The one thing that no novel or film about people dealing with mental illness ever captures: the tedium.
From “The Three Faces of Eve” to “Sybil” to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to “A Beautiful Mind” to “As Good as It Gets,” the lives of those with mental disorders may be funny, tragic, depressing, uplifting. But they’re never dull.
Because if you live in that world, if you’ve lived every day of your life in that world, you know the story’s different. You know that struggling to see the world clearly is both boring and exhausting.
Boring because you know that the same things you struggled with yesterday will be waiting for you tomorrow as soon as you wake up, and tiring for the very same reason.
You can look back ten years, fifteen years, twenty years—as far back as you can remember—and recognize that your presence in the world has always been, well, off.
If you’re lucky, you see the dim glimmer of a time before. A time when you felt normal, felt the way everyone else seems to feel as they go about their lives. But probably you don’t have that. Maybe because the circumstances you grew up in had their own chaos (that may or may not have contributed to your own internal dis-equilibrium). Maybe because you found out early that you experienced the world differently from those around you. So it may be that even your earliest memories, going back decades, are tainted with turmoil.
When things go well, you can forget that for a while. But when they don’t, the familiar sense of the solitude of your oddness returns. The cold distance of it encircles you again.
And the solitude can be the hardest part. Because, really, no one wants to talk about any of this.
Not family because, well, they’ve lived with this as long as you have. They may be working as hard to hide from it as you are.
Friends and loved ones may try, but even with the best of intentions, it can sound to them like the same old same old: You’re feeling down; you’re feeling anxious; you feel numb; you feel tired; you feel sad. You run out of mundane adjectives, and those close to you run out of stamina. You can see the eyes glaze over, not because they don’t care but because just dealing with you over time can tax their emotional resources.
Maybe you have a therapist; maybe you even have a good one (if you’re lucky enough to have good insurance or financially secure enough to afford to pay yourself). But you can never put out of your mind that even they only listen to you because they’re paid. Not that you begrudge them what they earn. If you don’t want to listen to what goes inside your head, why should anyone else do it for free?
Maybe you attend a 12-step group, one of the few places where get to talk about what goes on inside your head and hear about others in the same boat. But that can also feel too much like the family you came from: the emotional turmoil, the power struggles, the clash of values and styles. So even that can carry you back to square one.
Even in groups that function well, you always have pieces that don’t seem to fit in the space. They get the mental illness piece, but not the race piece, or the race piece but not the class piece, or the class piece but not the gender piece, or the gender piece but not the domestic violence piece. Maybe one out of four. Maybe two out of five. But never a place for you to feel whole.
All in all, your unlikely to have more than one or two good friends who really do ask and really do listen and really do tell you, as often as they get the opportunity, that you are loved and valued.
And then, of course—you being you—guilt rises inside you, and you wonder about being a drain on their lives and their time and their limited emotional resources. You think about calling or texting or emailing, and you worry about dragging them down too, or exhausting your good will with them.
You think of all the people who’ve had to deal with you in the course of your life, and you wish you could give them some kind of emotional refund for the time they spend on you. You wish you could call them and say, “Here are the x hundreds or x thousands of hours you invested in me.” Or “I can’t give you back the whole 2,000 hours, but you can trade them in for, say, 500 hours with the Dalai Lama or Fred Rogers or Malala Yousafzai or Toni Morrison.”
You see the people walking around in the world—people on the sidewalks, people you work with, neighbors and acquaintances, the parents of your kids’ friends or classmates—and they seem so regular.
You wonder, with awe and envy, what it must be like to be that normal. Or you wonder, also with awe and envy, what it must be like to hide your turmoil that well.
And, I don’t know, maybe that’s what art is for. Maybe that’s why some people dance or sing or play music of write poems or act. Maybe one of those things, or something like it, will help you feel less alone. For a while.
I do know this, though: You aren’t alone. We’re out here, trudging through these hours the same as you. And that’s something.
So at this point, I’m about as tired as I’ve been in a long time with so much. But most particularly me. That is all.
Things I’ve noticed by trying to practice more diligent self-examination:
When I feel anxious, I am alert, but fear always accompanies that alertness.
When I feel aware (meditating, writing, running), I’m also alert and present, but without the fear.
The anxiety heightens my perceptions in some ways, but the fear also pushes me out of the present. The fear keeps me focused on all the ways the outcome could wrong. It cycles through the things that have gone wrong in the past. On an important level, it makes me always wish I were somewhere other than where I am. Somewhere safe.
I’ve become aware of how much the fear/anxiety expresses itself in what looks like anger. My voice gets louder, my tone more urgent. I breathe more rapidly. When the mood passes, my muscle relax, and it’s only then that I realize how tensely I’ve been holding my body.
I say the behavior “looks” like anger, because I don’t feel angry. I simply become the personification of the “fight or flight” response. The world diminishes to a flattened black and white. Sharp relief. Do this, not that. No detail, act, or word is insignificant. Everything matters in some essential, life-or-death way.
Awareness isn’t just a matter of being calm but a different state of existence. Everything is here. Everything is present. Everything is unfolding, and I am simply part of that.
Most of all, in the midst of awareness, I don’t perceive myself as deficient, while in the midst of anxiety I worry about being flawed and insufficient. Swimming in my anxiety, the possibility of my making some crucial, unanticipated mistake looms large.
It’s not so much that awareness fills me with confidence. It’s that in awareness, I simply am who I am, and I trust in who I am. Whatever else flows from that simply flows from it.
Good lord, who just wrote that?
This morning, I had a great idea for a blog post.
I was going to write about how the essence of finding contentment and even joy in life comes from finding a way to accept loss. “Living means losing,” I was going to intone sagely. The struggle in life comes from refusing to admit this, or from the inability to find a way to escape being captured by this reality.
Trust me, in my head this sounded really cool.
But now it’s almost 11 at night, and I’m tired. I’ve been plowing through grading, dealing with a child home sick from school for two days, trying to plan for my classes, running to and from the campus where I teach, dealing with students unhappy with their grades, with students who seem not to have understood that they are supposed to have been actually using in their writing all the concepts we’ve discussed in class. And despite assignment sheets and rubrics, they don’t understand why essays with multiple spelling and syntax errors are only getting mediocre grades.
These aren’t all of my students. Several of them have done quite well, and/or have clearly shown that they’re getting the concepts even if they can’t yet execute them as well as they’d like. In any case, it’s not that I blame them. For most students, grades are the name of the game. Which is only one of the reasons I hate grades (I don’t have giving feedback; I hate having that all distilled down to “But did I get the grade I wanted…”).
Maybe after all the way I’m feeling is about loss. It’s about the loss of interest in getting better, even when that involves making mistakes. It’s about the idea of “getting through” rather than immersing yourself and seeing what happens.
Maybe it’s about losing myself in this morass of institutional achievement: compiling credits, chasing numbers, shuffling folks on to their degrees.
Maybe it’s about losing the feeling that I can find some place in this culture presenting my perspective, my experience, my deepest self is enough.
Whatever it is, I know that I’m feeling a sense of loss. And I know that I can only deal with it by letting myself feel it, then getting up tomorrow and doing the best I can. That’s going to have to be enough for now.
These days, I work under the premise that we can approach spirituality in one of two ways. One aims to help us recognize and deal with our lack of control over the universe. The second attempts to convince us that we do have control–or that we have the favor or blessing of whomever or whatever is in control.
I tend to place myself firmly with team not-in-control. The best I can do, I’ve come to believe, is to seek truth and try to act in tune with what I find, come what may. I tend to think of team control as Team Superstition: if we believe this doctrine, follow this ritual, worship this deity, repeat these words, we will be safe and fortunate forever into eternity, amen. The practices of Team S can be as small and innocuous as throwing salt over your shoulder after you spill some to ward off back luck, and as institutional and far reaching as thinking those who don’t share your doctrine are subhuman.
Funny thing, religious people can be on either team, and non-religious people can be on either team. If you think that through rationalism or some other intellectual theory you can perfect human beings and create a permanent utopia, I’m going to put you solidly in Team S. That’s control-freakishness on steroids in my book. On the other hand, if you’re a nun who spends a lifetime believing that doubt and faith are inseparable, understanding that you will probably never know the *real* answer, that sounds more team not-in-control.
But let’s get back to talking about me. Because even though I see myself as Mr. Not-Control, I do have a practice that heavily influences my life and is all about superstition: perfectionism.
I try to pretend that my insistence on loading the dishwasher in a certain way comes from a desire for efficiency. I tell myself that folding my clothes this way rather than that (or keeping the kids from running in the house, or making the bed, or whatever other manifestations of my need for order) arises from purely practical motives. But honestly, who am I kidding? (Certainly not my partner or my children.)
I make and follow these rules for myself because a little person deep in the recesses of my brain tells me they’ll keep us safe. And I figured out that this is the case because I’ve noticed what happens when things don’t stay within the confines of my sense of order.
I get scared. Not mildly annoyed, but anxious.
I don’t think consciously, “If that sock is left on the bedroom floor (a carpeted floor, mind you) my son could slip on it and lose his balance and fall head-first against the window sill and suffer a traumatic brain injury that will put him into a coma and make him a vegetable and drain our financial resources, ruining the life of his younger sister too and she will become an embittered drug addict who falls into a life of crime, all while our country continues to spin out of control, thereby shredding the social safety net further and all of us will die in a right-wing concentration camp with mud floors.”
No, I don’t actually think all that consciously to myself. But that’s how it feels. To my credit, most of the time I don’t act on those feelings. Well, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I end up speaking with a certain tone in my voice that isn’t quite yelling (honest, it isn’t) but has, I have to admit, an edge of frenzy to it.
It’s one thing to prefer a certain way of doing things; it’s another to have to have things a certain way and to expect others to go along. And it becomes, in my case, a third thing when this insistence on being sure that I know everything is going to be okay gets in the way of my trying new things or doing my work writing because I’m afraid it won’t turn out the way I need it to turn out. So best to do nothing.
In short, my perfection has often crippled me from just acting and letting life take its course. It’s held me back from taking the chances, even small ones, that make life enjoyable and fulfilling.
At the end of the day, we’re all perfect failures. We can’t control everything; we can’t bend the universe to our will; we aren’t perfect creatures. And I’m just now realizing that accepting this can lead to so much more joy.
Look, I’ll be honest: I don’t trust the universe. And this isn’t new.
In my defense, I have reasons. Some of them arise from the specific experiences of my upbringing. Without going into details, I’ll only say that I found emotional safety in short supply. Some spring from the bigotries and abuses and oppression, both past and present, that litter human history. It’s hard, for me at least anymore, to be a brown person in this culture and see the universe as benevolent.
And then, of course, we have the largest of reasons: the existential reality that the universe aims to kill us. All of us. Each and every living being. As a practical matter, this makes sense; the planet (and probably the universe) lacks the space for everything living that comes into being to continue to live indefinitely (eating, reproducing, defecating and urinating, etc., etc.).
But I can’t help taking it somewhat personally that the universe will someday enforce an end-by date for me, and I sometimes struggle with not knowing when that date will arrive (not that I want to know…I think).
Alan J. Pakula, one of my favorite filmmakers, died 19 years ago this month when he was driving home on the freeway and the car in front of him hit a metal pipe that flew up and through Pakula’s car windshield, hitting him in the head and causing him to crash his car. No, trust is not for a universe such as this; I feel justified in coming to that conclusion.
But I don’t often think consciously about the impact this distrust has on my life. Today, for example, I had a wonderful connection with a loved one, a connection that I didn’t expect. And at the time, I thought it happened only because I’d written them an email lamenting what felt like a distance between us. As it turned out, my loved one hadn’t read the email; they initiated this interaction because they spontaneously felt the same desire for closeness.
In smaller ways, too, I feel the hand of my distrust on my actions. Something so simple as coming to an intersection gives rise to the briefest moment of anxiety about whether the other cars will stop as they should. Momentarily my foot hovers over the brake, just in case.
So much of my anxiety about my children’s safety, my work, my writing, the quality of my friendships, my not-infrequent loneliness or depression, roots itself in my suspicion about what the universe might have in store for me next.
In the face of similar concerns, some people give themselves over to religion and the hope for another world, another realm that follows death, where certainty and safety and happiness will exist in infinite abundance. My one-time ability to believe in that is long gone. But I think there may be another way.
I can choose to maintain the sense that the universe doesn’t have the best intentions for me and still find meaning. I can do this by dropping my expectations (though not necessarily my desire) for how the world should be and focusing instead on determining, and acting on the basis of, how I should be.
I can choose an openness that makes space for the kind of spontaneous interaction I had today. I can choose to make art not because I know the world will accept it but because I know my life is poorer when I let my fear keep me from writing. I can choose to embrace love and connection and risk, knowing that someday I will lose those I love or they will lose me, because I want the kind of life that such choosing makes possible (but doesn’t guarantee).
Neither danger nor safety make life worth living, even if I could control them (which I can’t). The possibility of connection does. The possibility of transformation does. Not even the expectation. Just the possibility. Just that.
And so, with my devices I both connect with others and separate myself.
The glimmering screen–television, cell phone, computer (and now watch, and now corner of my eyeglasses?)–swallows me with a promise of ending my isolation. In a series of clicks that takes only seconds, interactions unscroll themselves at my bidding. I can float on them; I can plunge in with morsels (carefully chosen) from my own life. Amusement. Engagement. Empathy. Anger. Camaraderie. Enmity. Let your fingers do the walking.
In the background of the space my body inhabits, everyone and everything dims and fades out of focus. The screen never forces me to hear questions I don’t want to answer. It never asks me to resolve my inconsistencies or unravel my dilemmas. It takes my word for it, whatever “it” is.
I can project myself a mess (even if I’m fine). I can convincingly (or not, since I don’t have to answer to anyone for it) style myself a fine and together and even enhanced human being, even as chaos swirls within me. My devices can shield me, even from myself.
You know, the words “desire” and “device” spring from a related sense, as in “leave him to his own devices.” Meaning “leave him to his own means of attaining what he wants.” Is it me, or do we increasingly want the devices themselves?
This is not a lament about technology. This is not a nostalgic yearning for a simpler time when we faced one another, committed to interactions that consisted of uncomfortable silences or uncomfortable words.
My childhood was filled with devices, even before the internet and laptops and smartphones. We found our own ways not to talk, and not to notice that we weren’t talking. I took walks, argued about sports or politics, buried my eyes in books, fantasized about the future; I went to Mass; I played board games with my brothers. These devices were only less expensive than those we use now. Low tech.
No, I’m not looking for a return to some mythical golden age. I want to find a way to unravel or fulfill or even name desire without using devices, accompanied by the risks of misrecognition, pursued without an on/off switch. I want something I’m not sure how to do, something I’m not sure is possible.
I want “conversation.”
Can we talk?
“What way is this?…What dark is this?”
“Get out of your own way” repeated itself in my head yesterday. A mantra.
But that means I have to know what my way is.
Thirty-three years ago this month, I fled from college. Dropped out, they would say, and so I used to say. I had really been checked out for weeks, stopped attending classes. And I had been muddling for years.
Was I getting in my way all those months I was a poor student? Was I getting in my way when I stopped going to my classes? Was I getting in my way when I left?
Or was I on my way? Was the act of leaving, and all the messy prelude to it, simply me groping, seeking the escape hatch that would set me free, point me in the direction I should have been traveling all along?
“All the way to heaven is heaven,” St. Catherine of Siena once wrote.
Can that be true? Can even my mistakes, my transgressions, the harm I’ve visited on others, simply be my way to heaven? I might be able to convince myself it were so if I believed in that supernatural concept of heaven anymore.
But without the comforts of that usefully, beautifully, unsatisfactorily vague utopia, I am left with this: To try coming to terms with not knowing where my way leads. To settling on the practice of certain acts (meditating, running, writing, caring) that seem to ground me and keep (generally) the dismay at bay. I’m left, in short, with uncertainty, and with what devices I can find to forgive myself and the universe for our shared lack of clarity.
So maybe that’s my way. Maybe, in the end, that’s the only way any of us has.
Emptiness, as with so many states of being, arrives in different forms: sometimes a welcome exhaustion following the pleasure of heavy exertion; sometimes the white of bleak, winter landscapes; sometimes the despair of a non-existent balance on an overdrawn account; sometimes the clean space of beginner’s mind.
Sages and alchemists understood that survival often lies in transforming the things we encounter–both within ourselves and between ourselves and the world–from one form to another as the situation indicates.
Each day I ask myself whether I can turn this emptiness I so often possess (and which possesses me) into another form, from despair to presence. Can I make absence and lack into openness and receptivity?
Winter’s frigid sleep and slaughter becomes the blank canvas for spring; the jungle’s living cacophony bursts from a tangle of unending decay. In each instance, absence–emptiness–lays the foundation for birth and growth.
Life and death coil about one another like snakes roiled in combat. Or the rituals of mating. Or both.
I can’t get to necessity by clinging; I can arrive there only by emptying. What a cold and terrifying place it can be to dwell. Yet nothing matters more than letting go because the essence left behind becomes the material to be transformed into whatever comes next.
It may turn out dispossession is nine tenths of the law of existence.
This transformation needs to happen inside/out. I’m trying to teach myself to let go: of states of mind, of habits of thinking, and of the carbon dioxide–clenched in my lungs–that keeps clean oxygen from coming in.