is my motto for 2012.
the reason i picked up caroline knapp’s drinking: a love story to reread when i did was because of what i remembered her saying about the difficulty and necessity of flexing emotional muscles long out of use or perhaps never fully developed. what kept her and what she used to keep herself from needing to make the choices that built them up over time was booze, and sobriety was for her in part the ongoing exercise of learning to feel things, really feel things, keep feeling them as long as the feelings lasted, and then do something in spite of them or about them, as the case may be.
with the possible exception of the summer before college i’ve never been a regular drinker, but the concept of emotional muscle wormed into me when i first read the book in high school. it’s part of why i don’t mind drinking with friends but i always wind up feeling a little gross about myself when i do use alcohol primarily to ease my own tension in social situations where i feel nervous: because i know that i’m using it as a crutch and i know that every time i do that — and i’m not saying this is the case for anyone but me — i’m putting off the day i do still hope for when i will learn what i need to feel if not wholly at ease at least truly okay in those situations.
speaking more broadly, though, there have been other factors, for me, in inhibiting the growth of certain specific emotional muscles. looking back i spent the years 2005-2009 vacillating between different intensities of depression. i don’t think it’s a coincidence that the only period in that span of time during which i think of myself as having really learned something, in a lasting and internalized way, was fall 07 through spring 08 — my first americorps year, which i spent not completely emotionally stable but much more clearheaded than the time before or after. most crucially that year taught me to put mistakes in the past, a lesson that has served me hugely since then. there were other things, too, that felt like epiphanies at the time, tools i could use in the re-entry to college i was So Totally Ready For (not), but those had taken longer to sink in, which could be part of why they crumbled with my mental state as the months in cambridge wore on.
the thing about depression, for me, is that the worst most miserable self-hating emotional reaction to anything, but especially to things that basically boil down to The Act Of Being The Person That I Am, always felt like the only honest ones. it’s one of the hard things about getting out of it, and admittedly about talking to people i suspect are at least somewhat in its grips: feeling better seems like cheating. it feels like deluding yourself, because how could you be happy given what a uniquely dysfunctional human you are. i’ve talked to other depressives who, like me at other times, have gone the holden caufield route, which is too familiar to me to begrudge him: how could anyone be happy when society is so fucked up? a friend of mine used to argue with methat she didn’t need treatment because what she was feeling was a rational response to her specific life situation and her outlook on the world; about a year ago she started therapy and antidepressants and admitted i had been right. she didn’t start liking the things she’d disliked, but she could step out of the circles of despair they used to lead her in.
so too with me: two years on medication, out of the place that led to my worst depressive episodes, and the pull of self-loathing is not as inescapable as it once was. but after so long, and maybe partly because i spent much of late elementary and middle school depressed too (i went to therapy briefly until my father pulled some weird court shit to keep us out of it, which explains why in retrospect i needed it), it had become a habit and is still my automatic retreat after setbacks major, minor, or, frequently, remembered. and it still feels, in those moments, the most honest assessment of myself.
you know, there’s evidence that depressed people do perceive reality more accurately than those who are not. i remember reading about studies where only the clinically depressed accurately gauged (for example) that the game they were playing was one utterly out of their control, and feeling (i admit) somewhat smug. but who cares? life isn’t a math test. when you die you’re not greeted with a prize for Seeing Life In All Its Terribleness.
the thing about the most miserable option is that it also feels like the hardest, because i am daring to feel so bad. but that’s actually not hard at all for me. i am actually remarkably good at it, it’s a shame it’s not a marketable skill. or a studyable one — i would ace that course, let me tell you. so in reality it is the opposite of hard. it’s lazy.
lazy: another fraught concept. i don’t want to universalize any experience, but i don’t know that i’ve ever heard someone talk in detail about depression without mentioning feeling awful and lazy for not being able to do anything. it’s still difficult to distinguish between recovering overachiever guilt (and, oh, keeping stupidly busy and defining yourself by your activities — that’s also a great way to stave off creating a real sense of self) and a more genuine dissatisfaction with the ways i’m spending my time. but difficult isn’t a reason not to try.
difficult isn’t a reason not to try. that’s maybe the other angle to my motto. knapp talks also about how especially in her first months of recovery, but later, too, each choice is between the easy choice, which is the alcoholic choice, and the hard choice, which is the choice that reaffirms your faith in your ability to be the better version of yourself, who is also, not coincidentally, the happier one. for me the easy choice almost always ends poorly, whether it’s not cleaning my room or not trying to cook because — surprise! — i’m convinced i’ll fail. and the hard choice there isn’t just overcoming inertia enough to buy cookable objects and hunt down a recipe on the internet or in a book; it’s also in deciding to believe i could learn to cook, if i wanted.
because i really don’t. on some level i am really convinced that i am such a special snowflake (the narcissism of low self-esteem) that i and i alone am literally physically incapable of learning to cook, and it’s easy to make the not-actually-a-choice choice to stick to that belief, instead of deciding to pretend i don’t until i really don’t anymore. it’s easy to keep up my irrational attachments to past failures and my habit of reliving them until i’ve ruined my own evening. it’s easy to assume no one actually really likes me instead of saying hey, let’s hang out sometime, and deciding i can live with it if they don’t.
but passivity is corrosive to the soul.
[emphasis added in the places where isabel is speaking from inside my brain]
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- of-the-valley said: Thank you for being so open and honest <3
- insomnius said: I know I’m jus a total stranger on the internet so this feels a bit weird, but this post really resonated with me so I want to thank you for writing it.
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- jonathanbogart said: oh my god get out of my HEAD
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- microphoneheartbeats said: Paragraphs 4 & 8 (or I guess, including ‘is my motto’, 5 & 9) speak to me very strongly, although the latest word I’ve been given for my brain is ‘anxiety’. Anyway, passivity is a black hole. It sucks. You’re awesome. Cheers to 2012.
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