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June 17, 2007

Just don't let the human factor fail to be a factor at all

I’ve been thinking about how madness is like obscenity; everyone thinks they’ll know it when they see it, but each person has a slightly different definition. I’ve also been thinking about how one travels from madness to health. Obviously in each case the path is different, and yet I think there is a similarity between the arcs our paths (because I speak as a formerly crazy person) describe.

So I’ve been trying to remember what it was like, being crazy, getting well, all of that. “Descent into madness” is how I’ve seen this sort of thing described, but I know my own madness wasn’t so grand as that; things just got harder to bear until eventually I couldn’t cope at all. The way I’ve come to imagine it is thus: Emotionally healthy people have a sort of buffer between themselves and the rest of the world; when the world crashes in on them, they have something that deflects that, that allows them to preserve themselves. When you’re crazy, you’ve lost that entirely, and it’s like walking around with open wounds, and not only world-crashing-in events cause pain, but the mere dust and disorder of everyday life burns and stings.

I reacquired a buffer between myself and the world by finding the appropriate mix of drugs; that’s changed over time, but the mainstay is an antidepressant (I’m currently on Effexor). But I still think my buffer is more permeable than it would be if it weren’t chemically constructed, and so I still have to do all sorts of things to keep myself sane and whole -- and that’s mainly what I’ve been thinking about recently. What have I learned to do to maintain my sanity?

One of the first things I learned was to pay attention. When I was depressed in 2000, I was suicidal, and tried twice, with full intent, to kill myself. When the veil of depression lifted just a little, I was then nearly crushed with the realization that death is just around the corner all the time for all of us; I realized how extraordinary and precious everything is, and I walked around in a state of total wonder. In time that sense of awe retreated, which was good, because it turns out to be uncomfortable to coexist with that much awareness of mortality, and I was new at it and had a lot of other stuff going on. But I revisited it over the years, and have gotten better at living with it, and it’s made an enormous difference in how I experience my life. I can ask myself (and you can too) -- am I doing what I want to be doing right now? Is this how I want to spend my time? And if not, what can I do to change that? This works at any level of zoom. Do I want to eat this piece of junk food? Do I want to work at this job? How can I do the most good in the world?

I have also learned that living this way and asking these questions increases my daily satisfaction immeasurably. If I know that I really enjoyed the last meal I ate, that I saw how beautiful the morning glories against the fence are, that I have told the people I love that I love them -- well, I’m not going to step in front of a bus on purpose, but I’ll be at peace, come what may.

Another big component of getting a grip on my sanity was learning that it’s okay to experience feelings. I started out, as we all do, with a really simplistic, rather childlike belief system about emotions. And then I kept it for almost thirty years. I didn’t like to feel strong emotions or have negative thoughts because I felt they would affect the world around me. Pure magical thinking. The clearest example I can think of is that I used to have escape fantasies. And then I would excoriate myself for them as though I’d actually gone through with them. So I’d think, “Wow, I am fucking everything up and my life sucks and everything is terrible and I want to run away and join the navy or drive an eighteen-wheeler or go to a town where no one knows me and work as a waitress.” And then I’d think, “What kind of terrible human being would abandon all her responsibilities to do something like that? Me. I am a terrible person.”

It has taken years to realize that my feelings are simultaneously important, and worth respecting, and transient, and worth ignoring. Getting the balance right is tricky, but I’m working on it.

Feeling anger or sadness or anxiety or fear -- it’s all okay. What I do as a result of that is what matters. And so maybe I write it all down, or I talk to someone, or I think of a way to treat myself well, or I set aside time to figure out how to not be in the situation bringing up all the shit. But I don’t drown it out with mere distractions. And I don’t quit my job and leave my lover and run away to Juneau or Barcelona with no notice (even though quitting a job or leaving a lover or moving somewhere new can all be valid choices). I’ve learned that the feelings themselves can’t kill me, can’t harm anyone else, they just are. And so I lean into them and learn what they can teach me.

The third Really Big Thing I started to learn after my breakdown in 2000 was that I could let my friends be my friends. When I was suicidal, no one knew until after I’d been in the hospital. I was both incredibly ashamed and incredibly relieved -- there was no hiding to be done any longer. So I started, hesitantly, talking to friends about what I was going through, and an amazing transition occurred -- I felt closer and more connected to people than I ever had in my life. I’d thought I would be despised for being so vulnerable, so ridiculous and weak and crazy. And instead I found my friends loved me anyway. Learning to let them was astonishingly hard (and seeing how hard it’s been has been it’s own occasion for rueful tears), but well worth the effort. Over the years I’ve gone from thinking I was uniquely fucked up and unfixable, to recognizing that everyone in my community was a bit broken, to finally beginning to grok our common humanity. I’m just like my friend and just like my mom, just like E.E. Cummings or King Lear or the Buddha. And we all fear death and cherish our lovers and hang on to happiness and try like hell to get through the days. Sharing my inner life, and letting the people I know share theirs, has made my experience of the world rich with meaning. Despite that fancy English degree I got when I was twenty, I’m just now feeling up to understanding all the literature I’ve read over the years.

So. I may not be the very sanest person I know, but I’m far from mad, and that’s some of how I got from there to here. May it be of use.

Posted by Rose at June 17, 2007 12:28 PM


Thank you, Rose. This is brilliant.

Posted by: I. at June 17, 2007 01:17 PM

yes yes yes. so glad you are still with us, woman!

Posted by: mamagotcha at June 18, 2007 02:08 PM

Lovely and beautiful.

One of the ways I phrase things to myself is, "There are no bad thoughts, only bad actions." A huge step for me was finally seeing the buttons and how they are wired to things from the past in me. The surprise was that the buttons never go away (I thought they would once I identified them); I'll always feel them pushed by certain things. What's changed is that I can see the button and the wire and the current going back to something 30-40 years ago, and I can decide whether I want to react to that or to the actual situation in front of me (I try to choose the latter).

Posted by: ProfRobert at June 18, 2007 03:40 PM

It feels good to read this. That's my transient feeling. Good. Thanks for giving me a good feel.

Posted by: Dianna at June 18, 2007 05:10 PM

The part about escape fantasies is very interesting for me (and what is it about women and eighteen-wheelers? Because one of my escape fantasies also was travelling to USA and driving an eighteen-wheeler ....). Only I LOVED my escape fantasies and not only do I miss them very badly, I also believe one of the reasons that makes my current state so very hard for me to bear is that I have lost my ability to daydream those escape fantasies that gave me so much relief.

So it was interesting to learn that some people do not love their escape fantasies (well, I understand that if the escape fantasy includes strong negative images - like death of the loved ones that have become a burden to love or a natural catastrophe or war - then one SHOULD question one's right to be called a good person. But if one just seeks relief for oneself? How can this be bad?)

Posted by: Aet at June 19, 2007 01:53 AM

You write so well about these things. And as usual, I tick off the points "yep, I remember being that way myself", "yep, been there done that"...

And STILL loving the song quote at the top! You so rock!

Posted by: Briony at June 19, 2007 04:47 PM

You write so well about these things. And as usual, I tick off the points "yep, I remember being that way myself", "yep, been there done that"...

And STILL loving the song quote at the top! You so rock!

Posted by: Briony at June 19, 2007 04:48 PM

Thank you, Rose. This entry is a gift, and I wish people who aren't lucky enough to know you could read it. Consider writing a book, or at least an essay, about this. Please?

Posted by: Anne S. at June 22, 2007 08:21 AM

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