[This note was written October 21, 2015, when I was suffering from severe depression and anxiety following a traumatic event earlier that year. It was originally published privately for close friends and family only, but I have now decided to publish this article openly.]
Sleeping is something other people do. Today, eating falls into the same category. My body tells me I’m hungry, and then tells me it won’t eat anything. Between the not eating and the not sleeping, I’m not exactly in top shape. Throw in the migraine that’s been creeping up on me and I’m pretty much just fried. I need a nap. A nice, long dirt nap. Wake me up when this life is over.
And no, in case you’re wondering, I’m not actually contemplating suicide, but I’m definitely working through a dark existential crisis. Once again, it is time to ask “Why should I bother being anything rather than nothing at all?”
Mind you, this is bigger than Hamlet’s question “To be or not to be?” because I could choose to off myself, and then the everything else would be moot. I would not be. But I could choose to continue living and to do so for no reason except that I did not choose to do otherwise. Then I would not be anything (or at least, I would not be anything in particular, except a drooping lump of raw emotions or maybe a fast zombie, neither of which is appealing).
I’m not sure which is scarier—not being or not being anything. I don’t believe in an afterlife, so as far as I’m concerned, there’s no hell except other people and no dreams to come that may give me pause. If I’m right, then there would just be nothing. Sweet, silent nothing. Also fatal, final nothing. The end of all potential. That’s it, that’s all folks.
So the choice is to keep going, I guess, but for what? For fear of doing otherwise? That’s a shitty reason. And after a while, that reason really starts to lose its glitter, not that it had much to start with.
In fact, I waded into an online conversation about this topic not too long ago and discovered that, in one step, I went from splashing in a puddle of warm fuzzies to being neck deep in a whirlpool of shit.
It all started when one friend posted a short quote. As I recall, it was “Happiness is simple: someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to.”
I thought this was perfect. There were many days in my life when I didn’t know how or why I kept going. And by days I mean months. On end. In fact, in grad school, it was so bad that I went to bed every night wishing that I would just die in my sleep because I didn’t want to face what was coming the next day but couldn’t work up the nerve to kill myself. I wasn’t really sleeping or eating well, and I lived with constant toxic stress, feelings of utter worthlessness, and crushing shame at my perceived failures. I no longer knew the face I saw in the mirror. I had no sense of self, and as a result other people got to decide what my value was. It seemed like there weren’t many people who thought I was worth much, and since that was already how I felt, my confirmation bias kicked into overdrive and said “Yup, you’re a piece of shit.”
That was ten years ago, and it took several years to crawl halfway out of my hole, enough to actually feel sunlight again. Frankly, I’m not really sure what kept me going, although for a while there was a dying glimmer of hope that I could still make it into academia. I’m glad to say that bug has long-since been squashed, but it left a big, gooey splatter on my life that I’ve never been able to scrape off.
It got me through the day, though. It destroyed me in the end, but it got me through the day. And when I finally realized it was time to give up, I could do so more easily because I had already done everything I could. There was nothing left to give, so fuck it. I had needed something to push for. I didn’t get it, but I couldn’t say I didn’t try and I didn’t have any “What ifs” left to ask.
The “What ifs” reappeared, however, when I suddenly had nothing else to look forward to except talking to angry, ranty Comcast customers. (Apparently there aren’t any other kind, and I know why.) In some ways, those days were a lot harder to get through. The last slippery globules of my soul were being sucked out through that headset cord like a badly pureed strawberry shake through a teensy straw. It was a sort of living death, and a meaningless one at that.
So yes, having something to do and something to look forward to is absolutely critical, if you ask me, and even though my friend didn’t ask me, I said so anyway.
A third friend was rather upset by this conversation. I believe she perceived this as dismissing serious depression, as just another “Buck up, buddy, life is great!” message. Her combined response to my comment and the first friend’s comments was (as best as I can remember now) that we were underestimating the gravity of true depression and that someone who suffered depression might not ever find something to live for so they just had to go on without it. I don’t recall now whether or not she explicitly expressed the conclusion that a reason to live was therefore unnecessary, but that was how I interpreted her response.
I think I understand why she responded that way, but it still made me rather angry.
My counsellor used to point out to me that there are no needy people, only people whose needs haven’t been met—and emotional and psychological needs are important too. So saying you don’t need a reason to live is a little like saying that because you haven’t died from hunger, you don’t really need food. I disagree. It just takes a lot longer to die of emotional starvation. Maybe a whole lifetime. So I shot back a rather sharp comment that I did, in fact understand deep depression (and I do—my own, anyway) and pointed out that not getting something doesn’t mean you don’t need it.
So yeah, we need something to live for. Friends and family are often good reasons to live, and so are pets. When you can’t live for yourself, live for someone else until you remember what value there is in life. And sometimes that value is bad, and sometimes it is good, and there’s a wide range of blergh in the middle. That blergh is where we live most of the time. It’s not very exciting, but not everyone can handle constant excitation. In fact, Epicurus thought that those who actively sought pleasures were just trying to mask some kind of pain; true pleasure was the absence of pain, a sort of contentment. I don’t think this means there is anything wrong with enjoying lovely things; instead, I believe he is rather uncontroversially saying that these things are not actually necessary for our well-being, and that constantly seeking happiness signifies that you are, in fact, unhappy.
But we all need to have good things in life—including love and work—and sometimes you do have to actively seek them. Everyone needs a purpose, big or small, some carrot to make them take the next step. Without it, the fear of death gets a little less intense each day, and an insidious fear of life metastasizes until all of your emotional resources have been rerouted to feed it. The bigger it gets, the more energy it sucks out of you and the more it obscures your vision until you can’t see or feel anything good anymore.
That is when you most desperately need something to live for and people in your life who can gently remind you that it’s there. They’ll show it to you, boop your nose with it, put it in your hand, and help you close your fingers around it. If you drop it, they will repeat the process as long as it takes for you to hang on to it for dear life, perhaps literally. Don’t worry about it cracking or shattering; not only does hope float, it bounces too.
So, last night, when Ness dragged my sorry ass out of the apartment to see Jenny Lawson at Chapters, she was putting that flubbery, rubbery ball of hope in my hot little fist, whether or not she knew it. I think she knew it. If she didn’t, she knows now. Assuming she read this note, although maybe she didn’t. Oh, she didn’t. Shit. I’ll have to tag her.