This post has been a long time in the works. I've had it on my disk for five or so months, and I never really got it into a state where I liked it enough to post. Oddly enough, five months ago, when I wrote the first draft of this, #DeleteFacebook was trending, and I originally wrote:
"I had been planning another post for a while, with the thesis being an answer to the question: if we #DeleteFacebook, then what? I have been meaning to sit down and write that for a while, but I either haven't had the time to do it or I just didn't want to. It might not be coincidence that this post feels more pressing and urgent at this second at my fingertips; the two are inextricably linked in my head. (T.C. Sottek's piece from 2016 in The Verge, offers a different perspective on this.)"
I didn't "#DeleteFacebook" then, and I haven't now, but when Facebook was compromised and logged me out a few weeks ago, I never bothered to log back in. I was having a rough time around then, and the escapist urges to disconnect ran high.
I've dug this out because it seems apropos for this hashtag-holiday that's trending this week. As much as I above describe a coherent structure for a post that I wanted to write at some point, this post continues in the recent trend of having no such; instead, I offer, perhaps, a collection of vignettes on mental health -- in general, and mine in specific.
The general idea for what I have to write came on National Mental Health Day last year. To the sufferer, that is the day of the year in which it seems like your acquaintances on social media do an excellent job of remembering what plagues you, only to have checked that off their list, and forgotten it again by the next day. This is, of course, not a slight against them (or you, who has taken the time to read this); it is inherently a difficult thing for people to pour energy into all of the forms of suffering in the world. On the other hand, it leaves a something of an acidic taste in one's mouth, knowing that even though everyone else will be able to check it off their list and be done with it tomorrow, the rest of the days of your life will be Mental Health Day for you.
Mental illness is one of those things that, for many, looks like a chronic thing that will never really go away. At its best, it can be managed well for many years at a time, neatly confined to its corner of your brain; at its worst, it suddenly returns from its hideaway to envelop all of your perception and color every waking hour of your day. The usual case is somewhere between there, but I have had no case in which I knew it was gone: after the third or fourth or tenth return, I have learned that it is always watching, and that even when I have managed to sequester it once again, this time will not have been the last time for it to visit.
A recent round of what I'll call depression -- if any mental illness really can be neatly categorized outside of the human that it comes with -- is not like the usual ones. Some of the patterns are similar; the "coloration" of perception, and some of the behavioral changes that result. Unusual, that time, was the feeling of absence, more than the feeling of presence; seeing a scene that I, intellectually, expected to fill me with awe, or being in the company of people that I should expected to uplift my spirits, but instead being left wondering where that outcome is. (I wrote about this in a different form recently.)
I noticed this on a quite wonderful vacation in Zion National Park, spending a few days disconnected and hiking about. I brought my camera with me, but I found that I really didn't take a whole lot of pictures, despite hiking around some otherworldly looking scenes. Why? At some point, I put the pieces together. Usually, I take photos to capture a moment, or to capture a feeling about a moment. If I had no feeling to feel about any particular moment, then there would obviously be no photos to take.
On my camera is a void.
Living with depression sounds hopeless, if the best you can imagine is to put it into remission for some years. In the depths, it feels that way. But, at our core, we are beings of hope. When I visited Israel in 2011, when traveling through the town of Tzfat, our tour guide pointed out the Hasidic Jews -- always dressed their best -- and explained that they believed that the Messiah could come at any time, and that they should be ready. Someone in the group asked: is it not somewhat dismaying to them that each day they prepare, and each day the Messiah does not come? Our tour guide responded that it was quite the contrary; if the Messiah did not come today, it means the Messiah could in fact come tomorrow, and so instead of living each day in dismay, they instead lived in a permanent state of hope.
So I work in the hope that each day is better than the previous, and that the days in the future, as a whole, can be better than the days in the past. It is hard to believe sometimes, but all I need to do is remember that, at some point in the past, I had good reason to believe that it was possible. I keep adding new tools to my toolbox (this year, for instance, adding therapy again), trying to stay one step ahead in the arms race against the disease. It is possible that the day comes that I run out of tricks. But for now, like a Hasid waiting for Messiah, or like a cat waiting for dinner, I choose to hope.
For those of you fighting the battle, I hope you can have hope too -- not just today, not just on the national day that we have designated for it, but on lots of days. And even when you don't have hope, I hope that you can remember when you did.
I had intended to write this as a quite personal, quite vulnerable piece, if I could. When I reread it after I had first written it, I saw only platitudes: "keep fighting! believe! hope!" -- and I put the piece down to walk away from it. I would be lying if I said that those were truly ingrained in me. I talked about this color of nothing, and this veil of disconnection; this piece that I intended to be about me, but executed as anything but, might well serve better as showing than telling.
That round was not the first. It was not the last. It wasn't the same as the previous one, and wasn't the same as the next one, either. I had a few month spell of relative stability recently, until one afternoon I saw it coming. "That's a weird train of thought." The next day I knew what I was in for; it wasn't a one-off. "It's coming." And the next day -- "yes, it's back. It's here." The character was the same in some ways; in other ways, different. A day or so in, it flipped to something that I've never seen before -- a hypomanic episode, for a week or two. I lost about five pounds in ten days, waking up in the middle of the night fully charge and ready to go, looking at my phone that said "1:30am", cursing, and trying to go back to sleep. I was walking around full of adrenaline, uncomfortable and sick feeling; overreacting to everything that crossed my path, positive or negative.
When I felt it ramping up, I started engaging all the tricks I knew, and among those, hurried back to my seated practice. I should have known better, of course, that a seated practice doesn't make what's happening go away -- it just allows you to see whatever it is more clearly. Seeing my reactions through the perspective of an observer cast a new light on these patterns: "why is my heart rate so high? I'm just sitting at home, just as I would any other evening, with no threat to me right now." I sat there watching, as my brain constructed these narratives and projected them onto anything else in the world: "surely they hate me", "surely they just tolerate me". I could see it happening, and could see the distinction of what I was manufacturing from what I knew to be real, but I lay there awake powerless to stop it.
In time, this episode, too, faded. The lingering patterns that it reinforced, I will get to work reprogramming away.
The next one won't be the same, or the one after that. But I do believe that there will be time in between.
If some of this resonated with you, or you're in a tough spot, it's okay to talk about it. Talking can help. If I know you, even a little bit, and you need somebody to talk to, please feel welcome to talk to me. I'll be happy to listen.