Brain Salad

This post was inspired in equal parts by Ken White of Popehat, who has eloquently and forcefully advocated for more frank discussion about the experience of living with mental illness, and my own entrenched solipsism, which figures that, since I can’t think about anything else, I might as well pretend that other people will have any interest in the inner workings of my brain.

Humans have a knack (and a need) for creating narrative structures to illustrate their understanding of the world. Which is why, despite the fact that a person’s impression of their own mental health is perhaps the ultimate subjective experience, I’ve been groping for an applicable metaphor to illustrate the way my brain has been working. After lots of aimless pondering, I think I’ve finally hit on one.

Imagine that in your hands you have a bowl. In that bowl is a pile of nondescript iceberg lettuce, the kind that combines the crunch of wet cardboard with the taste of a damp dishtowel. If you nudge back one of the leaves, there’s a little dollop of Thousand Island dressing that came out of a packet you found under your car seat. It’s a pale, baby aspirin orange, with flecks of some anonymous seasoning that will be completely undetectable to your taste buds. That bowl is the nadir, the bottom of the barrel, the worst of all possible salads. It will keep you alive, but you’re not entirely sure it’s worth the trouble to eat it.

Such salad. So vegetables. Wow.The obvious solution is to get a better salad, right? There are all kinds of ingredients that would improve your experience. Rich greens, fresh veggies, savory proteins, an endless variety of dressings. (I bet you didn’t know that many kinds of crouton even existed.) Clearly that’s what everyone else is enjoying. They’re into their salads in a way that, if there was such a thing as a state legislature in this metaphor, would swiftly be made illegal. You should throw that bowl over your shoulder and go join them in a revelatory salad experience.

What depression does is tell you that you can’t. There isn’t enough salad for you, you don’t deserve it, and anyway you’d probably just spill it all over yourself. Those other people with their different, better salads? They clearly possess some ability or worth that you lack, otherwise you’d have a great salad too. Depression says that you’ve got a perfectly serviceable salad right there, and no amount of effort or desire on your part is going to result in any improvement.

On good days, you recognize that this isn’t true. Sure, nobody is going to just hand you a better salad, but you can get your hands on some veggies, and you’re capable enough to make them into something tasty. You might try a combination that doesn’t work so well, but that doesn’t mean you won’t hit on something fantastic if you try again.

On other days, you’re convinced that your shitty diner salad is all you’ll ever have. You might as well eat it, and stop thinking about improving the experience in any way. Not only will you fail if you try, but you’ll probably end up losing your lousy lettuce in the process, and then you won’t have anything at all.

The salad represents pretty much anything you can think of. Your job, your relationship, your living situation, your health, your stress level, any of the things in your life that you might consider working on, but which require some effort (and some hope) to really change. It represents fun, creativity, productivity, any activity that you might find enjoyable or fulfilling. No matter how bad or good your actual situation is, depression will make you feel like growing or improving or finding fulfillment is completely beyond your ability.

Everybody gets down and discouraged on occasion, but depression takes that feeling and makes it chronic. Feeling hopeful and capable becomes a fleeting experience. If this resonates with your experience, you’re not alone. I don’t have any great coping strategies at this point. If I come up with something, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, if having someone to talk to would help, I am happy to listen, with no judgment. Thanks for reading.


Things I Can No Longer Pretend to Care About

(a continuing list.)

The taste of terrible-tasting things.

Q) What (aside from being liquids that exist on a bewilderingly wide continuum of pricing) do tea, coffee, beer and wine all have in common?

A) They’re all drinks that evolved as delivery systems for mind-altering chemicals. By various trials and errors, our ancestors figured out that treating particular plants with specific combinations of heat and water and microorganisms resulted in miraculous concoctions that could affect your energy level in pleasant ways, take your mind off your grinding subsistence poverty for a fleeting moment, and maybe help you avoid the waterborne illnesses that came along with lots of people living (and shitting) in close proximity to their source of drinking water.

They’re also all drinks that objectively taste bad. Alcohol and caffeine and their byproducts aren’t naturally palatable. They’re bitter or sour or some combination thereof, and we have to talk ourselves into actually liking them.

How can I generalize so broadly about drinks that are so widely and faithfully consumed across cultural and socioeconomic divisions? I’ve seen what happens when children sneak a sip of any of them. They make that face that looks like they’re trying to harness the power of sheer regret to squint themselves back in time to the moment before they took that sip, in the vain hope of correcting the first of many unfortunate life choices.

But the real clue is the ridiculously complex set of rules and rituals that have grown up around what constitutes “good” vs. “bad” versions of these things. Sure, your bitter black brew is bitter and black, but did you get the kind that was shat out by an ocelot and roasted by a beardy Brooklynite and brewed in a hand-blown carafe to get just the exact right nuances of bitter and black? Okay, your wine is kind of sour, but can you smell the cud of the cows that ate the berries that grew in the field next door? Sure, your beer tastes likes something that yeast would shit out, but has it been so stuffed with hops that you could almost imagine being reincarnated as an overripe grapefruit? Nothing that was simply, objectively enjoyable would require that kind of stratification.

Friends, I have grown weary of pretending that I give a desiccated rodent’s scrotum about the particular intricacies of these drinks. There are types and tendencies and trends that I favor, but I can no longer feign an energetic devotion to any particular iteration. Let’s stop pretending that any matter of taste separating different versions of them is more sophisticated or enlightened. (If you need a caste system to enjoy your drink, are you really a connoisseur, or are you just looking for an excuse to feel superior?) Instead, I propose that we celebrate the ingenuity and persistence that it took to develop these complex, multi-step procedures, and the original intent behind them: to very slightly fuck up our brains in pleasant and/or useful ways. Cheers.

A Month of Madness (Maybe)

I have a somewhat strained relationship with creativity. When I’m busy – with work, with life, with practical things – it feels self-indulgent and irresponsible to spend time and energy doing something that’s not productive. When I’ve got a lot of time on my hands (when I’m not working full time, for example), my muse gets hunted down and messily consumed by self-doubt. Prolonged anxiety gives a megaphone to the voice in my head that says your ideas are terrible, and you’ll never do them justice.

The last few months of job hunting have been rather unkind to my confidence, and absolutely brutal on my ability to create. Things like writing, drawing, taking pictures, that I used to do regularly (if not frequently enough) have being come vague, sporadic things, more intent than execution. When I don’t have a task to do, I’m distracting myself so I don’t have to think about how deathly afraid I am that I suck.

It’s ridiculous and awful and self-defeating, and it needs to stop.

In the spirit of helping oneself, I’ve decided to jump on the bandwagon with an iteration of the recently ubiquitous “30 Days” concept. Every day for the next 30 days, I’m going to do at least one completely extraneous creative thing. I’m going to give myself a fairly broad definition of “creative.” I might write something here, or for my podcast. I might draw or take a picture, or update my Tumblr of ridiculous business jargon. Hell, maybe I’ll even use the excuse to do something new. The only real rule is that it has to be something that’s otherwise unnecessary. Nothing that pays, nothing that’s assigned to me, nothing that anyone else is relying on me to do. (Cover letters absolutely do not count.) When they’re done, I’ll share them on my social media feeds with the hashtag #30dayscreative.

So follow along, if you’d like. Words of encouragement are always welcome. So are suggestions for things you’d like to see me try. I’ll especially appreciate a boot to the posterior if I fall behind. And as always, thanks for paying attention.

Winter Wünderkind

I am now deep in the throes of my third winter in Iowa, friends and neighbors. It’s been an unremitting schedule of awful, marked by long stretches of daytime high temperatures in the single digits and wind chills in the double digits below zero. I learned the term “Polar Vortex,” and used it in conversation without pointing out that it sounded like a sex game for Arctic explorers. It was either a snowy landscape, or a screenshot of a weather forecast that might have come from Hoth. I think we can agree that I made the right call.

Between an unreasonable number of regular snowfalls, we’ve been treated to surprise storms that have swept in without warning to snarl traffic for hours, and a few random days where the temperature spiked near 50°F, teasing us with a glimpse of spring before sneaking up behind us and trying to drown us in freezing slush. On more than on occasion schools have been cancelled not by snow, but because the projected wind chill was considered life-threatening. Our front yard looks like it could comfortably support a whole family of yeti, and we’re expecting to be sweeping snowmelt off the sidewalk on Independence Day.

Despite the grinding cold and the socks that are always damp and the toes that never quite thaw, I can’t help feeling oddly, incongruously fortunate. Not only because I have a warm, cozy house (and a wonderful woman and two football-sized lumps of feline fluff with whom to share it), but because I’ve had the ridiculous good luck to be eased into it.

My first winter was really only a slight hiccup between fall and spring. It only snowed a handful of times, and it was never cold enough that walking to work was a major hassle. I can’t count how many times I was told that I’d picked the best possible year to move to the Midwest. Last year was incrementally worse: more snow, colder temperatures, and significantly less snickering about the “realness” of my Iowa winter experience.

This winter has been a constant shovelful of snow in the junk, but if I’d gone through it only a few months after moving here, I might have been tempted to lay down in front of a snowplow and hope being crushed to death might feel slightly warmer. As it is, I’m drastically uncomfortable, but I feel like I’ve worked up (or down) to it. I’ve had some time to toughen up, and it’s made this year a lot easier to handle. So consider this a vague and grudging expression of gratitude.

And if it gets much worse next year, look for my wallet in the red smear behind a salt truck.

How’s The Job Hunt Going?

There are few gestures so loaded with simultaneous promise and peril as asking someone who’s been out of work for awhile how their search for a new job is going. It is, of course, very kind and considerate that your friends/peers/acquaintances are interested in how this big, important, possibly life-defining thing is progressing. So what could make an otherwise thoughtful question so fraught?

In a stupidly overbroad way, looking for a new job is a bit like recovering from major surgery. If you’re healing up from an emergency organectomy, the process is kind of awful. There will be some victories along the way, but the day-to-day generally sucks. Something similar can be said of job hunting. Especially if you’re currently unemployed, casting about for a new position is a slog. Not only is it a lot of work finding and applying for jobs, but you’re dealing with the constant anxiety of financial insecurity. You’re also trapped in a continuous loop of excitement and disappointment, psyching yourself up for each new possibility, only to face (another) rejection.

Until it’s done. Once you’ve got a job, you’re relieved and excited and the news is good. Up to that point, your progress is measured by small victories (job openings found, applications finished, interviews landed) and many more disappointments (jobs already filled, applications that never garner a response, interviews that don’t pan out). Would I rather be healthy and job hunting than recovering from surgery? Of course. It’s an analogy, and not one that’s intended to diminish anybody’s health challenges. I’m just saying that, in both cases, if someone asks you how it’s going before the process has reached something resembling a satisfactory conclusion, your answer is liable to contain rather more uncertainty and disappointment than is strictly pleasant.

All of which makes framing a response a considerable challenge. If you’re anything like me, you’re painfully conscious of not being too negative all the time. You’re desperate not to be a burden or a pain in the ass, and you really don’t want to bum out somebody who was kind of enough to show an interest in your situation. You’ve also completely internalized the idea that nobody gets a job without networks and connections and introductions, and come on, who wants to help out (or hang out with) some doofus who’s whining all the time? So whenever someone asks about your job hunt, you duck and weave, trying like mad to put a good spin on an otherwise stressful and depressing situation. Then you go home, and quietly (or not) freak the f@#k out about your latest “we heard from many talented applicants” letter.

The thing that you (and by “you,” I mean “I”) need to keep in mind is that most of the people who ask are genuinely curious about what’s going on in your life. A handful of the people who ask might just be making conversation, and will bolt at the first sign of negativity or frazzlement. But it’s far more likely that they’re asking out of actual interest/concern. Unless you’re shrieking or sobbing or somehow blaming them for your setbacks, chances are they’ll be able to handle some honest vexation without making a panicked exit. A certain amount of composure is a good thing, but if you’re pretending that everything is super peachy all the time, you’re doing friendship wrong, and slathering on a bonus layer of added pressure that’s both unproductive and unnecessary.

All of which is a long way around of me telling myself to stop being so scared to admit when I’m discouraged. The middle ground between utter stoicism and abject fatalism isn’t actually as elusive as all that. I’m lucky enough to have people in my life who care enough to ask how I’m doing; I need to trust them (and myself) enough to give them an honest answer.