Gifted and Mentally Ill

Yesterday a friend ran across this on Twitter:

12063707_10156114576375254_6851884511504685436_nIf you’re a thinking person, you’d expect there to be a lot of conversation around this pair of tweets, and you’d be right.  It is frustrating, sad, and infuriating (among other things) that in the twenty-first century struggling people STILL face so much stigma, misunderstanding, and just plain pig-ignorance (no offense to pigs intended). I don’t know whether the original tweeter intended to be cruel, or demonstrate superiority, or what by tweeting such garbage DIRECTLY AT a mentally ill person in recovery. Frankly, I don’t care. It needs to stop.

But it’s hard to address this kind of ignorance when many medical professionals don’t do any better, and, in fact, themselves cling to stereotypes and erroneous preconceptions about the mentally ill. And you don’t see it much better than when you’re a gifted person trying to get help.

I’m trying to lay aside false humility for the duration of this post. It’s difficult. Even where mental illness isn’t a factor, gifted and talented people in our society learn that safety lies in blending in. Of course, I can point to numerous examples where this hasn’t been the case, more than enough for people who’d rather disagree than listen to cite as evidence that I’m wrong. We hear all the time about gifted and talented individuals who stand out, even those who overcome terrifying odds in their rise to the top. Stephen Hawking. John Nash. I wanted to include a woman in this list, but every search for some variation of “prominent gifted women” led me to a list of articles about “Why Gifted Women Hide.” Isn’t that interesting?

Anyway. Speaking about myself as a gifted and talented individual is difficult in a lot of ways. People in our culture (I’m speaking Anglo-American, but it may be true of others) give you shit for claiming to be smart. They tell you stuff like, “If you were as smart as you think, you’d…” (which happened on this blog), or warn you against “getting the Big Head,” or actively dismiss your thoughts and experiences. “Peers” taunt you for being weird and not fitting in. Adults have no idea what to do with you. If the way you’re gifted falls outside academic norms, even schools don’t recognize it. It’s better to keep your talents on the down low.

I’m not the smartest person I know, but since everyone I know who’s smarter than me lives a great distance away, I’m almost always the smartest person in the room. I started talking in complete sentences with multi-syllabic words at two (according to my mother). I read at four, could play most of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” by ear at five, and started policing my own vocal tics (phrases like “like” and “you know”) at seven. I was a mediocre student in both school and music because I could get by without working too hard and the usual teaching methods bored me. I have a hard time understanding why I need to “show my work” when the answers are obvious, and I despise jumping through hoops (though I can when it’s absolutely necessary).

I could go on in this vein. I’m not going to. It’s not what I wanted to write about, and the need continually to prove my intellectual cred to people who only care about invalidating it is a monumental waste of my time and energy.

I will add one more thing, however. In addition to being intellectually smart, I’m emotionally smart. When you grow up in a family as dysfunctional as mine, you kind of have to be, or else take the denial road, which is something I am constitutionally unfitted to do. I am aware of my own emotions and experience, and I am susceptible to other peoples’. (Interesting side note: I looked up “emotive” in the dictionary just now, and almost every definition of a a word derived from “emotion” contained terms like “excessive,” “undue,” and “theatrical.” It’s an old dictionary, and I can only hope things have changed). When I got bullied (starting at six or seven), my immediate reaction was “Wow, this hurts. How can anyone intend to hurt other people? I’m never going to do that.” When I started suicidal ideation at eleven or twelve, I understood it and knew it was dangerous and not supposed to be the usual experience for a girl my age. (To be honest, I wasn’t keen on what I understood to be the normal experience for a girl my age, either.)

I grew up in the sixties and seventies, and if you think mental health treatment is a nightmare now, BOW HOWDY! back then it might as well have been the dark ages. (Disclaimer: I am speaking from my experiences in the Detroit area, which has a far more parochial culture than one might suppose.) I’m not sure people used the words “mental illness.” So I felt like I must be crazy. But “crazy” had a very narrow and specific connotation, which involved the need for straight jackets. You were either “psychotic,” which means schizophrenic or manic-depressive (as it was called then), or “neurotic,” which meant you were probably bored. Before the advent of Prozac, the main medications available were Lithium, Phenothiazines, Barbiturates, and MAO inhibitors, which require so many dietary restrictions to prevent a fatal reaction that taking them is hardly worth the trouble (Another disclaimer: I’ve known people who have done well on them). Therapy, when you could get it, was Freudian. Personality therapies like Transactional Analysis had been around since the 50s, but didn’t really come into vogue until the mid 70s. There was no treatment model for a bright, suicidal teenager practicing self-harm. There was barely even language to address it.

One thing I notice a lot: In teen movies and YA novels there is almost invariably a Sympathetic Adult; i.e., an adult character who “gets” the troubled protagonist and serves as a support system and role model (this character doesn’t usually appear in dystopian fiction). There was no such character in my life. My school did have a “counselor,” but I have no idea what good she ever did, since she never seemed to interact with the kids I know needed help, and her sole recommendation to me was to make sure I “kept those grades up!” Whenever we did creative writing rather than essays in English class, I turned in emotive pieces full of cutting and blood. The only comments I ever got were things like, “Interesting imagery!” I cannot imagine something like this happening today.

From third grade on, I knew I was in bad shape and I desperately wanted help. I didn’t care about “what people will think,” whether I’d seem “crazy” or “strange” (I got those already). I didn’t care about hearing I was “over-dramatic;” I got that one, too, and I knew it was untrue because I knew my experience. I wanted to live, and I didn’t know how. There are many reasons I had trouble getting what I needed. And one of them was that everyone believed that since I was intelligent and articulate, I must be lying. Because “crazy people” bang their heads on the walls and froth at the mouth, apparently.

In tenth grade, I read Mark Vonnegut’s The Eden Express, about his struggles with schizophrenia. A quote from that book has stuck with me; if I ever got a word tattoo, that might well be it. “Knowing you’re crazy doesn’t make the crazy stuff stop happening.” Why do so many people in the mental health professions, even to this day, assume the exact opposite? Why do they think, once you understand you have a problem, you can just, though force of will, make it go away? Maybe because despite advances, mental illness is a dark territory, and people honestly do want to help, and they feel powerless in the face of brain chemistry. Maybe because for so very long, rich people with things like clinical depression and OCD and anxiety disorders–things for which there are now treatment options–got by because they were rich, and poor people just died.

There was limited language for mental illness in the 70s, so we made it up, inventing intricate metaphors to describe our emotional experiences. I shared some of the language with the first psychiatrist I ever saw. She asked me, “How REAL is this?” When I admitted it was a metaphor, she labeled me “Not schizophrenic” and threw me out. My first therapist listened to me talk about self-harm and suicidal thoughts for fifty minutes a week for nearly a year, and diagnosed me with needing a boyfriend. Another psychiatrist told me to my face that since I was so articulate I must be putting on a show to get out of doing my homework. Yet another, when I met him in the ER after a cutting episode so bad it frightened me, told me there was nothing wrong with me since I hadn’t actually endangered my own life. Until I threw a screaming fit at him–i.e., presented as less rational and more in the expected model of mental illness–he intended to send me home. My most recent psychiatrist told me to my face that I couldn’t be anxious without being anxious ABOUT something. As lately as five years ago, the last time I was hospitalized, they threw me out after four days because I was “Too smart to be there.” In over thirty years of trying to get support and help for my condition, I have been smarter and more knowledgeable about my experience than 100% of the mental health professionals to whom I’ve turned. For me, this has led to my consciously filtering what I tell my therapists and doctors, and telling them only so much as I think they can understand and handle. I protect them to protect myself. No one with a mental illness should have to do this, but for gifted people, it’s all too often the case.

And then someone loses the battle and people ask why. Why, when they were so smart, so talented, so funny, had so much opportunity, did they take the pills or use the gun? Because current practices in mental health do fuck-all for gifted people. That’s why.

I have stuck with mental health practitioners who were, at best, well-meaning and at worst ignorant as shit because I needed something to cling to, and those weekly meetings were better than nothing and the best I could expect. I’ve tried therapies I KNEW wouldn’t work “one more time” because maybe I wasn’t going deep enough before, or maybe I was doing it wrong before, and because I WANTED someone to know more than I did. I may have learned a lot about my process, but giving up my power in this way has also damaged me. The problem is, when you’re in pain, when your mental illness has you hard in its grip, you are in no position to advocate for yourself and/or challenge bad therapy. There really needs to be a pool of trained patient advocates whose business it is to call mental health workers out on their dogma and ignorance.

Training for both therapists and psychiatrists needs to change, too. After I completed my BA (people with serious mental illnesses don’t finish college), I looked into grad schools. A number of them required applicants to take the GRED in psychology. Since my alternative college hadn’t focused on things found on standardized tests, I bought a practice study book. I was appalled. 75% of the questions were things like, “Who was known for describing this particular stage of child development?” and “Who is considered the father of modern psychoanalysis?” Freshman psych stuff. After I finished the book, I decided not to take the test, or pursue an advanced degree in Clinical Psychology. Because HOW THE FUCK DO THOSE QUESTIONS HELP YOU HELP PEOPLE IN PAIN?

This has gone on longer and turned into more of a rant than I intended. I don’t know what to say in conclusion other than this: Mental Health Treatment needs to come out of the dark ages. The people we look to for help need to be able to hear us and keep up. They need to let go of the doctor mentality that keeps them comfortable in the supposition that they have knowledge their clients and patients don’t, and ask questions, explore, go deeper without fear. They need to do as much work as we do.

Otherwise they’re not doing anyone any good.

 

 

Banging my Head Against a Wall, and Other Fun Hobbies

A little over a year ago, I released the sixth book in the Caitlin Ross series, Demon Lover. As you might know if you interact with me on any kind of social media, I’ve been trying to write book seven ever since. It’s not going at all well.

I had an idea for what came after Demon Lover. Six chapters into it, I realized it wasn’t working.  I got another idea that interested me more. I tried that idea. Couldn’t make it work. Went back and tried it another way. And another. STILL couldn’t make it work. Tried another idea, which ALSO didn’t work, and another, and another. Every time, I got 200-odd pages into it and didn’t feel right about it. Nothing worked.

I got another idea. This time, I thought I really had it! But it got harder and harder, and yesterday, after only 100-odd pages this time, I took a good, hard look at it. I realized a couple of things about it, the main one being I didn’t have a believable conflict. I had a bunch of semi-interesting events, but they didn’t build or lead anywhere.  My antagonist wasn’t doing anything evil enough, or even problematic enough, for my characters to get involved. So I lost interest.

I think this has been the problem all along. Michael says I’m usually good at conflict (which astounded me, because I feel like I’m terrible at it). But I’ll tell you, when you have a world view as out of the ordinary as mine, it’s hard to get riled up about any of the major ones. Murder, okay, I can do that. I’ve done human trafficking and involuntary possession and breaking magical rules in a way that has disastrous consequences. But drug dealing? I don’t think drugs should be criminalized at all, so I can’t get into a lather about it. Breaking THE LAW? I’d have to look at circumstances. I can’t even bring to mind other kinds of BAD THINGS.

A helpful–I mean this non-ironically–person on Twitter just suggested “Give the character a goal and stick an obstacle between him and the goal.” This is great advice. I can’t come up with a goal for any of my characters, either. What do Caitlin and Timber want right now? Since they had a baby in the last book, I expect what they want is to settle down and live a relatively normal life for a bit while they adjust to being parents. This is not the stuff of epic storytelling. In one way, literally anything I came up with that interfered with their lives would be a conflict. In another, it still has to be believable that they’d give two shits about it. And I’ve already established that a happening has to be pretty big for them to get involved. Or have personal significance. Preferably both. But I feel I’ve tapped out the personal significance vein. I’ve got three more things I plan to do in the series arc, as far as that goes. I don’t think any of them happen yet. So I’m stuck.

Part of the problem is Timber (male protagonist, for those of you unfamiliar with the series). He went through some traumatic shit in the last book. Truth be told, he goes through a LOT of intense shit.  Sure, he’s a hero, but that kind of shit leaves a mark. I don’t think I’ve given enough attention to the affect it may have had on him. I don’t WANT to. But it keeps coming up, even when I don’t intend it to. I don’t want to spend another book dealing with Timber’s trauma; that was the whole plot of book 3, and I can only play that so much. In order to skip it, though, I have to advance the series timeline about a year and a half. This is something I intended to do anyway, AFTER book 7. I’ve been giving Caitlin and Timber two adventures a year, or thereabouts. The result is, the series timeline lags six years behind real life time at this point. I don’t like this because it becomes increasingly difficult to work with as certain issues of the historical past become more and more irrelevant and difficult to keep track of. I want to catch up to real time better, so the series doesn’t become unbearably dated.

So one question on my mind is, will I be doing a disservice to the characters, and to my readers, if I skip over the personal consequences of book 6? This is something I worry about, because a critique I often see of serialized entertainment is, “You put so-and-so through this awful thing in the last episode and then next episode it’s like it never even happened!” I’m loath to do that.

Speaking of things I worry about, I’ve also developed a tendency to self-censor more than I have in a very long time. I can trace this difficulty directly back to following and interacting with lots of writers and people in the publishing industry. Now, the writing community is mostly great and I’m glad I found it. But it can also be strident and divisive. This sort of thing affects me. I wish it didn’t and I try to have strong boundaries, but the truth is, I don’t have a strong sense of self and I really, really want people to like me. So I often absorb other people’s opinions more than is good for me. For at least the last year, there’s been a lot of talk about how the publishing industry needs more diversity. Yes, great, I’m all the way down with that! I’ve looked at my work in that light and found I could do better. At the same time, however, some people have an issue with authors writing characters from marginalized populations when they are not, themselves, a part of that population. And as a writer who isn’t part of a few marginalized populations I’ve been trying to write about, I’m always second-guessing myself, wondering if I’m doing it right, or at least right enough. Plus, in the writing attempts of the past year, I’ve included some characters who are Native, or LGBTQ+, or PoC, because they might as well be those things as not. But then, I have to devote a huge number of words to explaining that. I mean, if you want two male secondary characters to be gay, you kind of have to point out that they are in order for it to have any relevance. Otherwise, they’re just two guys, because that’s the default in most people’s minds. But if the story isn’t about their gayness, then devoting so much verbiage to secondary characters actually detracts from the story. Or, at least, this has been my experience over the last year.

I kind of wonder if I should table the diversity issue for this series. At least, not try so hard at it. The main characters of the Caitlin Ross series are a het, cis, white couple. So sue me. I have other ideas for other books with different kinds of main characters. I have secondary characters already who are Bi, and Gay, and Lesbian, and PoC. Maybe I don’t need to go out of my way to include more. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s enough, and the second-guessing is doing a disservice to my getting actual words on the page.

On top of all this–and what follows is mostly a rant I need to get out of my system, so bear with me or not–almost everyone I know on Twitter is sharing today’s blog by a popular author/blogger about how you shouldn’t sit around waiting for motivation, because writing creates its OWN motivation. Which is just this kind of thing I want to read when I’m sitting around feeling blocked and unmotivated. I have mixed feelings about this author/blogger on the best days. Often he has good things to say. I can’t stand the way he says them. He adopts this tone that I guess is supposed to be funny, but to me it reads as a weird mix of authoritarian and condescending, like some kind of inspirational drill sergeant. I often feel alienated when I read his stuff, because so many people think it’s so great and I want to scream, “Yes, and you’re a heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical DUDE!” who treats this obvious stuff as some huge revelation. Kind of the same feeling I get when well-meaning people say, “But haven’t you tried…(Insert alternative healing method) for your depression/migraines/whatever?” Like, “Oh, gee. in forty years of dealing with this I NEVER ONCE THOUGHT OF THAT THANK YOU SO MUCH!” If simply sitting and writing created motivation for me, I’d never run out.

So, anyway. This is stuff I’m dealing with. Thanks for tuning in.

 

 

Infuriated

A few hour after posting about my problems with apathy, I made the mistake of clicking on a link to an article that absolutely infuriated me. Which just goes to show you should be careful what you wish for. The article in question was one The Atlantic published a month or so ago, titled, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Trigger Warnings Hurt Mental Health on College Campuses.” Something like that. I’m not going to link to it, because if I look at that smug page one more time I’m going to throw my monitor though the window. You can Google it for yourself, if Google’s new logo doesn’t offend you too much.

The article maddened me so much that I posted a biting comment on the article itself, which I don’t often do. Now it’s two in the morning, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Yay! I get to rant at length on my blog while listening to 80s German Technopop on Spotify! It’s my favorite thing to do when I’d rather be sleeping the sleep of reason.

Detail from "The Sleep of Reason," Francisco Goya.
Detail from “The Sleep of Reason,” Francisco Goya.

Anyway. the article was the usual mishmash of “The kids today!” and “Boo hoo, someone’s asking me to think before speaking!” and “But academic freedom!” combined with an extra dose of “Two different groups of the same minority don’t agree on what constitutes a microagression so they must not exist!” And then, just to prove how serious the issue is, they added a long, long, long, so long explanation of why this kind of “coddling” actually is a detriment to good mental health, complete with cherry-picked quotes from (almost exclusively male) “Mental Health Professionals,” and, I don’t know, I couldn’t get any farther because I was too occupied with yelling, “FUCK YOU, YOU SMUG FUCKWITS!” at my phone.

Neither of the writers, by the way, was a Mental Health Professional (TM). One was the CEO of something called the “Academic Liberty Foundation” (absolutely NO AGENDA THERE) and the other was a journalist of some kind, I think; the red haze before my eyes prevented me from reading his bio fully. And what the article demonstrated to me was that these were two guys who are INCREDIBLY DISTRAUGHT that they might have to take into account the fact that other people’s lived experiences are valid, and that NEWS FLASH! even people who share the same racial heritage might disagree on things because they’ve had DIFFERENT experiences.

I know a lot of academics. I know a lot of people who work in mental health and mental health advocacy, and, more important for this rant, I know a TON of people with various mental health issues. Just this morning I kind of went off on one of them, explaining that trigger warnings are not censorship and are not a wholesale invitation to disengage from discussion, study, the media, and so forth. What they ARE is a courtesy. I doubt there’s a single person in this country who has not watched a news program in which a serious anchor person has announced, “The following segment contains images of a graphic nature. Viewer discretion is advised” before cutting to the next film of a mass murder or exploration of a serial killer’s den. That’s a trigger warning. It tells you something difficult or challenging is coming up, so take care of yourself. Every 4th of July I see a meme about how important it is to be considerate of military veterans when setting off fireworks, because random explosions in the street in the middle of the night DO NOT ENTERTAIN THEM. That’s a kind of trigger warning, too. No one objects to these. But when it comes to college kids saying, “Gee, can I have a heads up if this novel contains a graphic depiction of rape and dismemberment?” everyone goes mad because those lazy kids are looking for ways to avoid the assigned reading.

Unfortunately, the tendency to reject and deride the mental health concerns of young people is nothing new. I, myself, once met with a psychiatrist who responded to the information that I was suicidal and cut myself with a razor blade almost every night with the incredibly dismissive, “You’re trying to get out of doing your homework, so go away and don’t bother me anymore, ‘kay?” And yet suicide is the third leading cause of death in people ages 15 to 24, second leading cause of death in people 25 to 34. CDC chart here. Isn’t it about time we start taking this seriously instead of calling them “over dramatic” and condemning their concerns as “excuses?”

Early on, The Atlantic article informed the reader that “According to the most-basic (sic) tenets of psychology, helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.”  They put the statement in a block quote, so you’d be sure to feel its authority. BULL SHIT. For fuck’s sake, I have a degree in psychology and I never heard of any such “most-basic” tenet. When treating an irrational phobia, sometimes a program of gradual desensitization is indicated. GRADUAL. You wouldn’t abandon a person with a snake phobia in the reptile house at the zoo without warning. You’d weigh the pros and cons, examine where the person was in their therapy, make the necessary preparations for them to be safe. You’d allow the person to have boundaries, which would certainly include being able to say “enough” or leave when they got overwhelmed. <<<<<This is the same as giving a trigger warning. Furthermore, in cases of trauma, forcing a person to confront the source of the trauma in any form IS DAMAGING. It doesn’t help them adjust. It doesn’t cause them to say, “Oh, that passage about the rape of Leda in Ovid isn’t so bad; I GET IT NOW!” It re-traumatizes them. It makes things worse.

But, the writers claim, seeking to avoid potentially triggering subject matter leads to what they term a culture of “vindictive protectiveness.” Can’t you just see them sitting around coming up with that term and patting themselves on the back about how cool and profound that is? What they mean is, allowing people to determine their own safety and their own limits encourages them to punish anyone who disagrees with them. This sounds like so much projection to me. “You want me to be considerate? YOU THINK I’M A BAD PERSON!” I don’t know. Or maybe it’s punishment when someone actually calls you on your dismissive treatment of their mental health issues? Or calls you on being sexist, racist, or homophobic? Please, look at yourself first.

After that came the layman’s guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which the authors propose as the solution to all this problem of trigger warnings because when you teach people their discomfort and fear is irrational it will miraculously disappear! Yeah, NO. In the first place, this is another way of invalidating a person’s lived experience. In the second, ALL this shit people are now bringing to the attention of the world at large is NOTHING NEW. It’s just that now more people feel empowered to speak up. When you propose CBT in this instance, you’re telling people you don’t want to hear about the experiences they’ve had that make you uncomfortable.  And in the third place, CBT is NOT A PANACEA. Yes, it’s useful to learn to examine how your mind works, when you might leap to inaccurate conclusions or assume things that aren’t true. But for fuck’s sake, no one believes they’re in actual danger from reading a rape myth in Ovid. CBT isn’t applicable. And I have news for you: depression and trauma alter your brain. Thinking nice thoughts doesn’t change it back. Thoughts are not emotions. I don’t know a person who has stopped having a mood disorder or a form of PTSD by practicing positive thinking. And that’s not even to mention the everyday trauma that some people suffer just by getting along in the modern world. Where rapists are most often someone you know, women literally do not know when it’s appropriate to be afraid and when it’s not. (Look up the concept of Schrodinger’s Rapist.) People of Color live in a climate of systemic racism. LGBTQ+ people live in real danger of getting beat up and killed. This is not a thing CBT will solve. The least we can do is warn someone who’s already having a difficult time of challenging material.

The icing on the cake was that the whole article was written in a horrible, condescending tone. Like, you more than half expected that when you finished it, someone would pat you on the head and tell you to run along and play now, like a good, compliant child. The men have decided what to do. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it any more.

I’m sick of this conversation. Yeah, sometimes people misuse and overuse trigger warnings; I’ve been known to complain about it myself. And the same half a dozen anecdotes get trotted out over and cover again, whenever someone wants to complain that “this obsession with social justice has gone too far!” But, you know, while talking heads are MORE than eager to write extensive think pieces and analyses, I have yet to see a single valid study of what effect trigger warnings have. An actual blind study with a control group and a sample of a mixed population. Easy: Throw them into variously triggering situations. Give some of them a heads up ahead of time, and don’t give it to others. Do a survey of emotional states before and after. Until you can cite such a study, you have NO BUSINESS decreeing that trigger warnings are bad for mental health. You have no business dictating college policy, or saying anything about trigger warnings at all. Ever.

End Rant.

 

Apathy

An author I follow on Twitter posted this today:

(Dear WordPress: Why must block quotes be so abominably large? Is it something about the theme I use?)

Anyway. The statement rang particularly true for me today, because I’ve been thinking about happiness, or rather, my lack thereof. For the past few years, since I found a medication that works on my depression, I haven’t considered happiness. The relief of not being depressed was so great, and such a difference from most of the rest of my life, that it seemed too much to ask for more. And, in fact, when I was still going to county mental health for regular med checks, I wasn’t encouraged to ask for more. The few times I did, the person I saw actively shut me down. “You might have to accept that this is as good as it gets.”

For a long time, that was enough. Being able to function, albeit in a minimal fashion, was enough. Now it may not be, and I don’t know what to do about it.

A close friend refers to depression as “a disease of motivation.” This makes sense to me. I have highs and lows, but those aren’t depression. Depression is the grey place where nothing happens and nothing matters. When I’ve had suicidal thoughts during a period of depression they’re not about escaping pain, because pain, like every other sensation, is blunted. They are, however, about escape. Escaping that grey place.

I think of depression like a waiting room in an uninteresting dentist’s office. There aren’t any magazines to flip through, not even old ones. There’s no art on the walls, not even bad art. The color scheme is bland. And after you’ve waited long enough for the dentist–he never does appear–you begin to lose your terror of the root canal, or whatever procedure you came for. But in its absence, there isn’t anything to distract you from the fact that you’re stuck in this boring room. You can’t barge into the depths of the office, but you can’t really give up and go home, either. After a time, you realize that the office is empty of anyone but you. There’s no receptionist, no hygienist. There’s only you in your uncomfortable chair, staring at the walls. Probably for a while you hope someone will show up and that your name will be called, and that prevents you from leaving. But in the end, you just accept that’s where you are and that’s where you’re going to be. Until you figure out that you cannot endure staring at those walls one second longer.

When the antidepressants kick in, it’s like the staff finally showing up. You go on and have your root canal. That part, starting to feel after not feeling for a long time, can be dangerous. It’s why sometimes people suicide after the antidepressant starts to work: all the pain comes back. (Which makes me wonder if depression might not be some kind of neurochemical defense mechanism for people prone to strong feelings. If you’re in pain, or in an impossible situation where you’re helpless to act, depression, not feeling, being distanced from your experience, can be a good thing for a while.) If/when you get through the root canal, you can go home. And then, you might experience an extended period of activity, cleaning and arranging your house, taking care of the chores that got neglected because you were stuck in that waiting room.

But after the chores are done, after the initial energy spurt wears off, maybe you find out you brought a piece of the waiting room with you.

This is where I am, I think. I’ve only just begun to look at it, so I can’t articulate, quite yet, the whys and wherefores. The way it manifests, though, is apathy. I’ve been going through a period of intense apathy (yes, I know: oxymoron) the past few weeks, and it’s made me look at how much apathy infects my everyday life. I remember being a person of strong feelings, once. I remember having passions and desires, and I remember those passions and desires influencing my actions. Like, “I don’t want my house to be a pit of slime, so I’m going to clean and mop every week.” Or, “I’m sick of the way my body looks; I’m going to get more exercise.”

Since the antidepressants, I don’t care so much about things. I haven’t mopped the kitchen since the 4th of July. I see the spot where I spilled coffee on the floor and I think, “Huh. Guess I should do something about that some day.” Then days and weeks pass. Or I notice that I get out of breath walking three blocks to the clinic. I don’t really like it, and I know that I could probably get in better shape with regular exercise. But it doesn’t bother me enough, and it doesn’t impact my life enough for me to take action. I don’t care enough. I don’t miss interacting with people in real life enough to go out of my way to leave the house. I don’t want anything enough to do anything about it. I don’t even care much about the book I’m writing. A couple of times a week I have a good day and I churn out a piece of a chapter, but it doesn’t compel me. Whether I finish the book or not doesn’t really matter.

There are probably a lot of factors that go into this. People do complain that being on antidepressants interferes with their creativity, so that might be part of it, at least as far as the writing goes. Since I’ve had some excellent writing experiences while I’ve been on antidepressants, I remain skeptical. Some of it, I’m sure, is old programming. I was thinking yesterday about how, so often in my life, things that make me happy or bring enjoyment have been derided, or taken away, or invalidated, to the degree that engaging in them was a real danger to my mental health. So maybe I’ve learned that the experience of happiness and enjoyment is dangerous.

But maybe some of it is left over from that damned waiting room.

A lot of those Internet quizzes you see have a question about “What one word would you use to describe yourself?” I don’t often see the word that would be my first choice: Survivor. For whatever reason, I am capable of doing whatever it takes to survive. (I can think of only one time in my life when this survival instinct shut off, and that’s when I was anorexic.) So, when that last, long, severe depression gripped me, I did what I had to do to survive it. I developed patience. Tolerance. I let go of hope. I stopped expecting things to get better. I existed.

(This, by the way, is why I purely HATE the dogma that to achieve happiness one must let go of expectation. For me, letting go of expectation implies I have no hope anything will improve. Why in the world would that be a path toward happiness?)

I’ve learned detachment, but without attachment, where’s the need to care? Even when I turned to Michael and said, “I can’t live this way anymore; I need help,” I had no investment in it. It was a thing I saw. I recognized my survival was threatened and did what I had to do to survive. But I didn’t really care.

Now I think it would be nice to care about some things and I don’t know how. I think sometimes that my capacity for caring got worn out by caring so much about so many things beyond my control, and now all I have left is this atavistic instinct to endure. If something isn’t an immediate threat to life and limb, I can’t muster the energy.  I don’t know how to be attached to events. I don’t know how to care that smoking cigarettes is bad for me, or that I’ve gained so much weight that I don’t fit into my favorite clothes. I don’t know how to care about whether or not I’m healthy, as long as I’m not totally miserable. Misery, I know what to do with that. Once I get out of the misery, though…not a clue how to go any farther.

Or maybe I do have a clue. The other night, a show we were watching had a song in the soundtrack (it was “Rocket Man” by Elton John) that really affected me, hit me in my gut. I felt something. This is also an uncommon experience for me. I used to find music very affecting, but now it’s mostly just background noise. Anyway, this song affected me, and I thought of how a good combination of film and music is almost always affecting. So yesterday I sat down with Spotify and IMdB and started tracking down songs I’d heard in TV programs and thought, “Wow, that’s a great song!” It’s something I’ve meant to do for a while and hadn’t done yet, because while I can think of doing it in the moment, the idea dissolves as soon as the moment has passed.

I have a 90-song playlist, which I am playing as I write this. From time to time, I have stopped to listen, when a song catches my ear. I have a fleeting interest. Maybe it will grow into something. Maybe not.

I’ll let you know.