Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Apes and black gunk

So what did I miss?

There is a cliche in writing.  It's a pat phrase of advice that goes, "write what you know."

Sometimes I get that.  I get it because I suffer from depression and when it is particularly acute, it makes it very difficult to blog about things like alien motherships.  Instead, it is a massive "black dog" (as Winston Churchill called it) that sits in my writing room and won't let me go until it's acknowledged one way or the other.

I have never made any secret on here that I have depression.  That will not change.  If anything, the suicide of Robin Williams has made me want to write more about my struggles in the hope of further removing the stigma of this disease.  Yes, it is a fucking disease (for a look at the science behind it, click here.)  Viewing it in any other way is an insult to those of us who are forced by biology to grapple with it.  As the inimitable Stephen Fry put it:

RANDOM PERSON: What do you have to be depressed about?
STEPHEN FRY: What do you have to be asthma about?

An additional reason for my posting is that tomorrow, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day.  We will be sponsoring programs on campus and I felt all the more so that I should write this post.  I will be using an everyday object as a metaphor to try to help others understand depression.  Those of you who have read Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a book that was rejected 121 times by publishers...more than any other bestseller) will likely see what I'm doing.

I have spent the recent months flattened by depression.   In a weak effort to shake it off, I went to go see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  A good film even if at times bleak and unrelenting.  Somewhat more depressed than before I walked into the theater, I went home to do laundry.  After my first load of whites, I noticed that the detergent was still inside the compartment tray and not getting to the clothes.  I removed the tray to determine the problem.  What did I find?

Black mold.  A thick cake of shiny, slimy, onyx gunk all over the inside and the outside of the tray.  It harbored a slick and rippled textured my fingers found, not unlike seaweed wrapped around a California roll.  So much for my having sushi any time soon.  The detergent, all bright and pink, bobbled in its compartment, wholly unable to get past the gunk.

That's depression.  It won't let anything bright get through.  In the wake of Robin Williams' death, Dick Cavett wrote a magnificent essay for a recent issue of Time magazine devoted to Robin Williams.  In it, he responds to all of those who asked, "How could he (Williams) do this to his wife and kids?" Cavett responds:

"Easy.  Because what's been called the worst agony ever devised for man doesn't allow you to feel any emotion for kids, spouse, lover, parents...even your beloved dog.  And least of all for yourself."

"My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known.  No wonder, then, that I return the love."
--Soren Kierkegaard

"I thought so little of myself, felt that I had such scant offerings to give the world, that the one thing that justified my existence at all was my pain."
--Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation

The summer of 2014 has undoubtedly been among the worst of my life.  But why, you ask?  I got to travel to Washington D.C. and New York City.  I got to experience such wonderful things.

I did.  Do you get it by now?  Depression doesn't let you appreciate it.  It doesn't let anything happy be good enough.  Robin Williams had a wonderful family, fame, access to the best in health care, more money than most of us will ever see, and most important of all...unparalleled talent to make people happy.  He still killed himself.

The bright pink detergent cannot get through the black gunk.

Part of the reason I spent a Saturday afternoon just trying to do a single load of laundry is because it had been so long since I had cleaned the compartment tray.  This aforementioned black gunk builds up over time.  Others may be able to shrug off what Shakespeare called, "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." People with depression often hold on to such hurts for a very long time.

I thought back to the Apes movie.  Several of the apes were escapees from labs where humans experimented upon them.  When it was suggested that the humans of the movie be allowed to "do their work," a former subject of torture named Koba pointed to deep scars on his forehead and arm and said, "human work."
The callous gibbering and thoughtless actions of my fellow humans have hurt me a great deal.  After the big hurts like break ups or acts of bullying, the little ones become all the more magnified.  Suddenly, the idiot blasting country music who is racing home in time to watch The Bachelor and cuts me off in traffic becomes evil incarnate.  Why the hell should I ever trust anyone?  I burn with a rage rendered impotent as it has nowhere to go.  I hate.  So much so that often I feel that I hate everyone and everything.

"I put my faith in god, my trust in you, now there's nothing more fucked up I could do."

That, however, isn't true.  It really isn't.  In reality, I can say that I only hate four people in this world:

1. Myself (more than anyone or anything)
2. A former boss
3. Michael Vick
4. Ray LaMontaigne

While the individuals I despise are relatively few, world events foster an anger in me towards human behavior.  We continue to destroy the environment through climate change.  Today it was announced that climate change will disrupt half of the species of North American birds.  Do something about it?  How?  Voting doesn't seem like it will help.  There is a great piece on NBC News that breaks the bleak news that this year's midterm elections will do nothing to break political gridlock.  You start to think that your voice doesn't count for shit.  The literary world is replete with writers such as William Burroughs who could not stand the inanity of our actions.

Depression already makes you feel like you're a million miles away from everyone else.  It's almost like being in a space station in high Earth orbit.  You look down and see that world spinning on beyond you and a sense of isolation and powerlessness begins to set in.  A red warning light flashes in your station's command center, telling you this attitude is wrong...but you just lack any willpower to do something.  The black gunk won't let you.

"It won't give up, it wants me dead, goddamn this noise inside my head."

So I drink more coffee, trying to drown the black gunk.  I operate on a strict policy of "pre-emptive disappointment." After all, you can't be disappointed if you always expect the worst.  Then drink more coffee.  And stare at the walls.  In time, this becomes a cage.

"I don't know what I am, only know where I've been, human junk, just words and so much skin, I stick my hand out of this cage of endless routine, just some flesh caught in this big broken machine."

Sometimes it causes you to create your own inner world in order to hide from it all.  I have imagined myself  someplace warm and rustic (I'm as shocked as you are) and lined with bookshelves.  As I read I look out the window at the falling snow and feel safe.

Here's the cruel literary contradiction.  While depression detaches you from society, you still crave contact and empathy.  Even love.  The black gunk, however, has other ideas.  It convinces you that you are alone.  Even if the logic center of your brain knows that you're not, you begin to feel this utter and abject loneliness. As a human you are therefore a mammal.  That means that...like it or not...you are a social animal.  So despite all of my better judgment, I venture outside.  I immediately do a pratfall in the snow and my self-esteem withers in the cold steel breeze of my own close inspection.  I feel useless.

There may be those reading this who think I feel entitled or expect too much from life.  I don't.  I will never be the subject of a documentary.  I will never be invited to a Hollywood party.  I don't expect an office at Area 51 where I can write policy on UFOs and aliens while Scarlett Johansson feeds me Cap'n Crunch.  If someone has depression, it almost always has biological origins and not circumstantial ones.

Maybe this is where people go wrong when attempting to help those they know with depression.  Buzzfeed has this marvelous list of 15 Things You Should Never Say to Someone with Depression.  While most of the statements on the list usually come from people with good intentions, the words end up having far more harm than benefit.  I am especially irked by #8.  "Just live, go out, have a drink, have fun, forget about it." I'm not having a bad because the copier jammed in the faculty building.  A mai-tai at a club and a round of Putt-Putt Golf will do nothing to help me.  I feel like I am continuously trapped in this pain and sadness and I can see no way out.

I would also add one other noxious phrase to the list.  "Let it go."  Not just because of that stupid Disney song but because it is absurdly facile.  All that pain you have?  Just let it go.

You mean it's as easy as that?  Wow.  Why didn't somebody tell me that before?

Yeah, yeah, fuck you.  The phrase implies that I can just turn this off whenever I want to.  Do you really fucking think I want to feel this way?  Please visit the list of 15 Things or the link on the science of depression and orient yourself.  Better yet, visit both.

A similar spin: "If something didn't work out for you, don't hold on to it.  Let it go."
Think of it this way.  If you were shipwrecked in the middle of the ocean, you can bet all you hold holy that you would hold on to whatever piece of junk you could just to stay afloat.

"There are times in life in when people must not let go.  Balloons are designed to teach small children this."
--Terry Pratchett

Something must be done, however.  Depression is a downward spiral and many of us with it end up taking the same action as Robin Williams did.

I think that is why I became so interested in transhumanism.  Could I get an implant that will allow me to switch off my emotions?  Can I get nano devices hooked directly into my neuro pathways?  If I upload my consciousness will that end the depression?  Whatever it takes I will do it but please somebody end this pain.

Mom, can you come pick me up?  I don't want to be human anymore.

"Cyborg despair"

Sadly, these technological miracles are still out of my reach.  That leaves me with traditional methods of tackling depression.  Yes, I'm on medication.  As a matter of fact, I'm on the highest dosage allowed by law.  They're making advancements in antidepressants every day, right?  As one psychopharmacologist said in the previously mentioned issue of Time: "No, we're really not making much progress, I'm afraid."  That said, what other options are there?  Yoga?  Meditation?  Might as well find a witch doctor in that case.  Still, if left untreated, my depression will...to say the very least...not allow me to get anything done.

Just like my laundry.  In time, I bit the bullet and took the compartment tray to the bathtub.  I then waged a full-scale tactical assault on the household implement, striking it with Soft Scrub and a scouring pad followed by a gallon of bleach.  The black gunk sloughed off in thick slabs like fat from a sub-par roast.  Progress was impeded, however, by all of the right angles, nooks, crannies, and hard to reach places of the tray.  Whoever designed it didn't consider what months worth of black mold cold do.

I saw the crud as metaphor for past hurts lodged deep in the recesses of my brain.  They're hard to get to but they appear to be blocking progress.  Using Q-tips and even a Slurpee spoon, I fought on and eventually purged the black gunk from the tray.  I watched it spiral down the bathtub drain, imagining the fragments as my pain.  There go the women who broke my heart.  There go the people that called me ugly.  There go the rejections of my writing and my papers.  All of it spinning down the water spiral.

So maybe there's something to this "letting go" malarkey after all.  Anyone who has ever said it to me, I have come to see your point.

But I prefer to call it "disconnecting." Yes, I know I'm playing semantic games but I've got a Masters in Composition and Rhetoric so I'm entitled.

If I just keep disconnecting it, I will eventually no longer feel it.  Spock and the Vulcans call it "Kolinahr."

Or so I tell myself.  The catch here is very much like my detergent tray.  I will need to clean and sanitize that tray on a regular basis from now on.  Otherwise the black gunk will build up once again and grow things that look like they could get up and walk away on their own.  It will take persistent work and maintenance...just like depression.  Keep disconnecting.  Eventually I won't feel it.

At least my clothes are clean now and I feel a bit more lively.  I think I might go look for my copy of Beneath the Planet of the Apes.  Many may see the film as silly but it's my favorite in the series, second to the original Chuck Heston that is.  I like the way the movie depicts the apes' social strata, the ruins of New York, and even the silly mutants.

Found my copy.  Of course it's on VHS.  And I don't have access to a VCR.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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