Tag Archives: depression

On This Day In History

7 Aug

It’s my birthday, y’all. I’m 32 today.

I had a personal essay go up on Jezebel today (trigger warning for talk of suicide)

I also had a serious scholarly article about Anne Boleyn go up on The Toast.

It’s been a big day.

We drove for three hours to see my grandmother in St-Bruno, then drove three hours back to Kingston, where we’re staying with my mom for the week. I only got to chill with my Nana for about two hours, but it was one hundred percent worth it because I get to see her once or twice a year tops. My Nana is a really rad lady, in case you were wondering.

She hates having her picture taken, but here’s an awesome picture of my grandfather I found while I was there:

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Also this is how big the fucking hedge is in my grandmother’s backyard (Theo pictured for scale), so whenever I’m there I feel like I’m chilling in a fairytale forest, which is obviously something I’m into.

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I love that stupid hedge an unreasonable amount. I used to play hide and seek in there with my cousins when I was a kid. Also we turned part of it into a fort where we did secret things. And by secret things I mean played house.

We made it back to Kingston by early evening, and I paid my yearly tribute to Hiroshima. They hold a Peace Lantern ceremony here in one of the parks downtown, and the ritual of making lanterns, folding cranes and singing Pete Seeger songs has become an important part of my birthday. It’s kind of weird to feel so tied to this horrible event that happened decades before I was born, but I’m also weirdly thankful for the moments of sad remembrance on what is otherwise a happy day. The bombing of Hiroshima feels like a part of who I am, in a way that I can’t really properly articulate.

Anyway.

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Making lanterns with Theo

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The boy beside us, Yuto, made the lantern below. As you can see, there’s Pikachu and also an illustration of the bombing of Hiroshima. He was adorable and a great artist. I think that placing these two scenes side by side really makes a statement.

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Making paper cranes:

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My crane:

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The lantern procession:

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Getting ready to float them out on the water:

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Perfect.

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This birthday was one of the good ones.

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“You Know I Love You A Lot Too Even If I Sometimes Get Impatient”

4 Aug

I am a person who needs constant reassurance that other people love and value me.

And when I say constant, I mean fucking constant.

Like, in a perfect world, every morning and evening all of my friends would fill out a survey detailing how they felt about me. In this document they would remind me of the fact that they loved me, and let me know what my areas of improvement were, so that I could fix any little issues before they blew up. Or if, for whatever reason, I couldn’t fix them, I would, at the very least, not feel blindsided by any big conflict that they might bloom into. I could plan ahead how I would react, the pithy things I would say and the brilliant retorts I would make. I wouldn’t melt into a sobbing, gibbering mess, the way I usually do.

The way I always do.

I found an old notebook of mine in my mother’s basement today. It was from the first grade and was supposed to be a sort of journal, a place where I would write little stories or comments to my teacher every Monday, and she would answer back. A lot of the stuff that I wrote is pretty funny, and probably fairly typical for a six year old.

Stuff like:

“On Sunday we went to Debbie and Dwight’s farm and I saw a lot of sheep. They separated the mothers and the fathers and the babies. And I saw BC, their cat.”

“I have a loose tooth. Next week I will go to the dentist.”

“Today I will go to Brownies. It’s where I go to learn how to jump rope and be nice.”

“Last night I went to bed at 8:20.”

Pretty average, I guess. Except for the fact that tacked on to the end of nearly every other “entry” is a note that says, “I love you, Madame Renée.”

“Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted a dog but she lived all by herself and didn’t have any money. One day she found a dog. I love you, Madame Renée.”

“Last night we went out for dinner. I love you, Madame Renée.”

“I would like to switch seats please, Madame Renée. Have you corrected my recherche yet? Goodbye, Madame Renée. I love you, Madame Renée.”

“I don’t know what to write. I love you, Madame Renée.”

At first, reading back through all this stuff, I had a hard time figuring out what my angle was. Had I really been such a suck-up back then? That didn’t sound like me but hey, I guess a person can change a lot in twenty six years.

Then I realized why I kept writing “I love you” – because every single time I did so, she would write “I love you, too.” It was a way of checking in, a way of making sure that we were still cool. It was especially a way of making sure that I hadn’t angered or frustrated her past the point of no return, which was and is a thing that I’ve worried about doing to my friends and family for as long as I can remember.

Finally, there’s an entry towards the end of the notebook that says simply, “I love you, Renée,” and then is followed by a lower case alphabet in cursive writing.

My teacher’s reply is something that I would imagine a lot of people who know me even now would like to say to me:

“You know that I love you a lot too, even if I get impatient sometimes.”

I have a hard time understanding that I can still have conflict with people that I love. In my head, it seems so black and white: either you love me or you don’t. And if you’re angry at me, or frustrated with me, or hurt by something that I’ve done, then you don’t love me. And if you don’t love me, it’s almost certainly because of something I’ve done, some way in which I’ve fucked up. If you don’t love me, I probably deserve it.

And so I melt down into that sobbing, gibbering mess and feel like I can’t breathe and feel like the world is ending and feel like I am not worthy of anyone’s love. Like it’s somehow just a weird trick of fate that I have a husband and a son and lots and lots of friends. I feel as if when I have any kind of conflict with someone, it’s because they’re finally seeing the real me, the bad me, and now that the jig is up they’ll never love me again.

I do a lot of stupid little things to try to help shield people from seeing the true, terrible version of myself that I try so hard to keep hidden. I buy people a lot of little presents, as if these objects might work like some kind of charm to keep them from leaving me. I go out of my way to do thoughtful things, so that I might be seen as a thoughtful person. I avoid doing things for myself unless I think that I truly “deserve” it, so that people will believe that I’m a martyr instead of a monster. None of this is logical. None of this is sustainable. And, finally, none of this is actually useful in the long-term.

I need to learn how to manage conflict without resorting to, “you’re right, everything is my fault and it’s no wonder you hate me.” I need to start believing that people love me and want to be around me because I’m smart and funny and interesting, not because I buy them shit and solve all their problems. Most of all, though, I need to remember that my friends and family love me a lot, even if they sometimes get impatient with me. Because that is how relationships work – you have conflict, and you work through it, and then it’s even stronger than ever. No friendship will ever be conflict-free – and if it is, that probably means that something is seriously wrong.

So hey, six-year-old me, I’m sorry I still haven’t figured this shit out yet. But I want you to know that I see you, and I know how you feel, and I’m still trying. And I’m going to keep trying. So please hold on and don’t give up hope. I got this.

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Pharmacopeia, or, The Drugs Don’t Work

11 Jun

TW for talk of suicide

Some days, as I rush around the apartment trying to get ready to face the world, I can’t help but feel like a traveling pharmacy. Inside the vast expanses of my purse, along with my laptop, my wallet, my keys, my book-du-jour, two shades of Sephora lipstick (neutral pink “charmer” and come-at-me crimson “tango”), my headphones, my phone, assorted bandaids, bobby pins and hair elastics, I neatly arrange the bottles of multicoloured pills through which I measure out my life like those metaphorical coffee spoons. Blood-red prescription iron supplements, safety-vest-orange Zoloft, dingy red-brown Seroquel, electric blue Imovane and, of course, the virginal pink birth control pills. My own private stash.

The pills are like little hand-holds to grab onto as I swing myself through my day. Orange and red with my breakfast, to keep my mood somewhere above apocalyptic-crying-level and to boost my energy, red again with supper, to keep my iron levels up over night, then red-brown, pink and blue at bedtime to respectively “enhance” my anti-depressant, make sure that I don’t accidentally bring forth another life onto this dismal planet, and then float me off to sleep the sleep of the innocents.

I’ve been on psychotropic drugs since I was sixteen, and can give you a poetic sort of laundry list of all the different types I’ve tried: Paxil, Prozac, Remeron Effexor, Elavil, Ativan, Wellbutrin, each at varying and increasing dosages. Paxil was the first one they tried on me, and when it perform as expected, they kept increasing the amount until I was a miserable wreck: twenty five pounds heavier, lethargic, awake all night and falling asleep in class. The funny thing was that my doctor kept telling me that it was working, that he was seeing improvements. Never mind that I felt worse than ever – to him, it definitely seemed as if I was getting better. It took months of arguing before he agreed to try a different drug.

The latest addition to my personal valley of the dolls is the Seroquel, typically used as an antipsychotic. I wondered if my doctor was trying to tell me something. I asked Nathan if he thought my doctor was trying to tell me something.

Me: It’s an antipsychotic. Do you think my doctor thinks I’m psychotic but just doesn’t want to say anything in case it upsets me? Am I psychotic?

Nathan: The medium isn’t always the message, Tiger. [Editor’s note: he likes to call me Tiger. Sometimes also Buddy or Slugger or Buckaroo. One time it was Tex.]

Me: But Marshall McLuhan said it was!

Nathan: Heritage Moments aren’t always right.

But then again, sometimes they are. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

I’ve never really been able to tell if these drugs help at all (except for the sleeping pills, which are an insomniac’s best friend, and, of course, the birth control, thank god). Sometimes I take them and things get better, but it’s hard to know if that’s from the pills or from the natural dips and rises of my inner life. But I keep taking them, even after I swear that I won’t. They’re well-marketed, these drugs, and at my weakest moments I always find myself acquiescing. The doctors make a good case for acquiescing.

Those doctors always sell me on the antidepressants by telling me that I have a chemical imbalance, a lack of serotonin that causes my brain to short circuit and makes me want to die. That’s the best way to describe what it feels like to be suicidal – a short circuit, a glitch in the system, a design flaw. Killing yourself becomes the answer to everything. Your mind becomes like a record needle that jumps the groove, a sort of skip in your mental process where instead of going forward and thinking up solutions to your problems, all that you can come up with is, the only way out is to kill yourself. And the drugs are supposed to fix that skip, supposed to make it so that your record can play all the way until the end, and then you can flip it over, then put on another record, and so on ad infinitum, happily ever after.

The idea of a chemical imbalance is supposed to make you feel like you’re not crazy in the 19th century meaning of the word;  you’re not some kind of incurable case about to be shipped off to Bedlam. What’s wrong with you is physical – like a diabetic who lacks insulin (they’re always comparing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs to insulin for some reason), you just need a little medical help replacing something that your body is failing to make on its own, and then you’ll be fine. It’s not really a mental illness so much as it is a physical condition with mental manifestations. You’re not like those people.

By those people they mean, of course, the people with schizophrenia, or borderline personality disorder or some kind of nonspecific psychosis. Doctors never let you forget that there is a hierarchy of mental illnesses, one which you might slip down at any given moment. Doctors want you to remember that your place in the mental illness food chain is a relatively coveted one, lest you get any big ideas about going any crazier.

It’s easy to internalize the stigma against mental illness. Sure, you’re mentally ill, but you’re not like them. You don’t ever want to be like them.

Never mind that you already are one of them, no matter how you frame it. Never mind that all of your attempts to distance yourself, to other, only make things worse for everyone. Because you’re basically giving healthy people permission to other you.

You and your delicately imbalanced chemicals.

The chemical imbalance theory has been around since the 1960s. There was never much research done into the idea; it was just something that seemed like it could be right, and everyone sort of ran with it. Maybe they couldn’t properly test for that sort of thing back then. Maybe theories were the best they could go on. But now, fifty years later, it might be time to re-examine those theories.

According to Robert Whitaker, author of Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, doctors have known for a long time that the chemical imbalance model is likely flawed. In an interview on CBC’s The Sunday Edition, he says,

And as early as 1998, the American Psychiatric Association in its textbook says we’re not finding that people with depression have any abnormality in their serotonin, but because it’s such an effective metaphor for getting people to take the drugs and sell the drugs, it’s continued to be promoted.

According to Whitaker, people who take psychiatric drugs were more likely to still have symptoms five years later than those who didn’t take psychiatric drugs. Because, see, here’s the catch – people who take SSRIs but don’t have low serotonin to begin with begin to rely on those drugs to manage their serotonin levels. SSRIs actually reduce the brain’s ability to produce serotonin.

So maybe the drugs have never actually been helping me, or any of us; maybe all they’ve done is create a population of people who are dependent on psychiatric medication.

And maybe The Verve were right after all, and the drugs don’t really work, they just make you worse.

It bears thinking about, anyway.

I’ve been reading about lobotomies recently (as any good mental health patient does, I suppose), and I came across this gem in Ronald Kessler’s The Sins of the Father describing Rosemary Kennedy’s lobotomy:

We went through the top of the head, I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch.” The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. “We put an instrument inside,” he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing “God Bless America” or count backwards….. “We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.” ….. When she began to become incoherent, they stopped.

Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like doctors take the same approach – albeit on a much smaller scale – with psychiatric drugs. Increase the dosage until the patient becomes incoherent, or at least docile. Push the pills until they don’t feel anything, because feeling nothing is better than feeling sad or confused or anxious. Don’t offer counselling, or therapy, or life management skills. Just fork over pills pills pills until some kind of effect (or affect – little psychiatric joke there for you) is achieved.

The truth is that we don’t know how psychiatric medication works – we just know that sometimes it does. If you’ve ever taken the pills, you know that it’s a lot of trial and error until you find something that gives you some kind of relief. Which is great and everything for the people who benefit from it, but where does it leave the rest of us? We become guinea pigs of a sort, choking down brightly-coloured pill after pill, praying that something, anything will work. Because, honestly, it’s better than the alternative.

The alternative is, of course, that the brain is still a vast unknown. That we are only just barely beginning to grasp its complexity, and we may never fully understand it. That those of us who suffer from mental illness are sailing in uncharted waters, with no stars to guide us. What looks like Cassiopeia or Orion to everyone else is just a jumble of unknown lights to us. And maybe for some, the drugs make the stars realign into their proper order – but for the rest of us, maybe we need to begin creating our own private constellations to ferry us from one point to another.

The thought is terrifying, and I feel unequipped to deal with it. I’m not an astrologer. I just want the same stars as everyone else.

I’m going to keep taking the drugs, at least for now. They feel like a sort of safety net, and I know that I’m not ready to walk the high wire without them. But someday, someday soon, I want to begin to chart my own inner universe. I want a map of my own personal stars, and there isn’t anyone else who can do that for me. If I’m not willing or able to play amateur stellar cartographer, well, then, what’s the point? A lifetime of one brightly-coloured pill after another, each with its own dreary side effects, none of them even remotely effective. I can’t live like that.

But I haven’t lost faith that I can, somehow, find a way to live.

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Life Goes On And Other Garbage

18 May

The main problem with life is that it goes on. And on. And on.

People say that like it’s supposed to comfort you. Like, if you don’t get the job you wanted or your dog dies or the guy you’re so smitten with just out of the blue stops calling, your mom or your friend or your boss will inevitably say, oh, well, life goes on. As if i’s supposed to make you feel better, somehow, knowing that not only do you have to deal with this stupid bleeding heartache, but even while you gingerly nurse that hurt you still have to keep making your stumbling way through this magnificent/godawful old world.

Life goes on even after you’ve poisoned every good thing that’s ever come your way. Life goes on after you’ve single-handedly destroyed every relationship that was important to you, as if you were on some kind of mission to prove just how unloveable a person can be. Life goes on after you’ve fucked around so much at work, knowing all the while that you’re fucking around and hating yourself for it, that you face the very real risk of being fired. Life goes on, and you’re left standing amid all the sad wreckage of your little self. Life goes on even on the days when you can’t get out of bed. Life goes on especially on those days.

Life goes on after the good stuff, too. Like that walk home from the bar with your lover, when both of you were tipsy enough to find everything perfect and funny, even the things that were neither perfect nor funny. It was summer then, a real big city summer where daytime heat smashes you hard against the pavement, but  that night was a sort of reprieve. The baking stillness of the day was gone, and there was a delicious breeze coming from somewhere, maybe the lake. The leaves on the trees were broad and green and made a soft shushing sound above you. The streetlights hazy, and the world smelled like fresh cut grass. You knew that when you got home you would fuck and eat junk food and watch cartoons and then fall asleep in a tangled pile like a pair of puppies.

It was the kind of moment that you feel nostalgic for even as you’re living through it – you catch yourself mid-laugh and realize how happy you are, and then you instantly feel the sharp pang of longing for the thing you’re still in the middle of experiencing.

But life goes on.

You don’t get to hit pause or take a break from living. Even if you stay perfectly still and will everything around you to do the same, life still steamrollers over you. There’s no chance to sit back and appraise the situation, no time to collect your wits or figure out what you’re going to do next. You have to stay on your toes, you have to keep running, or else life will crush you. But even once you’re crushed, life goes on.

I have such a deep ambivalence about living. Things are either painfully, frantically wonderful or else they’re bitterly terrible. I love this world, but I love it with a suffocating zeal that can’t possibly be maintained. I rarely ever seem to hit that balance of peaceful contentedness that other people seem to manage – I’m always running headlong into something, trying to create some feeling that would otherwise be lacking. And if I do somehow manage to hit that point of effortless happiness, I always manage to sabotage myself. I’m like Shiva, the destroyer of worlds, except that I’m Anne, the destroyer of boring, petty human lives.

Which isn’t easy.

I mean, you really have to work hard to be this consistently vicious and miserable all of the time.

It’s not that I want to be unhappy, it’s just that my brain is an expert at leading me on these circuitous little journeys that always start out so promisingly but end with me stabbing myself in the back. I’m an ouroboros of anguish, both the giver and receiver of all my own pain. I’m hell-bent on being the wrecking ball that smashes through the wall of my own house. I’m all-the-other-semi-accurate-and-very-dramatic metaphors you can think of.

And, I mean, we could delve into all the reasons why I act this way, but frankly the story is long and unoriginal. Suffice to say that shit happened, some of it was my own fault, and now I’m here. The rest I’ll save for my therapist.

Because life goes on and I’ll have another therapy session this Wednesday and then I’ll come home and crash into my bed and try to sleep but probably I won’t be able to.

And then I’ll get up and putter around the house and maybe wash the dishes or start dinner since life, of course, goes on.

I wish that I could wrap this post up on a hopeful note, maybe with a line of trite wisdom that you might find on a greeting card or in a particularly terrible self-help book. I want to be able to tell you that everything’s going to be fine, that sure, life goes on, but it’s all in what we make of it and we have to take the good with the bad and there are other fish in the sea. I wish I could tell you that I wasn’t sitting here in a seething fury of fear and self-hatred, but that wouldn’t be true. I wish I could tell you that I wasn’t a self-indulgent, oversharing little brat, but. Well. Here we are.

The most that I can do is offer all of this up to you. Maybe you’ll see some of yourself reflected here. Maybe a sentence or two will strike you as being quite true, in a way that you were never able to articulate before. Or maybe this will help you be more compassionate or some junk like that.

You, the people reading this, are the only thing that make these garbage essays about my garbage feelings worthwhile. Because you always seem to glean some kind of meaning from them, even when all I can see is a morass of bad prose. You’re the way that I manage to justify bleeding this way all over the internet. You somehow make that bleeding important.

Against all odds, you give me hope.

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When Getting Better Is No Longer An Option

27 Apr

Trigger warning for talk of suicide

I used to think that I would outgrow it.

I used to think it was just hormones. The same hormones that caused the constellation of angry red pimples on my face and back. The same hormones responsible for the dark, wiry hair between my legs and nearly unnoticeable A-cup-sized swell of my chest. I thought that once the hormones settled down, I would feel better. Normal. But even once I grew used to my new body, even once I hit my twenties and everything was supposed to level out, I still felt it. The same howling misery, the same blind, raging creature whose claws and teeth were sunk somewhere too deep to find, was still there.

I did not outgrow it.

I used to think that I would get better, if by getting better I meant being cured. I used to think that I would find the right combination of drugs and therapy and life choices to make this thing, whatever it was, go away. Or maybe I would just wake up one morning and it would be gone, instantly and inexplicably, the same way it had come. I thought that it might recede like the tide going out, and then, like a bare beach scattered with seaweed and shells, I would go back to being the person I’d been before, only with a few small relics left over from what I’d been through.

I did not get better.

I might never get better.

These past few months have been hard ones. Really hard. And I don’t know how to talk about this, except that I think I should. For the last weeks of March and the first few weeks of April I was suicidal. Suicide was all I could think about. I didn’t want to die, exactly, but I didn’t want to be alive, either, and I couldn’t think of any other option. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t read. I’d injured my hamstring, so I couldn’t really do yoga. I couldn’t string two thoughts together. I couldn’t even follow a conversation. All that I could do was get up in the morning and drag myself to work, and then drag myself home and cry. On weekends Matt would take over childcare, because I couldn’t get out of bed. Everything seemed awful, without any understanding of why it was awful. I felt like I’d come up against a brick wall, and all I could do was scratch at it until my nails broke and my fingers bled. I couldn’t imagine what the future would look like, other than more of the same but worse.

None of these are especially good reasons for being suicidal. But the thing about being suicidal is that you don’t need a good reason. You just are, and you don’t know how to get out of it. What makes it even worse is that you can’t talk about it – suicide is too big, too scary to bring up with your friends and family. And if you mention it to a health professional, well, I mean, forget it. All they want to do is lock you up so that you can’t do it (and rightly so), but they don’t seem to want to talk to you about the whys and hows of the way that you feel. Which means not only is everything awful, but on top of that you don’t have any kind of outlet. Because you don’t want the worry or the pity or the fear of the people around you.

So you just don’t talk about it.

Things are slowly improving now, but I know it will come back. That’s the funny thing – when I’m well, I’m constantly aware of it waiting for me, biding its time, sidling around me like a constant threat, and yet when I’m in the middle of a breakdown I can’t imagine that I’ll ever be ok again. When things are bad, the only thing that exists is the pain I feel. That is my only reality. While some part of me logically knows that it’s a cycle and eventually I have to come out of it, there is just no way to make myself believe that fact. The only fact I can trust in is how terrible everything is in that moment.

I’m learning to live with the fact that I am not going to get better, if by not getting better I mean that I am probably going to live with depression for the rest of my life. This thing, this goddamn soul-sucking thing, is not something that I can cut out, or drown, or poison. I can’t look at a CT scan and point out where it is. I can’t even really know anything about it, except that it lives inside of me and feeds off of me and leaves me aching and exhausted and so sad that sad isn’t even the right word for it. I don’t know what the right word is; maybe there isn’t one.

I’m also learning to live with the fact that I am never going to be the person I was before all of this started. I’m not even sure that it makes sense to want to be her anymore – she’s an absurdly hopeful little thirteen year old girl with no life experience and little understanding of how the world works. She’s the last memory I have of what I was like before this dark creature began nesting inside of me, and for a while I clung to her image as something that I could maybe someday achieve again, but I need to recognize that she’s gone. She’s gone and she is never, ever coming back.

Mental illness destroyed who I was. And I’m at a place now where I’m trying to recognize that that’s not a bad thing. I mean, I don’t think that it’s a good thing either. It’s just a thing. A fact. A truth. My family and I have had to adjust to this reality; we’ve had to mourn the loss of who I was and who I might have been, while at the same time accepting the person who was left behind. It’s a funny sort of thing, a weird feeling that I’ve somehow lived two lives – like a building gutted by a fire whose façade stays the same but whose interior, once restored, is entirely different.

I don’t know how to explain it any better than that.

So I’m learning to live like this. I’m learning to ask for concrete things – help with housework, help with childcare, help with routine daily tasks. I’m getting used to the idea of talking to my employer about my mental health, and negotiating the possibility of time off when I need it. I’m trying to be better about accepting the fact that sometimes I just need to lie in bed and do nothing. I’m trying to be better about accepting all of this, because fighting it tooth and nail has gotten me nowhere.

I’m trying to tell myself that I am not weak. I am strong, and I will get stronger. The person that I was might be gone, but this version of me, the one that exists now, is just as good as she was – mentally ill, yes, but kind, compassionate, smart, funny, and with so many people who care deeply for her. She, too, is worthy of love.

If you are depressed, experiencing suicidal thoughts or otherwise need someone to talk to, please call 1-800-273-8255

For international readers, here’s a database of crisis centres listed by continent

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On Being Useful

8 Apr

I often worry about being useful.

Especially these days, when I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of bad moods and even the most basic daily activities are a struggle to complete. The truth is that for this past month I’ve barely been able to take care of myself, let alone do things like wash the dishes or give my kid a bath or think up genius words to write. For most of this year so far I have been the opposite of useful, and that’s been frightening and disorienting. I am so accustomed to being the unstoppably active one, the go-getter, to do-er of things that I just don’t know what to make of myself right now. All that I know is that I am not useful, either to myself or to anyone else.

I don’t just mean in a general sense, like a broad what-am-I-doing-with-my-life sort of thing, but rather an exhaustive catalogue of every little thing that I accomplish in a day. I worry about what I should be doing at any particular moment, and even times of rest are evaluated by what and how much they are accomplishing. For example, if I spend half an hour sitting in a coffee shop reading my book, then I tally that up as thirty minutes of preparing myself for the rest of the day, or thirty minutes longer that I will be able to work that night, or thirty minutes of “getting better.” I’m told that focussing on myself will help me get better, as if I don’t spend all of my time already mired in the stupid fucking mess that is my pathetic self. At least being useful helps me forget myself, even just briefly.

I’m encouraged by many people – by doctors, therapists, friends and family – to think that doing pleasurable things is part of the cure for for what ails me. And I know that these people have good intentions, and I know that they only want me to relax and be happy, but the truth is that telling me this only results in me feeling that experiencing pleasure is yet another thing that I have to check off my list. Pleasure is not something to achieve in and of itself, but rather a means to an end – it’s a way to fix my broken brain, or a way to create or maintain a relationship with someone else, or else just a way to swing from one moment to another so that I can make it through the day. On my worst days, the idea of pleasure seems like little more than work. And if I’m going to work, then why not be useful?

I worry about how much love I will lose if I am not useful. If I am not constantly on the move, if I am not always somehow working towards something important, if I am not proving my worth at every chance that I get, then how will I convince people that they ought to keep me around? Surely my value to them depends solely on my ability to keep the conversation going, to offer whatever help I can, to soothe hurt feelings or give encouragement or else plan interesting activities. Surely if I were to sit there and let my face go slack, if I were to let every little bit of happiness, eagerness, optimism, charm, sweetness or whatever else it is that I think people want from me drain out of my expression, then everyone would turn and run. Surely if I were to let anyone see my true self, the self that doubts and is sometimes afraid and sometimes clueless about what to do, then no one would love me. What else, other than my usefulness, do I have to offer?

I’ve been wondering lately if this desire to be useful is a gendered trait. The men that I know don’t seem to have any trouble kicking back and spending an hour or two watching a movie or playing guitar or reading a book. It seems to be mainly the women that I know who are constantly bustling about, washing a dish here or tidying a room there. The men seem much more capable of just being, whereas the women seem much more intent on justifying why they should be allowed to be. And when these women are sick or hurt or otherwise unable to fulfill what they see as their duty, they are the first to apologize to everyone around them for how useless they are. Perhaps there’s a part of us that believes that if we want to have it all, then we need to do it all, if only to convince the world that we’re capable enough for this.

Sometimes the feeling of not being useful brushes uncomfortably close to what we imagine female frailty might feel like. And that is the last thing that we want.

But the truth is that equality lies not in our ability to tackle everything, but rather in our ability to share responsibility. And feminism doesn’t just depend on women enthusiastically tackling every issue that comes their way in an effort to fix the gender gap; it also depends on our being able to sit with ourselves, to accept ourselves as we are in that moment rather than constantly looking for areas of improvement. And none of this is to say that we should give up or try to stop bettering ourselves and the world around us, but rather that if every single goddamn moment of every day has to be a fight in one way or another, then what are we fighting for? If we are fighting for equality, then we are also fighting for the right to sometimes take time for ourselves, time that might otherwise be employed doing something practical.

And if I don’t ever learn how to sit with myself, if I don’t ever learn to love myself even just enough to be present in my own body with my own thoughts, then I’m never going to get better. Yes, doing useful things distracts me from how I feel, but at the end of the day I always have to come back to myself. And no matter how much I feel that I’ve accomplished, if I can’t comfortably live in my own skin then it’s hard to feel as if I’m succeeding.

The fact is that I don’t always need to be useful.

I don’t need to fill every second of my day with activities that prove my value in this world. I am not on trial; I am not expected to prove my worthiness of being able to occupy space. My grandmother was wrong – idle hands are not the devil’s playthings. Sometimes they are just resting. Sometimes they are enjoying themselves. Sometimes they exist in the space between one thing and another, and the truth is that they have every right to do that.

Useful_Ideas_Photo

Insomnia, Anhedonia and The Unbearable Politeness of Being

30 Mar

Right now my favourite part of the day is the last half hour or so, which is the time I spend fighting the effects of my prescription sleeping pill. I get to ride this wave of sleepy euphoria, where the whirring, clanking machinery inside my head slows down and all of my limbs are loose and relaxed. It’s like being drunk or high, except that it feels very calm and safe — unlike other altered states of consciousness, I know that nothing can go wrong. When I finally do lie down, with the thought that I have several hours of blissful unconsciousness to look forward to, I feel everything draw away from me, my body suspended in a dark sea as I wait for sleep to gather at the edge of the horizon and then come crashing over me.

This is what I look forward to, from the time I wake up until the time I take my sleeping pill. On bad days, everything else just seems like crap that I have to get to in order to get to this moment, this brief stretch of time when I am guaranteed to feel good in my body. And I know that that’s really, really fucked up.

The problem is that recognizing that a feeling is fucked up and figuring out how to change things enough so that you don’t feel it anymore are two very, very different things.

The last few months have been rough, for a variety of reasons that I’m not going to get into right here and right now. I’ve gone from feeling like my life was great and I was super on top of all of my shit to feeling like everything’s falling apart and I’m the most useless person in existence. Part of the problem is that I’ve had a lot of social isolation, which hasn’t really been anybody’s fault but also hasn’t been great. My anxiety’s been a bag of dicks, and the intrusive thoughts are getting old. I try to avoid triggers, but it’s hard and sometimes counterproductive. Like, if I’m trying to avoid something and then I worry about how I can avoid and whether I can actually avoid it or not, and then it’s just the same old tingling fear all spruced up in new clothing. And all of my energy’s somehow been sucked out of me, leaving this sagging bag of stupid flesh where there used to be a body that actually slept and ate and sometimes felt good.

These days, I don’t want to get out of bed. Like, ever. In the mornings I don’t want to get up and go to work, and once I’m home again all that I want to do is climb back under the covers and immediately lose consciousness. I keep telling my friends that my bed is a black hole, and if I’m at home I’m irresistibly pulled towards it by some kind of mysterious gravitational force. They laugh, and then I laugh, and then we all complain about how miserable this winter has been, but the fact is that like all good jokes, this one is firmly rooted in the truth. I told my therapist that I sometimes daydream about being in an induced coma, a state where machines would do absolutely everything for me.* I tell her that the idea of just lying there and not being responsible for a single thing, not even breathing, sounds incredibly appealing to me. She tells me that it sounds womb-like, but then she’s the kind of therapist who thinks that everything sounds womb-like.

I don’t feel much pleasure these days. I mean, do things – I do all of my regular, every day things – and it’s fine, but there’s this sense of getting through everything instead of enjoying it. It’s always, how many more minutes in this yoga class. Or, how many more bites left of this meal. Or else, how many much longer left of this show. Each activity is little more than a way of marking time until I can wash that little blue pill down with a glass of water and float my way into darkness. I’m taking a lot of pills these days – Zoloft for depression and anxiety, zopiclone for sleep, hormonal birth control for a barren womb, and copious amounts of tylenol for the tension headaches that creep in a couple of times a week. It’s like the valley of the goddamn dolls around here. Still, it’s better with the pills than without.

I think about my old life, my life before I had a kid, and I wonder how I did it. Up at six every morning for work, at the office for eight hours, then typically a seventy-five  minute yoga class and hangouts with friends. Oh and I also somehow managed to write a novel somewhere in there. Who the fuck was that person? Now I can barely drag myself out of bed at eight, and I only work a few hours a day (unless you count doing all the things that I don’t get paid for, like writing and parenting – you shouldn’t though, because I don’t count them). If I feel up to it, I take a yoga class. Often I don’t. When I’m not working I come home and dither around the apartment, unable to read or write or sit for any length of time. I try to talk myself into cleaning, but I usually don’t have the energy. I almost always end up napping, or else refreshing social media websites nonstop for two hours. Whatever ends up happening, it only makes me hate myself more.

What happened to all of my energy? I mean, how did I stay home and look after a toddler full-time less than two years ago? Is there actually something wrong with me, or am I just lazy? I’ve had all the right tests done – vials and vials of blood drawn, doctors peering down my throat and in my ears, but still no answers. It’s nothing physical, or at least nothing that anyone can find. I just have no motivation. It’s tempting to blame depression or anxiety, but somehow that feels disingenuous – I can’t exactly articulate why that is, but it’s probably something along the lines of how incredibly convenient it is for me to have an illness that prevents me from doing all of the things that I hate, things like cleaning, cooking, answering emails in a timely fashion, and generally staying on top of my shit. I mean how nice for me to be sick in exactly the way that forces others to pick up my slack while they kindly tell me to take it easy on myself, to be kind to myself, to do more things for me. But I already do everything for me. That’s my problem. All of the things that I do are for me and I still feel like shit.

I get everything that I want and more, but that fact doesn’t make any difference because I am a garbage person who deserves a garbage life.

At least, that’s what I’m told by the internal voice that I hear all the damn time until I shove a little blue pill in its face.

I don’t know why I’m writing all of this, except that I guess I had to get it off my chest. Maybe I just want someone to tell me that they’ve been there, and it gets better, and that I’ll make it through somehow. Maybe I’m hoping that the act of putting all of this out there, publicly, will somehow break this feeling’s hold over me. I want things to change – I want to love my days again instead of my dreamy, disjointed nights. I want to be able to think clearly, without these anxious thoughts clouding out everything else. I want to write because I love it, not because I feel like I should. I want to be a better mother, a better lover, a better friend. I want to feel something other than this stupid grey grinding nothingness, this fake laugh that’s just a little too loud, this sense of only ever enduring. I want and I want and I want and all of that goddamn wanting is exhausting.

I just need to you to promise me that I will feel better soon.

Jon Han for the NYTimes

Jon Han for the NYTimes

*I know, I know, induced comas aren’t fun, medical stuff isn’t fun, the ICU isn’t fun – I’m aware of how ridiculous my daydream is. But still.