Sunday, February 11, 2007

And even I'm getting tired of useless desires

In her simple and resigned essay, "One Cheer for Melancholy," writer Susanna Kaysen argues that sadness, or melancholy, before it was rechristened "depression," and marked as something to be avoided, was simply common, and commonly accepted as part of life.

The best, and most telling, part of this essay for me was when she appeared on a TV talk show promoting her book Girl, Interrupted, the talk turned to Prozac, about which she admitted she knew nothing and had never taken it. She got into an argument with a woman in the audience who had been so distraught over the death of her dog, that she "couldn't function." When Kaysen suggested that perhaps that was a reasonable response to a traumatic event, and sometimes events in our lives warranted an extended and intense grief period, the woman became furious with Kaysen and said, "You've never been really depressed," and "you don't understand clinical depression." Not wanting to engage in a battle of who'd been more depressed, Kaysen gave up, but uses this antecdote to point out the shame most people feel about having feelings of sadness and grief in our society. By using the word "clinical," this woman had invalidated her own feelings and relegated them to the rank of disease because she couldn't stand the thought of being that distraught over her dog's death. So she had to pathologize it. Which is also something our country does quite well. Love/Gambling/Sex Addictions are all quite common in our society nowadays, as Kaysen points out, due to extraordinary advances in medical science and our quests for quick cures, easy ways out, and chemical explanations for, up until the 20th century, what were generally considered ordinary human emotions and behaviors. In other words, medicine and its advances has made us sicker than ever.

People don't like to feel bad, and somewhere along the way, our society has decided that life is, or rather should be, happy and joyful, and if you're experiencing sadness, or melancholy, or anxiety, then you must be doing something wrong. But even this, Kaysen points out, is due to what she dubs "chronic optimism."

People who always expect things to turn out for the best, and have the highest hopes, are often the ones most crushed when things don't go the way they anticipated. Which things never do. Kaysen, on the other hand, claims to get her disappointment out of the way early by simply always expecting the worst, and then if things happen to turn out in her favor, well, then she's all the more pleasantly surprised. Which sounds like a smart philosopy to me.

I know for a fact that what's been going on with me the last couple of years, and what I've been struggling so hard with, is my loss of expectations. Or, I guess, more appropriately, the breaking down of my idealism and sense of control. My family life was pretty chaotic and unstable and laced with grief (and sometimes violence) all throughout my formative years, starting at around 13 or 14, and I think that this instilled in me a deep need to control my surroundings. I had no idea how to process hardly anything that was going on around me, and in retrospect, my parents should have had the whole family, or at least me, in some therapy. My oldest brother actually recommended this to my parents for me, and I've never forgotten that. He was prescient enough to see how having a pretty charmed life be suddenly thrown into turmoil practically overnight might have a really detrimental effect on me, and at one point in high school I did ask my mom for therapy and she basically brushed me off. I didn't push the issue, stuck as I was by that point in having to be the perfect example of a model son in order to overcompensate and guiltily beating myself up over every little infraction that might cause my parents even a modicum more of grief.

One would think that going through a situation like this, having the rug completely yanked out from under you at that age, would be an adequate enough breaking down of expectations to squelch most idealism. But I think it had the opposite effect for me. It made me want to do everything in my power to control everything, to have everything turn out perfectly, all the time. I wanted no part of any sadness in my life, of any conflict, of any disappointment. Needless to say, in order to accomplish this, it took a mind set of an immense amount of repression and denial.

It's only been recently, at around 27 or so, that I've begun to let go of this. I've stopped denying my inner nature, I've stopped denying how much my family hurt me (unintentional though it was, that doesn't make it any less damaging), I've stopped denying how much resentment I feel, and most of all, I've stopped expecting anything to go the way I want it to, or expect it to. Cliche as it is, all you can do is hope for the best and plan for the worst, and readjust accordingly.

Letting go of old schemas, and patterns of thought, and outdated and often useless values is a primary part of most people's therapies. That's what makes therapy so difficult and painful. To do it effectively, one has to let go of so much, which usually means embracing something else in its place (such as uncertainty, or, in turn, the certainty of pain and distress). People will do what they will do, the world will go on turning and people will go on living their lives regardless of how much you think they should bend to you and your will.

And optimism doesn't help matters. Which is not to say you shouldn't have hope, but maybe, just maybe, you'd be less disappointed if you actually expected to be disappointed most of the time. This is a lesson that most people I know seem to have learned long before I did. And I'm still learning it. Every single day is still a struggle to live in the present and accept things as they are, and that most of the time, life just sucks.

But isn't that why so many people cry when they're happy? Because in its own twisted way, being joyful is such an odd and exhilarating and painful experience, so unfamiliar to people, that it takes you by such unexpected surprise and really wraps itself around your heart? Joy can be as overwhelming as sadness, but in the long run, doesn't stick around nearly as long and has less residual effects. That, in and of itself, should tell you something about the nature of life.


stacy said...

You can't medicate sadness away, you just have to stumble through it. Joy is just one end of the emotion meter, for me, it can come from something as simple as having my neighbor kid run up to me and ask if I want to ride his new Christmas scooter - maybe I'm easy to joy - still, knowing joy is possible can lift the sadness.

I saw a dog that looked just like Molly the other day. I immediately teared up, stopped in my tracks and had to stop myself from going up to her and asking how she walked all the way to Central Market. I don't want to be medicated for that kind of sadness, I'm happy to feel it.
As for clinical depression and anxiety, I've seen it destroy too many people, I'm all for medication, or whatever it takes to cure or at least provide relief while people get help.

zen imbecile said...

Supposedly, the Elizabethans considered "melancholy" a gift. That's where insight and art come from.

Nick said...

From reading your personal thoughts I think you would connect with the song writer Mary Chapin Carpenter, 2 albums come to mind, as her later work is much more introspective. Between Here and Gone, and Age of Miracles. I have no idea what your musical tastes are but take a look at the lyrics, she is now considered folk. One of my favorite songs is: I have a need for makes me think of comfortably embracing my aloneness and melancholy. All My Best to you.