbally self-flagellate, as if their self-imposed anger might pre-empt and cut of the need for others to punish them (punish in the imagined form of more shame or some yet undiscovered terrifying feeling). So this brings out another layer to self-loathing; the anger for others is derived from what they might be doing and saying and how that feels like a true reflection of oneself.

I felt the need to write about this little talked about feeling because it’s one that visits me from time to time and it’s one that very few talk about in a calm way. Frankly, I’ve had a tough week regarding inter-personal relationships. I said some stupid things, had so things said to me, and walked home with my head hung and my heart heavy. On the walk from my friend’s house to my own all I could do was picture a whirlpool I was at the bottom of, a whirlpool that turned out to be a charming porcelain toilet where I was forced to eat shit for things I said. I kept imagining how disgusted others were with me (when I was disgusted with myself) and I kept imagining how this thing I call a person was now a broken veneer that I’d been desperately trying to hold in place for a long time. I was angry, but only angry enough to hurt myself. It seemed logical to slam my head against the wall, or a hammer on the back of my hand. I wanted the external word to exactly reflect the inflamed pain of my psyche. Instead I played Mario because I was so crippled by overwhelming shame/loathing/fear.

There’s a reason this stuff needs to be talked about. The thing is the above scenario is one I’ve lived in spirit a lot of times. The intensities have been different, sure, but all with the same strange mix of anger and contempt for myself and others. The only thing is, when self-loathing and depressive tendencies team up they start to become really dangerous. On that walk home I did more than think about hurting myself. I wanted to escape this cavalcade of painful confusion I was in so I looked up and thought the telephone pole was a nice place to hang a noose.

In every despair there’s usually something else struggling to get loose, something that wants to be free of the despair. This struggling can take the form of suicidal ideation (the final escapism) or the torrent of thought and feeling associated with self-loathing (if only I could contain all these thoughts and feelings in one grand picture, maybe I could purge them!), but despair must be struggled with in the right way. Friends help. So do pets. Tactile and soothing things that don’t seek to remove you or your thoughts, but rather, to coax them into submission, like cooing at an infant. In fact it’s this most basic ‘self-talk’ that gets me through self-loathing periods. Repeatedly telling myself “okay John, you’re doing this, you’re okay because you’re doing this and you’re doing this because you’re okay” (the ‘this’ referring to anything from walking to eating to teaching to goddamn breathing.  When the black hole of self-loathing is involved talking to myself makes me a little less crazy.

Turn On, Login, Space Out

Listen To This While Reading

Sometimes I’ll have up to four screens on at once. Generally it’s just two, but if I’m feeling especially rotten it can get higher. Often times it will go something like this: computer screen to play a videogame  (and despite adventure/puzzle games being my favorite I’m probably wasting time throwing grenades at Nazi zombie robot dogs and feeling shitty about it because I generally tell people I don’t play games like this; in fact I’m not even enjoying it that much), iPhone with one earbud in to listen to a podcast (but actually unconsciously wishing for a text knowing I won’t answer it), TV on in the peripherals piping an episode of The Office I’ve seen at least six times (I sort of look up to/ identify with/ wish I looked like Jim because maybe women would like me more and I like having the slightest sensation that I’m not single and my girlfriend is as kind and pretty as Pam and maybe I’m not as lonely as I thought), and laptop on a stand next to the computer with Facebook just sitting there, staring at me, the site itself simmering at a high temperature, wanting to scald me with the images of friends doing fun things without me.
The strangest part? I do this to escape the feeling of loneliness. I connect to disconnect from myself.
Connection is something I value highly. But are there different types?

In Zadie Smith’s article “Generation Why?” on the film Social Network she finds herself at the uncomfortable junction of generations (which seems to happen whenever bold new type of technology reveals itself to be popular) ask whether the Facebook Generation has a different conception of personhood. She writes, “Perhaps Generation Facebook have built their virtual mansions in good faith, in order to house the People 2.0 they genuinely are.” Her question is full of implications that every generation demands of its offspring: are you serious? Are you really in there? How can you live life this way? I’m worried what you’ll turn into if you grow up. Do you have the capacity to be human like we do?

The answer to all of these should be obvious, and it’s not the questions that are really interesting. It’s more… why are you even asking. Considering I just got an iPhone and was chided by my best friend’s father for being behind the times, I think there’s less of a generation gap in terms of technology use, but there is one when it comes to what we might be losing to social technology. Maybe we’re ignoring what’s truly dangerous about technology’s affects. Not its ability to influence behavior like the video games causing violence in the 90’s scare, but social technologies ability to anesthetize more primal and necessary desires.

You see, when I’m watching four screens I’m often unknowingly refusing to address a problem in myself that will nonetheless be played out through my extremely divided attention. I want to be with other people and yet much of being an adult seems to require certain amounts of either being with others in strictly “professional” settings or being alone or both. This is celebrated. I don’t know why.

So to answer my own previously posed question: there’s one type of connection with many different flavors and intensities. It can be strong, joyful, fraught, confused, sexual, funny, any of these, but when I’m not longer with the person, physically, it takes a sharp turn. Instead my anxieties and desires fill in the gaps for me. Suddenly the way I saw you sitting with you legs tucked under you, leaning on one arm and looking both enchanted and enchanting; that’s gone, so the complexities and intricacies of interaction are lost and with it a certain amount of human social signals, a certain amount of felt warmth, that isn’t so much heat as it is the bones of spirit.

For me, solely texting or Facebooking or calling friends is colored with anxiety. I wonder if I’ll ever see them again, if they care about me all, if they’re actually doing okay or putting on that voice that says they’re doing okay. I worry if our friendships that end up in the digital realm can suffice, can sustain. The polite answer is yes, the honest answer: why am I trying to drown myself in connective media?

But please don’t take me for a Luddite. There’s some joy in the use of computers in all there vermiform shapes and sizes. What worries me more is the way in which adult life is not structured around connection, but rather, connection must be structured around adult life (adult life being understood crudely as work, pay bills, everyday ins and outs, responsibility). Maybe what previous generations are actually asking is can we take it, a life that is not built around connection? And maybe the right answer is no, not when its so easy to treat ourselves with a large dose of digital downtime. I might already be nostalgic for a time that never was, but I know if depression has only been increasing in the last fifty years, why not try something (that I will leave purposefully vague) that encourages community rather than a turn on, login, space out (‘til worktime).

In the mean time I might get a fifth screen. I hear the curved TV’s are on sale and I need to catch up on Kitchen Nightmares.

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.