Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Desperately Funny

My mother worries. It's a nearly palpable force. She frets over my happiness, my health, how best to feed the dogs. Sometimes she says it out loud, when I seem particularly quiet one day or a burger looks too pink in the center: “I worry.” In our family, we refer to the syndrome as “being a Braithwaite Mother,” named for my great grandmother, the font of all concern, feeler of hot foreheads. I've inherited the trait. I think about the shocking unfairness of the world, wonder at the unkindness of humans. I fear for the safety of my friends and loved ones, spend inordinate amounts of time considering all the ways in which things could go wrong. I wake up in the middle of the night to check that my dog, a pug who occasionally suffers from seizures (not uncommon in the breed), is still breathing normally. For the most part, all of my concerns fill my head so densely they end up just sort of—balancing out. It becomes a dull hum, what I like to think of as a general sense of even-keeled malaise, but I worry. Sometimes, I worry too much.

There's really nothing all that extraordinary about my neuroses, or what I consider to be their more vicious, unkind manifestation: my recurring periods of major depressive disorder. A silly, rather vague and distant term, that: major depressive disorder. From what I've learned, what bored doctors have told me, it is essentially being miserable beyond common gauges of unhappiness, clinically worried, for periods lasting longer than three months. Major depressive disorder is likely to repeat itself, meaning, to appear, mysterious and angry, after months or years of wellness. I have read statistics which suggest that, with each resurgence, major depression grows more likely to end in suicide. Not a very hopeful outlook, to be sure. What really rubs me the wrong way about being depressed, about being a person who struggles to see the light in things, is the way it seems to be viewed as somehow glamorous. Even worse, I'm creatively inclined. What has always been for me a fact of life, a hovering beast, gets somehow tangled up with the things I do and becomes magical to certain outside viewers. I'm not cold and shut off, I'm mysterious. I'm not nauseatingly unhappy, I'm artistically tortured. The truth of the matter is, I have always felt about this uncontrollable facet of my character, more than anything else, embarrassed. It's embarrassing to be bedridden with an enormous, inexplicable sadness. It is, as far as I'm concerned, a demonstration of unspeakable selfishness. It's hard for people to handle these periods of depression, and the infuriating helplessness that results. For every acquaintance who can view these moments from a distance, who see the inescapable malady as a strangely romantic, soft-lit occurrence, who imagine the scene of Virginia Woolf's suicide as a quiet, dignified and mysterious, if tragic affair, there are the loved ones who must deal with the day to day reality of the matter. The less sensitive ones wish you would snap out of it, as I often do, too. The more familiar caretakers grow grim and accustomed to their duties. Making sure I eat. Clearing the medicine cabinets. Shoving me out of bed.

I'm not sure where our fascination, cultural and personal, with chronically unhappy souls comes from. I read a lot of articles about the topic, and the seeming connection, little understood, between depressive disorders and creative tendencies, trying vainly to make sense of the thing, or find some purpose to it. Mostly, my own experiences with depression seem boring and gruesome, encounters I would not like to repeat. I don't like who I am when I'm depressed, and I doubt anyone in their right mind likes me much either. It terrifies and bewilders me, then, that anyone would find any of this interesting, much less desirable. I mean, I read my share of depression literature, I love sad songs as much as the next guy. Christ, I even have a tattoo from a Sylvia Plath poem, but I've never wanted to be sad. I spend a lot of my time actively thinking about, worrying over, being happy.

What that yearning for contentment translates into, in my experience, is humor. Meaning a sense of humor; a refined awareness of the inherent absurdity of even the most terrible moments. Feeling rather disenchanted one day recently, I asked my best friend and fellow in clinical mood disasters “Do you think that we're funny because we're miserable?”

“Oh my yes.”

Meaning, not that people who are happy can't necessarily be funny, but that there's something about being on the wrong end of the sphincter that is despair, that great orifice of life constricting tighter and tighter around you until the very air you breathe tastes of the fecal residue of hopelessness, that makes you more able to appreciate the humor of, well, despair. In fact, I would say the majority of people who don't know me well wouldn't guess that I have been, on more than one occasion, very seriously depressed. Pessimistic? Sure. Sarcastic and cynical? Unquestionably. Seriously depressed? No way. And I much prefer it that way. I'd rather be wisecracking, verging on mean, than an object of pity, or concern. Quite frankly, this is the only good thing I can see coming out of familiarity with the heavier side of life: the ability to find the humor in things, to step back and say “Oh god, we are fucked. I am fucked. The whole planet is fucked. Oh my god I cannot even believe how fucked we all are. That is absurd! One would not think I would have the ability to be as fucked as I currently am! By god, that is hilarious!”

The last time I was majorly depressed was during my sophomore year of college. Desperately unhappy, I finally gave in and went to a counselor. The school counselor. My visits to therapists have never been very successful. I'm not comfortable talking about myself, by which I mean I would rather throw someone over the railing of a building than be forced to talk about how I genuinely feel about something, so my experience with mental health professionals has usually consisted of half an hour of uncomfortable, silent staring. And so it was with the counselor, a terribly, uh, well-meaning, woman who insisted I call her Bethany (not a very comforting name for a therapist). Well-meaning Bethany heard enough of my worrying to shuffle me along to a doctor, to be prescribed anti-depressants which I had, until that point, steadfastly refused. And so I found myself sitting on the examination table, being asked about how long I had been feeling sad while Lou Bega's “Mambo No. 5” blasted through the in-office speakers. I mean, blasted. Fuck.

Not too long after, I went home for a break. My parents were, understandably and characteristically, worried. We went to Wal-Mart one afternoon, the three of us. It was the first time they would let me out of their sight. I sort of wondered around the store, zonked on Wellbutrin, low on sleep, until I stopped in the middle of a back aisle. There was one of those displays they sometimes do for something new, or popular. It was this plush, robotic, hot pink pony, standing in its own plastic paddock. Jesus Christ, I thought. Jesus Christ, what the fuck is this? I looked at the price tag. I think it was somewhere in the $500 plus range. Oh, Jesus, I thought, my slow, sleepy brain churning, this is fucking terrible. This is the worst thing I've ever seen my life. Somewhere, a parent is buying this. Right? I mean, right? Why else would it be in the middle of the fucking aisle? People are buying this. I looked down. Attached to the—fence—by a plastic tether was a plastic carrot. I read the sign next to it. Apparently, the pony was supposed to mime eating the carrot. I held the thing up to the pony's nose. My God, I mused, shoving the carrot at the pink mouth, some poor kid out there just wants to be with their parents, just wants to ride a pony at the goddamn petting zoo and those rich bastards won't even make the time to do it. They Won't. Even. Do it. They'll buy the fucking robotic pony instead. By the time my dad found me, I was disconsolately jabbing the carrot into the plush head again and again. I turned and my eyes welled up with tears. The whole thing seemed terribly poignant “I can't--” I choked “I can't get the pony to eat.”

That's a funny story right? I think so. Really, I do. It's so silly, so over-the-top absurd, but that's genuinely how things looked to me then. I can see the funny now because I remember the intensity of the feeling then. I can recognize both how genuinely sad and how genuinely strange the moment was. And I am thankful for that. I feel as if I'm not thankful for a great many things, or not thankful enough. Ingrateful. I am, however, grateful, not to have been unhappy, but to have come out of it. Though I often find myself worrying, “being a Braithwaite mother,” feeling sorry for myself, I can see the humor of it, too. You laugh or you cry, right? Sometimes both make sense. And anyway I can step back from things, sometimes, and see the moment crystallized, perfect. I can look at the fall day and say to myself “Oh, this is nice. I will remember this. I will be grateful for it.” All too often, I worry. That's a part of me that's next to impossible to change. And, I don't know, fuck it: I worry. Let's smoke a joint or something.

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