The Writer And What’s Important

I’m starting this post off with a trigger warning for suicide, addiction, depression, anxiety and self harm.

So, about maybe twenty minutes ago I heard that Philip Seymour Hoffman died. About seventeen minutes ago I heard it was from a heroin overdose. This had a way bigger impact on me than I thought it would, and after talking to some people, they thought it would be a good idea if I wrote out my feelings. This is that expression.

I worry about what I tweet. I worry that people think I’m too much of a downer, too negative, too much of a wet blanket. I don’t mean to be, I don’t wake up in the morning and say, “How can I be really miserable on social media today?” and I don’t make any excuses if that’s been the case for people lately. Actually, I wake up most mornings lately and try to find the strength to get out of bed, to get into and out of the shower, to pull on clothes and maybe if I’m not completely exhausted after that, to eat something and try to fake my way through a day. “Fake” there is a key point. Because sitting and just trying to summon strength, to draw up the courage and the will to keep moving, I can’t easily quantify that for you, but I can quantify the sense of expectation I feel – that I’m supposed to skip my feelings, not focus on them, and do work or be silent or that I have things I’m supposed to do for this errand or that. I’m not talking about the specifics of work, that’s separate and doesn’t factor into this thinking. I mean things like making huge financial moves for retirement or planning for what I’m going to do when I’m 40 or 50. And I take the advice I get, and I nod, and I slog my through it, and it shuts people up.

But the truth is, I feel really disingenuous about it, because I don’t always have the surety and confidence that I’m going to live to see 40. I don’t see the point in preparing for life at 65 when I’m giving everything I got to make it from breakfast to lunch.

If you’ve never felt the rush of drugs in your system, or the sharp bite of a razor at your skin, or felt like the best recourse you could take is just to not be alive, to spare everyone around you the burden you assume you’re being on them, I don’t know if I can really express to you what the pain of depression is like.

It has a physical component, it has fatigue, but it isn’t like sore joints or a muscle strain. It has an emotional component, a sense of disconnection and isolation, but it’s not like shock. It has a mental component (obviously) but it isn’t like stress. It’s a weight that ebbs and flows, irregular tides of frustration, confusion, tension and upset. You want to escape it but you don’t have the energy. You want to out-think it, out-maneuver it, but it knows all the mazes and corners of your mind. You want to avoid it, but it’s like trying to hold back smoke, it slips around your guard and creeps in at you. So you get swallowed by it. I liken it to drowning. Let’s take that further, it’s like drowning when you don’t know whether to float or go down to the bottom. Because at the bottom, it just won’t hurt anymore.

So it becomes this effort for pain relief. ‘Management’ feels too much like appeasement, so you go to something more binary: get rid the pain, or have it. And maybe you take up addictions. Needles. Pills. Drink. Sex. Love. Work. Maybe you go for any or all of the above. Maybe you just want to stop hurting because you can’t remember the last time you didn’t hurt. Or maybe you do. Maybe you remember when everything was great. Those oases, those sandbars out in this giant ocean of suck become memories you run back to as often as you can. Maybe it was time with a lover. Maybe it was time you smiled. Or laughed. Or orgasmed. Or ate something tasty. Or thought, just for a minute, “This feeling is kinda how I perceive everyone else to feel all the time, this is great.” And the pain goes away, because you’re focused in the moment. You want to absorb every sensation and second of it. You want to be able to recreate it either practically or in your mind.

Along the way, as you try to keep going forward, you get a lot of people saying things like, “You’re special.” “I care about you.” “You’ll get through this, you’re strong.” I don’t always know if the people who say those things know what it feels like, but I can always tell when someone comes from the same pain and then tells me they care. It feels different than just some blanket statement made because they don’t know what to say. It’s sign of membership in the world’s shittiest club. We know the secret handshake and the decoder ring to translate our pain into our lives as though it was part of our skeleton all along.

Now let’s suppose things go too far, and you lose yourself for a little while, and you give in to those nastier thoughts. The drugs. The razor blade and rubbing alcohol. The wishing your brain could focus so that you can make plan or write a note. And let’s suppose that you do something harmful to yourself. I’ve been there. It’s like an immediate electric jolt. You come out of a fog, and some part of your brain, the part that millennia ago feared fire and the wolf and the bear kicks into gear and says. “Put something on that wound. Stay awake. Go talk to someone. Get moving.” You don’t have time to really ponder the emotional significance of the towel that’s holding your blood. You don’t have time to debate what sort of new failure you’ll feel like when you come to terms with the idea that maybe you did just do what you did. Now there’s new pain. Immediate pain. Right this second pain. Something you can deal with. Something to manage. Something you really can’t screw up.

And you remember all those people who told you take care of yourself, and you imagine who would really be upset if it had worked, and you imagine what would happen to your stuff and you realize there are immediate ramifications for what just happened. Stitches. Itchy gauze. Lots of questions from nurses and doctors. Invasive questions. Questions you think they don’t deserve the answers to because to them, it’s just words on a paper during a long shift. But to you, those pen strokes are a measure of your life. Where it was. Where it is. Wherever it might go next.

People start telling you that you have to focus on what’s important. And you tell them that it still hurts, and they say they know, and then they tell you about how you can handle yourself differently and that it makes the pain vanish. Say more good things to yourself. Talk to people. Try dating (note: If someone at an ER at 8am ever tells you that the solution to your problem is going on a good date, you just shove a stethoscope up their nose and tell them John said it was okay to do so). Pray. Go be with your family. They stress to you that you’re a part of a machine, a gear that needs to be in place for the machine to function. They skip the idea that you-as-a-cog don’t feel you’re working well at all, and that by reminding you of your place in the machine, that your individual problems take a backseat to making sure things function for everyone. Some might even tell you how selfish it would have been for you to avoid pain. You might then feel extra guilty on top of everything else.

So, like a bad spin in a board game, you back some spaces up on the board. You focus on things with a narrow focus. Eating. Staying hydrated. Going to the bathroom. Not itching that damned gauze if you’ve got any. Maybe you play with the dog. Maybe you watch birds out the window. Narrow focus. You rein in the thinking about big things like what you’re going to do when you’re older, or if you’ll ever do X or have Y or be a part of Z again, everything stays small, in the micro, and your concerns become more about reducing pain on a smaller level. A personal level. Where it’s just about building yourself back up to a point where maybe this time, the pain won’t swallow you.

It’s not easy. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I know what’s really important to me now, and I want to use myself as an example in an exercise. I should point out that this exercise isn’t about pointing out that you should feel like you’re disappointing these things if something bad happens, but instead to reverse this idea – that you like these things, so you want to keep going for them. Here’s my list.

I love games. They’re intricate puzzles and expressions of ideas from fertile minds that only want the ideas to be shared and enjoyed. I love designing them, editing them, writing them and playing them (not always in that order). The fact that I can point to a big chunk of my income as coming from what I love only makes me want to do it more.

I love food. I love preparing it for myself. I love cooking for other people. I love how someone looks when you put food in front of them. I love the smile that follows a good first bite. I love anytime someone can say, “You have to try this.” I love ingredient hunting, recipe building (it’s like a deck builder, but for my stomach), and I love the work it takes in making it. Even in a small kitchen, the fact that I can bang some pots and pans around and put together a meal that people will talk about is a great accomplishment to me. The fact that I use better-than-average ingredients or prefer skillful kitchen efforts is just another way of demonstrating my love for food and its craft. Sure, I love a PB&J on a toasted English Muffin, but I can also love the lobster thermidor and apple salad. Food is the one true love of my life that hasn’t broken my heart. Steaks don’t cheat on you. Hot wings won’t leave you suddenly. Chocolate chip cookies don’t care if you don’t know how you want to spend a Friday night. Food is love. Food is life.

I love communicating. For as alone as I feel, for as bereft of talent and worthiness I might feel on occasion (seriously, have you seen my friend circles? I am a match flame compared to their forest fires of genius), the fact that I can put words to things and express ideas in a way you can understand is the greatest triumph of our species. Of any species. Communication is what allows ideas to bloom and spread, what moves people towards and away from each other, and what marks our creations as beautiful. Art, music, it’s all communication. I speak quite a few languages. I converse about a ton of topics. I love a good chat. I love a good chat that spirals into some collaboration or partnership or friendship. It’s telling to me, now that I sit here with a dog laying on my feet, that in my darkest moments, I always want someone to talk to. Even if it’s just to pass the time.

To do this exercise yourself, as I learned it from a good man from Jamaica Queens (I think I’m supposed to say, “ya heard” whenever I say that, but he’ll probably tell me I’m putting too much white on it), identify three things or people or concepts or activities that keep you going. That you’d slog through the worst case scenario (zombie apocalypse brought about the rise of Nazi Clowns and the collapse of societal order, obviously) to keep being you. And apparently, you can’t say “My spouse” or “my kids” because that’s somewhat of a societal or moral expectation and that’s kind of cheating. As I understand it, you’re supposed to look very much inward to find your deep loves and then express them, so as to fortify them and refresh your dedication to them.

So that’s what’s important to me. And that’s why I’m sitting here blogging today. And that’s why I can understand the reasons a talented man can put a needle in his arm. And why someone doesn’t. And why I might. And why you shouldn’t. And why it’s worth talking about.

If you or a loved one needs help, get help. It sucks, it’s embarrassing. But if you need help, it can make all the difference if its something that changes a situation from awful to survivable.

Normally I conclude a post with “Happy writing”, but that doesn’t apply here. Let’s go with “Do your best to take care of yourself today” because that was some great advice I got today.

Take care.  Talk soon.

0 thoughts on “The Writer And What’s Important

  1. Early last year, I was diagnosed with three auto-immune diseases and my life spiraled out of my control. I ran the gauntlet with the Five Stages of Grief. I stopped writing. And yes, there were points that I wanted to end it all to ease the burden and to end the pain. Like you, though, I kept going. I put on my “Happy Face” so no one would know how much I was hurting, so that they would think everything was okay and there was nothing to worry about.

    Depression and I became very good friends. We laid in bed together a lot and it sat by choking me as I burst in to tears every morning, wondering if my life would ever be worth getting out of bed for again. I wanted to give up. I wanted to finally know an end to my pain. God knows I was taking enough pills at the time to take care of things.

    Like you, though, I found reasons to continue slogging along. There was my writing, of course, even though I hadn’t written a word in months. There were people I cared about and who cared about me in return. The obligatory answers, you know, the obvious ones that everyone should have.

    I found my less obvious ones too. I refused to be beaten by this, call me stubborn or willful, but I wasn’t going to give my diseases the satisfaction of defeating me. I enjoy reading; I’m actually reading four books simultaneously as I write this, I lose myself in books. I enjoy talking to people, but unfortunately most of the people I know are too busy to talk back, which is why I’ve resumed blogging again, no matter how much it costs me in pain. Sometimes people talk back there and that feels good.

    I wish I could say I love cooking, but I can’t even do that anymore. I love eating and finding recipes for my husband to make. =P

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