“Unpleasant feelings come from illusions: fear of What Might Be (which hasn’t happened yet), sadness from What Might Have Been (which is not necessarily what would have been), and so on. Piglets, living in fear of What’s Coming Next, What Can Go Wrong, What If I Do Something Foolish, and such, cannot enjoy and make the most of the present moment … However, because of their sensitivities, their strong experience-filing-and-recalling memories, and their cautious, one-step-at-a-time natures, Piglets - far more than Eeyores and Tiggers, Rabbits and Owls - have the ability to rise to a challenge and accomplish the most difficult tasks, once interfering illusions have been cleared away.”
“When I have lunch with friends, I can notice myself trying to be liked or entering a subtle contest to be the funniest or most interesting. It’s exhausting … When I interact from my mind, I’m insecure and competitive and ultimately alone. When I interact from my heart, I’m connected.”
“I didn’t yet realize that there is no cure for anxiety, just perpetual treatment. I didn’t yet realize that a quarter century of anxiety had gouged deep, packed-earth ruts in my brain, and that the only way to stop my thoughts from falling back into those ruts was to dig new tracks and keep digging them, forever. I didn’t yet realize that the only nonnegotiable approach to the anxious life is discipline.”
Sometimes I miss elementary school, when there were 36 of us and we were all good at something. Some were weirder than others - Chris pulled down his pants in second grade and Danny stabbed us with pencils - but most of us were fairly normal and we all got invited to birthday parties. I was smart, even at math then, and in sixth grade I was the lead in the play, Becky to Danny’s Tom Sawyer. A different Danny: a year before, this Danny told me someone was going to rape me at the stock market exchange on our upcoming class trip, and that he was destined to save me. Some of us were weirder than others.
But I wasn’t the weird one.
I liked boys but I didn’t cut out their faces from magazines and plaster them inside of my closet, like my sister did. I liked real boys: J.J., Jared, Andrew - who tried to sell pot at his fifth grade birthday party. And I liked them hard. So hard, I think sometimes that at 29, I’ve run out.
When Danny and Jonathan had a pretend boxing match over me, which I chronicled in my diary that night (this was pre-Stock Market Exchange Prophecy), I felt like the most important girl in the world.
When I bonded with a potential new friend over Light Bright or lanyard, I asked, “Want to come over and play?” and the answer was always yes. Once, Laura and I flashed each other to see if we had the same parts. We did. When her mom called down to ask how we were doing, we shamelessly walked upstairs and made cake out of whatever was in the pantry. Our first Iced Tea Cake Cookie was the best; subsequent attempts yielded inferior copies.
Jared once asked why my eyes were so big and my lips so small and I told him that’s what models looked like. When he liked Rachel and when Andrew liked Laura, I had Eric, Steven, Danny, Jonathan. Dina and I kissed under a fort we built, taping construction paper to the legs of a table, to show Rachel and Jared it wasn’t such a big deal.
Nothing was a big deal.
The other day I sat on a bench with a friend watching the water and she asked if I had enough room and I thought, “AM I SITTING TOO CLOSE?” When did I become afraid of sitting too close?
I haven’t had feelings for a male in months. All the regular humans around me are going on dates, blushing, entering into documented partnerships.
The question “Do you want to come over and play?” is lodged in my throat.
I’d like to tag in my child self to sit under the construction paper fort and demonstrate how it’s done. This is how you ask someone to hold you. This is how you love yourself. This is how you undress from these bullshit clothes and act like the child you loved.
“As artists and professionals, it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution […] In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of advertising, movies, video games, magazines, TV and MTV by which we have been hypnotized from the cradle. We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work.”
Sometimes I come to my blog page because my brain is over-firing and having to put letters in order, and seeing the result of black on white, brings me back to myself.
There is a great segment of This American Life, The Hostess with the Toastess, which profiles the owner of The Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club in San Fransisco. Giulietta Carrelli has schizoaffective disorder, and has crafted her life around things that “bring her back.” She often has episodes of feeling outside of herself, finding herself lost without any idea how to get home. Things that bring her back include the freezing water of China Beach, and the fact that the whole neighborhood knows who she is - she wears the same outfit daily and is covered in tattoos. If she’s lost people can direct her back home, or to her cafe.
Here is a woman who has designed her life to keep herself afloat.
Two nights ago, I drove over a median and ran up a huge bill. After the practical questions were answered all the other questions, from the depth of my fear well, were tapped and for the next two days, I was flooded. I didn’t move from the couch on the first day.
But at the same time, I close off, so while my brain is flooding, I’ve dammed my body. That’s what anxiety is, for me.
What’s gotten in the way of designing my life to keep myself afloat: not admitting that I needed help to stay afloat; not admitting that at times, my body could be awfully weighty.
The first step is admitting you have a problem.
When I admit I have a problem I’m met with all sorts of responses. There’s sympathy, the “Oh, you poor thing.” There’s empathy, the “I’m going to hold your hand through this.” There’s rejection. Connection. Judgement. Acceptance.
I’ve done the “not me.” A friend at Yogaville slipped into a manic phase, and after she was taken to the hospital, the group of women on the floor - including me - decided to burn some sage. Another girl suggested a ceremony to clear the air of her old bedroom. The episode was surprising and traumatic for some of us. Watching our friend’s face and eyes change, hearing her tell of how she was “sent here to clean us up” - it was difficult. But weeks later it would still come up: Remember when she (fill in the blank)? And how she…? The way she looked when she told everyone she…?
How I had rejected her. Not on the outside. On the outside I was understanding, curious, kind - got to keep up appearances. But I wanted that room clean. I helped fold her clothes and put them into boxes. I told friends back home about my friend who changed overnight and how it scared me.
Soon I realized that distancing myself from her was an effort to distance myself from the parts of myself I couldn’t stand to look at.
When I admit I have a problem, sometimes people say, “I worry about you.” I want to put this out there: that’s one of the least effective things you can possibly say - or do. I suggest we remove it from our vocabulary. Instead, how about, “How can I help?” Most of the time, when someone asks me that, I say, “You already are.”
If someone insists on giving you sympathy (“not me,” or “I worry about you”) instead of empathy (“me too,” or “how can I help?”), it’s because (s)he can’t meet you where you are. Even if you wish above all wishes that (s)he could, right now, it’s not possible. Because to be empathetic, we need to accept the other person fully. And to accept another person fully, we need to acknowledge and accept all the parts of ourselves fully.
Sometimes my mom reads my posts and tells me she worries about me. But, you know something? This blog has brought me back to myself on more occasions than I can count. The very act of sharing myself makes me better. I know that’s the same for other people who blog. If you read this, you’re joining a support group I accidentally started five years ago. Welcome.
This blog is my Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club.
When the depression hits, we know it. For me, it looks like watching my third Netflix movie in a row, frozen in bed, my feet spazzing out under the covers. They want so desperately to get me vertical, but the rest of my body and mind prefer to lay like a fetus, a kidney - a non-adult piece of a human. And I’m wondering if 8:00 is an okay time to go to sleep, because even when I’m hoping to be swallowed up by the great sea of nothingness, I’m still very much aware of the social norm of appropriate bed time.
But what is not obvious to me, when depression hits, is what the heck got me here. I’ve had a handful of severe episodes in my life. Maybe two handfuls. I can list them on my fingers and tell you why they happened. After the fact, I gather up clues and put together a story. I’m a mood detective. I can unearth my monocle and tell a very neat, logical story about how I got into, and out of, all my episodes of anxiety/depression. Depranxion. Pranx for short - cause when you’re in the midst of depranxion, your mind’s playing some tricky-ass pranx.
On the other hand, Yoga teaches us to let go of stories. They’re not real. Stories are dreams that maintain the illusion that we’re separate individuals, and not part of a shared, grand picture (of love, of consciousness, of energy, whatever you want to call it, depending on where you fall on the conservative/woo-woo spectrum). “Let go of the story,” meditation instructors will say. “Stay with the sensation.”
Ram Dass talks about the heavy strain of the stories we tell ourselves, our identities. Of the end of an LSD trip, he writes, “I recall starting to ‘come down’ and this huge red wave rolled in across the room. … It was all my identities, all rolling in over me. I remember holding up my hand and saying, ‘NO, NO, I don’t want to go back.’ It was like this heavy burden I was going to take on myself.”
I believe that stories can be a burden and a salvation. A burden because they limit us, and a salvation because sometimes, telling our stories is the best way to let them go.
So I’ve been doing this investigation from my bed. (And from my yoga mat, my therapist’s office, my friends’ couches.) Because when I don’t know where my depression comes from, my brain becomes a presidential candidate at a debate answering a left-field question she never saw coming: I don’t know the answer but I’ll say something loudly! And confidently. And extreme! This is the best, worst, most conclusive evidence you’ve ever heard in all your life. It’s 100% true, too, because there shall be no grey area in our country. (But brain, you are a grey area!) What does my brain say when it doesn’t know why it’s depressed? “We’re broken. We’re f*cked. The damage is done; we’re irreparable. We’re weak, incapable of living in the world.”
This is my huge red wave. It threatens to pull me under. Just reading this, I feel the morbid tug. But at the same time, in excavating my depression and piecing together my story, I’ve named my demon. I’ve given it a body and a face. And I’ve ushered it out into the world - permanently, thanks to the Internet, where it can’t hide.
Back to my investigation. At this point, feel free to stop reading if depression/anxiety doesn’t affect you or someone you love. Of course, keep reading if you want to learn more about it.
I recently discovered the Black Dog Institute, which offers a new (to me) lens from which to view depression and bipolar disorder. They break depression down into four different sub-types. Mine falls under the “non-melancholic” type, which is another way of saying it’s a combo of situation + personality type. “Melancholic” type refers to a depression that’s biologically based, and responds well to medication, and not so well to talk therapy. Only 10% of depressed people fall under that category.
Certain personality traits can make us more susceptible to depression. I think we intuitively know this. If you tend to be a worrier, for instance, you know there’s a link between anxiety and depression. But if you take their temperament and personality questionnaire, you’ll learn about some personality traits you may not have discerned before. For instance, “rejection sensitivity.”
Reading through my results, it was easy to see that the perfect storm of the circumstances I’ve created in this past year + my personality traits = depression.
Ah, stories. I’m crafting a story just for you, dear depression. When it’s done I’ll sit back and tell it calmly. Then I’ll let go the string and watch it drift off with the next great wind.
This week, two of my students wrote about mental illness. Ashley wrote about OCD and anxiety, and Matt wrote about the depression that hit after starting high school. Another student, Leana, wrote about being ultra-sensitive to the point where she cries when strangers cry. Three other students, all recent immigrants, wrote about how they feel invisible, excluded, and powerless in Southampton.
So we discussed the power of writing about hardship. Risking cheesiness, I told them that I believe writing is magical. By sharing his story about loneliness, Matt will save his lonely readers.
"How?" he asked, looking downward.
"Have you ever felt like you’re the only one who feels this bad?"
"If your reader felt that way too, now he knows he’s not alone."
My feedback for each essay was nearly identical: “You’re brave to share this, and the world needs to hear your story.”
And from this class, I realized I have not been practicing what I preach. I haven’t been writing about my hardships. I’ve been scared of them, ashamed. I leave the party early. Say, “I’m in transition mode,” with a wink and a smile. Give quick, snappy hugs when I want oh so much to curl on a friend’s lap like a pet and have my forehead stroked.
A few months ago I cleared this blog’s archive. I’m five years older than I was when I started Old Dan Yeller, and I wanted the blog to grow with me. So from now on, I had decided, I would post uplifting things. I’d promote happiness and living in the moment. I’d write from the part of me that recognizes we are all the same - from the soul.
I’d been transformed. Yoga ashrams will do that to you.
Coming back to New York from Yogaville was more of a culture shock than when I had returned from half a year out of the country. I was used to waking at 4:45 and working for a “boss” who, on our first day of housekeeping service, said, “It’s cool if you’re late. You were probably having a conversation you needed to have. It’s your journey, guys. I’m just here to witness it.” JP helped me with some big fears that came up when I meditated. He eventually left his position as manager because it really cramped his practice of living in the moment.
Back in New York I had chants stuck in my head. I walked around the bar barefoot. I missed the shit out of Dale, and Leigh-Mae and Sarah, who all decided to stay longer.
After a month at Yogaville, my heart was wide open, and the fear that had run my life since I was twenty had mostly vanished. Love won out.
And I loved two men whole-heartedly after that. Even my relationship fears were tempered.
Then, this Fall, the anxiety came back. Slowly, sneakily, unnoticed until the panic attacks started - resulting in my status quo being lowered to “Nose above water? Successful day.” And that’s where I’m writing from today.
And if I’m not writing from here, I’m not being completely honest. I’m protecting myself from being vulnerable. And when you leave aspects of yourself in the dark, they fester and grow. See Brene Brown’s research on shame. (The #1 ingredient necessary for shame to thrive: secrecy.)
I still believe that writing - and all art, really - should ultimately lift us up. Lord knows we could always use a lift. But we have to lift ourselves first, and the only way out is through.
* Title borrows from Fiona Apple and Joanna Newsom lyrics.
“Stories can also function as Trojan Horses. The audience accepts the story because, for a human, a good story always seems like a gift. But the story is actually just a delivery system for the teller’s agenda. A story is a trick for sneaking a message into the fortified citadel of the human mind.”
“Everyone needs a platform of self-worth from which to see change. And what I think shame does, is sticks us in a hole that’s so deep and so dark that we can’t see out. And we can’t see that we are capapable of being anything, or doing anything, beyond being stuck in this very dark, deep place.”
“Working rightly, the brain is the highest form of “instinctual wisdom.” Thus it should work like the homing instinct of pigeons and the formation of the fetus in the womb — without verbalizing the process or knowing “how” it does it. The self-conscious brain, like the self-conscious heart, is a disorder, and manifests itself in the acute feeling of separation between “I” and my experience. The brain can only assume its proper behavior when consciousness is doing what it is designed for: not writhing and whirling to get out of present experience, but being effortlessly aware of it.”
Matthew, JR’s brother from out of town, is back for the holidays. He’s my father’s age. I don’t know much about him, just that when he’s here, he voluntarily wipes dishes, sometimes at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I wonder what kind of penance he’s paying in there. Whenever I see him he gives a solid hug, kisses me on the cheek, and says, “You’re magical.”
Joe came into the basement classroom after the New Year’s Eve party and wrestled my roommate. They pinned each other and grunted and bit, and I watched from the wall. When they finished, he sat on the floor with his legs crossed and said, “I thought about coming into the kitchen today and telling you that I hated you.”
"Me?" I asked. I hadn’t spoken much with Joe since he’d gotten here.
"Yeah. I thought about it but I didn’t do it. Obviously."
His hips were lifted and he was balancing on his hands. He arms shook and his lips quivered.
I crawled on the carpet a little closer, to face him. “Okay,” I said. “Do you want to talk about it?”
"I think it’s because I gave you that story, and it wasn’t a story at all, it’s exactly how I think, and now you know all this stuff about me and I know nothing about you, and you just sit there. And when I sat across from you at the table yesterday, I hated you."
My roommate, not looking up from her sketchbook, asked, “But why do you hate her?” and he looked over at her, maybe for confidence, or camaraderie, and continued.
I was tired. My stomach turned as I sat across from him, my heart facing his, my eyes meeting his. I told him why he hasn’t connected with me: because I haven’t let him. He wrote a beautiful story about visiting an old friend at an all-girls school, and the way his character looked at women scared me. I didn’t say that since I read it I’ve noticed him with women, and I see the flicker of interest in his eyes with nearly everyone, and a wildness there I’ve either never seen, or have seen and forgotten.
"I’m surprised you took that so well," he said. "I know you like that conscious communication thing."
I followed his eyes to where my roommate sat drawing.
"Right," I said. "Zane’s not a fan of it."
He sat next to me for a while, and I offered to show him some of my writing soon, if that might close the vulnerability gap. When I left for bed I hugged everyone goodnight, him included.
"I’m a human," I said. "I need love. I need to feel accepted and safe and loved."
Who knows who I was speaking to.
His face changed and there was an opening, but on the staircase I closed it up because I don’t want to let the animal in or out.
This morning Matthew hugged me hello and held my face and said, “You’re in a good place, I can tell.”
Isn’t it wild, what people see?