On July 23rd, I found myself staring at an Emergency Room ceiling. It was my third visit of the year. Fortunately 2 out of 3 times this year have not been for my mind. The latest two were thanks to diverticulitis– so unexpected at my age, the doctors “didn’t think to look for it” for two weeks, and kept sending me home with “meh, viral infection.”
While I’ve mostly recovered, lying in an ER room for hours with nothing to do but wait for test results tends to make the mind wander. Emergency Rooms are not happy places for me– probably not for anyone, but I have a particular distaste for them, since every time I enter one I start having action-movie-worthy flashbacks of my first ER visit, when Lask and I were dragged in screaming by three policemen to spend the night cuffed to a bed. Not a good association.
An unintended side-effect of my weeks-long Barf Fest was that I stopped my meds. All of them. Couldn’t keep anything down. It’s said to be a bad idea to quit antidepressants cold turkey, but as one who has never noticed a great deal of influence from them, and has quit cold turkey more than once, I didn’t notice much more than a few headaches. After hurling the morning pill cocktail several days in a row, I decided it wasn’t going to happen, and I’d better get ready. I’m not sure what I expected– maybe mood swings, unexpected crying, or even all out anxiety attacks or psychosis, but my withdrawal was significantly more lackluster than the circumstances which put me on the drugs. It had always been my intent to quit them, so when my stomach decided to do that for me, I rolled with it.
At first, I was afraid to tell my wife, afraid she would worry about me, fear another “episode,” or worse. I find people’s concern more anxiety-producing than my actual experiences, so I often catch myself going to great lengths to present an outward person who is somehow passable. Still, I am not stupid or arrogant enough to think I am above brain chemistry, or the effects of chemical tampering and withdrawal, so eventually I mustered my nerve and inquired, “How am I seeming to you these days? Emotionally and behaviorally, I mean.”
“You seem to be doing ok,” she replied. “Why? Do you feel like you’re not?”
“No, I feel fine more or less. I just… I haven’t been on my meds for over a week.”
I saw the look of terror flit across her face. It hurt. I got pissy against my better judgement, but my good-natured wife soothed the beast and we sorted things. She agreed I seemed to be doing fine, and promised to keep a sharp eye on me in case things changed.
Aside from the bout of diverticulitis, they haven’t. I experienced a couple days of depression in the lowest point of my sickness, but I feel that’s to be expected because being sick sucks. I’ve since bounced back fine, and am now well enough to resume pondering the things that crossed my mind during the most recent night in the ER. I find myself left with a few working theories, some specific to me, and others more about people and mental conditions at large.
I believe antidepressants exist for a reason– sometimes things go wonky in your brain or body enough that no amount of emotional strength and willpower can fix it. Sometimes, you have to take the pills, if only to help reset the chemical balance you need to find your personal equilibrium. Some people need those pills all the time because their brains physically can’t maintain a healthy balance of chemicals. But there are also, I believe, a great number of people taking antidepressants and it’s only helping a bit, if at all, in which case… need they take them?
For me, pills don’t work. Not well. I’ve been on and off various antidepressants since I hit puberty, and while they occasionally help me function better on a day-to-day basis, they do not rout the underlying mental and emotional listlessness, the insidious thoughts that say I don’t do enough and I’m not good enough, or the behavior patterns formed from years of various kinds of abuse.
“Therapy!” people are quick to offer. “Drugs AND therapy!”
I hate to break it to you, but for me, therapy doesn’t do much either. In the past six months, I’ve also stopped seeing my therapists. Why? Because we reached a point where they couldn’t offer me any genuinely useful ideas, acknowledged I had a clear grip on myself and the issues facing me, and if I’m going to be on my own figuring this out, I’m perfectly capable of sorting through my memories and feelings without needing to share those things with a licensed stranger, and pay them to listen.
Therapy, for me, is good in times when I can’t unravel what’s causing a set of behaviors or feelings, or when I need a “second opinion” about something going on in my life, but beyond that, I don’t find it very useful. My therapy sessions have always consisted of me entering the office, spelling out my problem, the context of now, the causes from the past, what I see as my options, and asking for advice about the best path forward, or how to implement the choice I want to make. But they never seem to have an answer for that. Most therapists I’ve encountered are very adept at winnowing out stories of bullying, abuse, and other trauma, and showing me how those things are affecting my behaviors… but none of that’s news to me. The solutions they offer are “mindfulness” and “self care” and “a good diet.” I agree all of those things are good for me, and I mostly work hard to see they happen.
But still, I find those insidious feelings inside me I can’t shake:
I never do enough. My house is never clean or neat enough. My hair is never right. My weight makes me hide my body or inhibits my fashionable, photographic, and other forms of self-expression. My art is weird, unwanted, and unlikable. My spirit acquaintances are, at best, unwanted nuisances to the people around me, and at worst, threats that could cost me my freedom. I feel like a failure at life, and a disappointment to the people around me.
I should be damned proud: I’m 27 and have been fortunate enough to land a full time job, find a wonderful and supportive wife, own a beautiful house, pay off my car, put seven books in print, and there are actually a handful of people who know me for my art and get excited when they come up to my table. My life is beautiful, productive, meaningful, and by and large very privileged, lucky, blessed, or whatever word you want to call it.
Sometimes I gaze at pictures of myself in front of classrooms or book signing tables and find myself looking at a stranger. I study that person, and imagine its not me. I see a passionate woman doing something she loves, and sharing that passion with people who are at least mildly interested, and isn’t that what artists crave? I see a millennial who is defying the odds and managing to steal a small slice of the American Dream, even if it means an occasionally over-drafted bank account and debt-that-shall-not-be-named. When I look at that person, I don’t think she’s fat or weird or failing at anything. Why then, when that person is me, do I think such things of her?
Those are the insidious thoughts. The irrational ones. The ones that will drive you crazy.
But there is logic, isn’t there?
We are taught from birth that to succeed we must perform. Academically, athletically, artistically, professionally, sexually, EVERYTHING is capable of measurement and comparison. I’m not in the camp of “everyone’s a winner” and participation prizes; one must learn how to lose gracefully, after all. However, I think at large, we fail to impart one thing:
Most of it doesn’t matter.
That’s right. Shit don’t matter; honey badger don’t care; give-a-damn is busted.
Having reached the low of diverticulitis, it occurred to me as I was staring at the ceiling while two liters of fluids dripped into my arm: I live under the illusion of pressure.
I don’t know if this is true of older generations, but I do feel mine has been tested and permissioned into false insecurity. Schools are crippled at the gate by standardized testing, and the amount of pressure put on young people to do well– in whatever they are attempting– is astronomical. I firmly believe 17 years of public education contributed to my existing anxieties and negative behavior patterns. In school, you are as good as your grade and your ability to take a test or write an essay. You are a number. You are a Last Name, First Name. You are here to be processed, and then inspected for arbitrary quality under the pretense of preparing you for adulthood. (And really, is adulthood much different?)
Having been an adult now for a few years, I can honestly say: school did not prepare me for this, and I find myself wondering what the hell all the racket was about PSATs, SATs, SOLs, and every other thing I was made to feel was SUPER IMPORTANT. What was the point of all those nights I lay awake terrified of failing the next day’s test? What was the point of throwing up in the trashcan on the bus ramp the day I brought home a C in Math? What was the point of sitting rooted in horror when asked for the solution to an equation?
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. I do not see a single person I went to school with. I do not use upper level math in my life or job. I hardly even see my family these days, and I imagine they’ve forgotten the total number of Cs I managed to accumulate in Math, or the handful of tests I actually failed. So why do we do that to ourselves, our children, and each other?
Further, in my schools, rules were rigid. Dress codes were strict. I once got suspended because my cell phone made a noise while I was sitting on a school toilet, a random teacher happened to hear it, and “all cell phones are to be OFF in the school.” No exceptions, even if you have a perfect record and straight As. Sigh. It was nice day off, at least. The point is, lots of things were forbidden and you had to ask permission for everything.
The result, at least in my life, is a tendency to hesitate when I should be confident. I find myself waiting for permission to do things, permission which will never come– either because there’s no one needed to give it, or they’re things I’m perfectly entitled do and will just have to woman up and do anyway if people don’t like it.
I’m prone to asking questions I already know the answer to– I ask them of my supervisor, my coworkers, my wife– not because I need the answer, but because their answer will give me validation, confirmation/confidence, and “permission” enough to Do the Thing. I’m sure it’s annoying, and probably comes off as either inept or insecure. I work hard to embrace the idea: It is better to ask forgiveness than permission. When I pay attention, I find it’s easy; I’ve got a “Stick it the Man” streak a mile wide– it just doesn’t see a ton of use because ANXIETY. When I start getting swamped with orders, or emails, or people, I get distracted from the fact I’m actually doing fine, and start falling back on “safe” habits I learned earlier in life, which includes needing permission and validation for every damn thing, and thinking I’m too inexperienced and “not enough” to get the Thing done.
Frustrating, to say the least.
What are people like me, with habits and thoughts that have been so ingrained, to do? Pills can’t eradicate thoughts. I haven’t found therapy particularly effective at managing thoughts. What recourse is there for those of us with behaviors formed out of a history of exclusion, abuse, or other trauma?
The only thing I’ve found that makes a difference in my life is consistent positive reinforcement. Having known/been with my wife now for seven years, I can see her influence in my improvement. She is the reason I wear leggings, let my hair air dry so the natural curls show, and shamelessly take selfies when I get new outfits. It’s only because she spent seven years reminding me “you’re beautiful,” “you look fine,” “this piece is really good,” “I love your hair– its lively and luscious,” “you know how to do that, you’re good at that,” “no one’s going to be looking at your stomach,” “your butt is not square or too big,” “you should post that picture, it’s really good.” There is zero substitute for genuine loving support. It is the only thing I have found to be effective at actually changing my thought patterns to the point I can change my behavior.
But there are some things support can’t reach, or things support will simply not be there for. Sometimes there is no closure or support to be had. What then?
The answer lies with me. In me. When I find I must do something and there is no support to be found, it’s easy to want to quit. It’s often alarmingly easy for me to slide in thinking “maybe I’m not cut out for Life.” This, I think, is where depression kills people– in those dark corners where there’s no one but you, your pain, and an endless loop of “I’ll never be what anyone wants.” Some days, I lose the battle and retreat to brood and wallow in self-pity and self-loathing until even I can no longer stand my morose company. In those times, I find no matter what the issue is that’s got me so low, the choice boils down to: I can go on, or die. That tends to bring things clearer, because at the end of the day, I can quit or not. I have yet to decide I want to quit. Even in those lonely and lowest times, I find there are still things I want or need to do: stories that need told, art that needs finished, one more crucial project Lask’s in the middle of, a dress I want to put on again when the weather cools off. Sometimes it’s as stupid as not wanting to die without having a particular milkshake again, and then being too lazy or poor to go buy one. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that there’s always something there, and I’ve always managed (thus far) to keep myself intellectually detached enough to recognize that I’m depressed, and it’s probably not as bad as I think it is…
…but sometimes it is as bad as I think it is, and then there’s nothing to do but Embrace the Suck. Sometimes you think you have a stomach virus, and two weeks later are lying in an ER with diverticulitis. Sometimes you can’t sleep for four days and think you have an awesome idea, but you are actually off your rocker. That’s when it pays to be ready, and by be ready, I mean: don’t expect life to be happy. Life is not happy or easy or even pleasant half the time. I find it’s a lot easier to deal with my depression, anxiety, or unexpected hurdles if I expect them to happen again. To me, there’s no point in thinking I’m going to be free of depression or anxiety, that those things can be “cured.” They can’t. They can only be managed; therefore, it seems a mistake to look at my future and expect it to look like a Lisa Frank painting. Instead, when I look at my future, I see what I hope will be a life of strength, artistic productivity, and hopefully one which contributes something positive to the world– but I also look at my future and know: I will depressed, I will cry, I will scream, I will lose people, my health will come and go, things will happen I don’t expect and can’t plan for, and there will be more times when Death looks awfully friendly. Those things are inevitable, and part of my life. I see them coming for me in the future as easily as I see more books in print later in my life. I don’t find I’m frightened of the eventuality; if anything, I think I’m starting to take comfort in my predictable behaviors, responses to triggers, and cycles of thought. They comfort because I know them– I’ve seen them inside and out, I was there when they formed, I know what they can do, and mostly, I know how to control them– because those things, in some ways, are me. The roots of my anxiety and depression are also the roots of what me made me who I am. We don’t expect anyone to be perfect, therefore, my various issues are, to me, simply other “imperfections” like my crooked finger, or the scar on my wrist, or the diverticula in my gut. The body is not perfect, why would the mind be? I try to forgive myself on my weak days, and use the knowledge I have of myself to both be vigilant for things that will throw me off kilter, and to minimize what struggles I can when things do happen. Some days, I am my own worst enemy, but every day I am my own greatest weapon– I just have to keep my head enough to use it.