Sunday, June 19, 2011

Loving Life, or, Oversharing by Way of Introduction

I have, by my reckoning, lived a charmed life.

I come from a large, close, sparkling family of gifted people: an ivy-league educated gentleman carpenter, an international law enforcement consultant, writers of the fiction, non-fiction, and poetry stripe,socialites, an Ultimate Fighter/ceramic artist, and our matriarch who was a basketball ref, dental assistant, and single mother of five children in the days when all three were unlikely positions for woman to find herself in.  The crown jewel for me is my mother, a kind, adventurous, underestimated lady who made me feel like the MVP of the world.  All of them are flawed, naturally, but in ways that are harmless and (mostly) adorable and mostly serve to make them attractively human and accessible.

I got some pretty awesome genes from them and whether by nature or nurture managed to pick up pretty respectable skills related to all of the categories above. (Except Ultimate Fighting.  Maybe I'd be good at that too, but I'm satisfied to leave that in the realm of speculation). As a kid I was a model student, played the viola and soccer, read early and often, wrote well and often, drew, sculpted, photographed, cooked, ran, played varsity tennis, cultivated a small circle of tight friends and got along easily with everyone else, and generally had a hell of a time.

A charmed life.  I counted my parents' divorce when I was a toddler as a blessing rather than a curse (children would rather come from a broken home than an unhappy one...that's right, I just quoted Dr. Phil).  There were no untimely deaths close to me.  I never broke a bone or suffered a serious illness.  I could offer a list of grievances to demonstrate that it wasn't perfect, but in the scheme of things, I really couldn't complain.

And I didn't, but somewhere around 13 or 14 years old, even in the midst of this great wealth of family, friendship, native gifts and good fortune, it became harder and harder for me to be happy.  If worrying about outrageously unlikely possibilities was a sport, I would have been the champ. Always a little reserved and introspective, I found that my brain, which had traditionally been a tremendous wellspring of outrageous plans and rewarding diversions, had morphed into an emaciated, slightly rabid-looking squirrel digging up a treasure trove of self-doubt, self-loathing, and any other self-hypen-negative-adjective you can think of.

I went to college powered by the last scraps of my confidence.  I quit. I went home. I slept on my mother's couch in what resembled a three-month sick day.  And finally admitted that I was depressed.

That admission was really the bottom for me.  Because I had a charmed life.  I could not, in good conscience, justify the depth of my despair when I held my life up for comparison with...well, in my estimation at that time, most of the world's population.  And adding utterly unnecessary fuel to the fire, it seemed hideously pathetic and unforgivable that, recognizing my good fortune, I could not pull myself up by my bootstraps and get happy, goddammit.

There was a therapist.  I hated him because he treated me like a silly child going through a phase.  I managed that quite well on my own, thanks. To this day, I think that the advice, "When God made time he made a lot of it," easily ranks among the stupidest, hollowest, most condescending ways to tell someone that they should let go of their total sense of failure as a human being.  I quit.

I'll gloss over the intervening years between then and now, by saying that they can be represented by increasingly shorter cycles of the same:  Infinite faith in the future, crushing sense of failure, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Make no mistake, in the "infinite faith" phases, I did a lot of great stuff, made a lot of awesome friends, lived some beautiful days that I held like totems against the bad times.  I learned to keep things on a relatively even keel so the landing during the  "crushing failure" times was less bruising.  I stumbled into an interesting and unlikely job that I still have today. I got married to a very good man.  I divorced him. I was elated, productive, miserable and sluggish by turns until finally I was just exhausted. 

And that's when I finally, after rebuffing the suggestion on the many occasions it came up over the course of fifteen years, waved the white flag and started taking an anti-depressant.

It was a big deal.  I'd resisted, vehemently, for a number of reasons. 

For starters, I prefer waiting to medical intervention just as a general rule.  I eschew aspirin and cold medicine. I've taken antibiotics a grand total of once in my life.  I've landed myself in the emergency room on morphine and fluid drips more than once because I thought I'd just wait out a flu or food poisoning.

The second, and probably most potent objection, was fear.  I was desperately afraid that the misery I wanted to escape was part of some kind of unwitting Faustian bargain, the price I had to pay in exchange for my talents, my victories, the stretches of enthusiasm and unfettered, childlike glee woven through the whole ugly mess.  It's not an uncommon fear.  It's probably true for some people, but I also think it's a naturally self-fulfilling prophecy.  When you've grown accustomed to exercising your gifts despite (or in a futile effort to alleviate) depression, it's easy to conflate the two.  Like an abusive spouse, your depressed self is horribly co-dependent.

But I did it.  I take a dose so low that I almost couldn't recognize the effects until I found myself in a typical trigger-type situation running the typical dirge-like internal monologue and had the remarkable epiphany that I was thinking depressed thoughts on auto-pilot -- telling myself that I felt awful, but feeling nothing of the sort.  Whatever was going on was annoying, unpleasant, a real day-ruiner. Not the end of the world or evidence of my fundamental fucked-upness, just a bummer.  It had been so long since something had just been a bummer that I actually cheered up at the prospect.

So that's how I converted to happy.  After years of torturing myself, I finally recognized the body I'd always considered a handy tool and a great ally was betraying me.  That in the end, I was literally my own worst enemy, my biology a double agent. 

I'm excited, engaged, delighted by chance encounters and small wonders.  And occasionally grumpy, which is awesome. Now I just have to deal with the repercussions of a different kind of emotional extreme.  I'm a 32-year-old 8-year-old, reconnecting with the dozens of things I love to do, exploring the hundreds of others that call to me.  Instead of figuring out what options will let me get by, flat out survive, I'm figuring out what I want to be when I grow up. It's exhilarating and liberating and more than a little scary and I'm infinitely grateful for the challenge.


  1. Great post. An unexpected little gift today to log into my dashboard and see a new post on here, and find you unexpectedly pouring your heart out, in a non-cheesy way.

    Honestly, this is the kind of introspection that only becomes tolerable when the introspector comes out where you do, i.e. having learned from all this time spent dwelling on one's self.

    You're not alone. So not alone. I think you have hit the malaise and ennui that so many people experience right on the head. I have so much, I was GIVEN so much- what right do I have not to be satisfied? But it isn't what you have, it's how you got it. Happiness and satisfaction, in my experience, come from accomplishment and success, from EARNING them, from DOING, and not from simply having.

    Glad you have found things to DO. And challenge yourself. And be willing to fall on your face. And for the rest of us... glad you decided to take the time to share it. Keep it coming.

  2. Thanks for the great feedback. I'm glad that I let this space incubate for a while while I figured out what I wanted to explore here.

    I literally wake up every day amazed to find that this frame of mind hasn't fled in the night, and I find so many really delightful moments these days that I'd like to share and explore.

    And now that I have solid ground under my feet, I'm doing some serious thinking about what comes next, and what the process of consciously seeking a satisfying life looks like. Buddhism-lite.

    Honestly, I'm glad someone's reading because it'll keep me honest. I want to write essays, not diary entries. Here goes nothing...

  3. well, and I forgot to mention that the writing is good. Which is another reason for you to stick to it, since it will only get better, and another reason for me, and hopefully others, to keep coming back.

    Yes, I would have abandoned my blog long ago if I hadn't started getting some feedback, any kind, positive or negative. It seems like a lot of effort if NO ONE is reading it. Still probably worthwhile though.

    But honestly, just happy that you're happy!