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For 2021, I have decided to get worse.
There came a point when I realized that everything I was doing to feel better could be viewed as a form of distraction, and that we can view a lot of our discourse and methodology around mental health in the same way. This doesn’t mean that all distraction is unhealthy—it is necessary. We can only survive, in part, through denial.
But I was maybe getting too good at it. For every emotion conjured within me by seeing an endless deluge of death during this pandemic came an action item: go for a walk, read a book, do a High Intensity Interval Training workout YouTube video, chat with a friend, take a drug. These things can all be good—we must continually shore up our mental structures so that we are not constantly nonfunctioning blobs. And sure, much of the reason we have to do that is because of capitalism, to work more, to make money, to seek care in a world that makes it nearly impossible to get it, but whatever the reasons we must acknowledge the necessity of the coping mechanisms. To feel like we are not completely in thrall to our own demons, we must go for a walk.
It was important for me to see that there does not always need to be a response to this terror of life though. Sometimes, often, it is good to just collapse; to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by everything, to feel depressed, crazy, manic, and dare I say even a little suicidal. Really how else are we supposed to feel right now? Good? Lol.
Online I’ve seen a lot of talk of “intrusive thoughts,” which we’ve collectively posited as a symptom of disorders like PTSD and bipolar. But the phrase seems silly to me because it poses the obvious question: where do the thoughts intrude from? And the answer to that question is also obvious: they come from you. Your mind is telling you that life is worthless, that you deserve to die, that everyone hates you. And while it’s necessary to not take actionable steps on these thoughts, lest we all die by our own hands, I’ve learned that instead of ignoring them, or attempting to solve them, to look at them and ask questions of them and just accept them, no matter how scary.
I question why, for example, death for me sometimes feel easier than life. And from that questioning of an “intrusive” thought stems another obvious answer: because, right now, death often would be easier than life, because we live in a world that is trying to murder us, because hundreds of thousands of people are being murdered all around us.
These thoughts are not intrusive, they did not intrude, they were constructed within you through years of absorption and analysis both conscious and subconscious of your external world (which, again, at best, does not care if you die and, at worst, is actively trying to kill you). The thoughts are logical if sometimes damaging calculations we make from living in a society that from birth to grave is terrible for our health (mental, physical, spiritual).
A few years ago my New Year’s resolution might have been to “work” on these thoughts, or to develop coping mechanisms to outrun or at least manage them. This year, my resolution is to let them wash over me like a warm bath (“bath” being the key word here because unlike, say, a warm ocean, baths feel both nice but also claustrophobic and kind of gross). I want to let myself be overwhelmed by the death and destruction around me; let myself crumble.
My intrusive thoughts may be unique to me, but this tendency to be terrified of feeling them, terrified of believing they are real and worth paying attention to and worth taking ownership of, is universal, I think.
In infancy there occurs a breakdown in the mother–infant tie that forces the infant to take on, by himself, emotional events that he is unable to manage. He short-circuits his experience of primitive agony by generating defense organizations that are psychotic in nature, i.e. they substitute self-created inner reality for external reality, thus foreclosing his actually experiencing critical life events. By not experiencing the breakdown of the mother–infant tie when it occurred in infancy, the individual creates a psychological state in which he lives in fear of a breakdown that has already happened, but which he did not experience.
In other words, the infant develops coping mechanisms that, while soothing the terror of the very idea of being disconnected from the mother, create an ever-present fear of a terror-inducing scenario. The breakdown doesn’t even have to happen for the fear of the breakdown to happen.
I see clear parallels between this infant-mother attachment phenomenon and our current popularized methodologies of self-care. The proverbial going for a walk can easily become a way to mentally prevent this impending sense of doom and possible breakdown. We live in constant fear of what our brain can do to us if we acknowledge its darkest corners.
So our immediate response to an intrusive thought reminding us of death is to run as far as we can from that thought, because it terrifies us of what might come next. And as the world gets ever-crazier—more people dying around us, our government is evermore bent on making life hard to live—this fear grows. Perhaps we realize that if we acknowledge our scariest thoughts, that we will come to the conclusion that they are not really all that crazy: that there might not be a light at the end of the tunnel because life really is that bad, that the breakdown we always live in fear of (say a depressive episode that’s so bad it results in suicide, or a genocide that kills us all) might actually happen.
While acknowledging that running from (or doing yoga for, or meditating around), these terrifying thoughts is not only natural but also necessary for day-to-day survival, I have also decided to just allow them to be, to practice acceptance of the feared breakdown. Address the thought, hello thought.
And addressing this fear is not just a nice exercise. It’s necessary to clear the path to joy, to liberation, to whatever comes next.
It seems to me that patients who experience the most extreme forms of fear of breakdown...feel oppressed by the fact that they have been unable to live (have been unable to be alive to) most of their life experience. Such patients find it excruciatingly painful to feel alive—even to the extent of feeling pleasure in response to the sensation of the soft warmth of the sun on their skin—because it stirs the pain of recognition of how much of their life has been unlived.
The more we fear our darkest moments, the fewer moments of happiness we can let in. Applying this to the broader world: the more we fear the pain and suffering to come, whether that pain is inflicted on us by the state, or through some revolutionary act, the harder it becomes to imagine or experience a joyful and liberated future. The bliss of a destination (or even the idea of a destination) we are attempting to journey to—a world beyond capitalism, a world in which the government is not murderous, in which our identities are accepted, in which life simply isn’t so hard—becomes blocked by the fear of the very real possibility of a breakdown somewhere along the path. Past experiences of these breakdowns (or simply experiences that made us aware these breakdowns were possible!!) disenable us from imagining better futures beyond them.
This idea, to practice acceptance of the breakdown, is not unique, at all. The entire premise (if I may purposefully oversimplify it) of Pema Chodron’s Buddhist philosophy/self-care book When Things Fall Apart, for example, is to embrace these fears. Only through accepting darkness can we accept light. I am not an expert on Buddhism, but if you do any reading on it, you’ll realize it’s a lot more morose than its popular depictions let on—much of it is about accepting that life is shit wall to wall.
All this does not make self-care bad. But as my friend, the writer Erin Corbett pointed out to me recently, we do not place enough emphasis on intent when we talk about the necessity of treating yourself well in dark times. It is perhaps not enough to take a bath. We must take the bath, or go on the walk, or meditate, so that we have time to live in our scariest selves—we must give ourselves time and space to allow the breakdown to happen.
Next year I will be taking more terrifying baths. I will be allowing myself to feel much, much worse. May you be as sad as you can handle in 2021.
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