Thursday, December 5, 2013

the importance of coming out

My father is afraid of my blog. He’ll call me sometimes and say, “I don’t want to show up on the blogs.” I’ll tell him not to worry—my blog is not about outing his failures as a parent (which are few, if any). Still, he persists. “I don’t know what goes up there. I don’t trust it. This is why I’m not on Facebook.” “Yes,” I tell him. “My mother and I use Facebook solely to talk about you behind your back.”

I grew up in a culture that believes firmly in not making private experience public, in which one does not discuss one’s difficulties, insecurities, or at times even one’s emotions with strangers, friends, and, in many cases, family. I inherited from this an unspoken stigma against therapy, medication, mental illness—anything that required a public admission of weakness—and a belief that any problem could be solved through strength of will and discipline.

And yet, here I am, chronicling all of these things “on the blogs.”

Many of us—myself included—shy away from speaking openly about our struggles, and our mental health, because of perceived stigmas. These stigmas are not figments—many of the practical impediments one faces in finding and paying for adequate mental health care arise from a widespread, insidious belief that ailments of the mind are, on some level, personal failings, and hence not as deserving of medical care as more concrete physical ailments (my weekly calls to my insurance company will testify to this). Fears of comprising one’s employment, relationships with friends and family, and social standing are all very real.

I realize this every time I mention going to therapy and see someone flinch, or speak about medication and am asked, “so, when are you planning to go off that?” Would you ask someone on blood pressure or cholesterol medication about when they were planning to wean themselves off that? No. Antidepressants are like any medication used to treat a chronic, biologically based condition: they are a long term solution.

We fear mental illness in part because, for those who have not experienced it, it is difficult to understand, much in the way many of us feel uncomfortable in the presence of those with severe disabilities or handicaps. When we see a person who is terminally ill, or physically disabled, or mentally ill, we are confronted both with the immediate presence of human suffering and with a visible reminder of our own mortality, two things no one likes to be reminded of.

We also fear and misunderstand mental illness because there is little robust public dialogue on the subject. Yet, since I began to be more open and vocal about my own experiences, I have been surprised again and again by the number of people I know who suffer from or are affected by mood disorders. Depression is as common as it is debilitating. And yet many of us stay silent, hide, refuse to seek treatment, resist treatment, etc.

I did all of these things for a very long time. In doing so, I did a great disservice to myself. Talk therapy is a very effective treatment for depression, and this is, in part, because depression is exacerbated (and perhaps triggered) by the suppression of thoughts and feelings. Therapy provides a safe space for one to engage with these hidden parts of the self, to expose and to begin to understand them, and, in doing so, to learn how to free oneself from the embedded fears and traumas that lock us into cycles of negative and self-destructive behavior. Emotions, when not felt and processed, can settle and thicken into a foul sediment, the rag and bone shop of the heart from which despair and self-hatred arise.

Thus, when we speak publicly about our inner selves and our struggles, we are beginning to heal ourselves. We are also helping to create a public dialogue on the topic, which in turn encourages others to speak out, to seek treatment, and to get better. If we let the threat of social stigma silence us, we only strengthen those stigmas.

It makes sense, then, that a number of studies have shown gay, lesbian and bisexual men and women—people who often, for at least a portion of their lives, feel forced to hide important aspects of themselves— experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other mental disorders. A 2002 study of bisexual, lesbian and heterosexual sisters, conducted by two researchers at the University of Vermont, found that lesbian and bisexual women who were not out reported higher rates of mood disorders and substance abuse than did their out or heterosexual sisters. Interestingly, the out lesbian sisters in the study reported mental health and self-esteem on par with their heterosexual counterparts. The overall level of mental health and self-esteem were dramatically lower for the bisexual women.[1]

When I was in my early teens, and first starting to get a sense of my own sexuality, I had recurring erotic dreams about both men and women. These have persisted into my adult life. I sensed, at the time, that there was something “wrong” with this, and it terrified me. Throughout high school, I felt drawn to attractive women and developed a crush of sorts on one of my close female friends, but I never admitted, even to myself, that I might be attracted to women. I liked men. I dated men. I wasn’t—couldn’t be, wouldn’t let myself be—a lesbian.

I had one openly bi peer in high school, and the people around me were hard on her. Other than that, I had no examples of adult bi men or women. I didn’t fully understand that this was something one could be, that there was a valid identity in between “gay” and “straight.” I was certainly told that, but I didn’t see anyone around me leading a life that resembled how I felt.

Through college, this remained one of my darkest secrets, the fact that I might, deep down, be gay. And yet I dated men, slept with them, enjoyed sleeping with them, fell in love with them, had relationships with them. I had to be straight. Yet I enjoyed the company of beautiful women, wanted to kiss them, had crazy sex dreams about them at night. I continued to suspect that there was something deeply wrong with me and my sexuality, something dirty and dangerous, that needed to be contained.

We have few, if any, good public images of bisexuality. Like mental illness, it is something that people fear, because it is not frequently discussed, not fully understood, and, on some levels,is a challenge to traditional ideas about sexual orientation and relationships. Because they desire both men and women, bi people are often seen as promiscuous or untrustworthy, never able to be satisfied with just one gender, and likely to betray their partners when the “gay/straight” switch flips inside. Bisexual men are often seen as “really gay” and in denial; bisexual women are often seen as “really straight” and “going through a phase.” For these reasons, bisexual people face prejudice and distrust in both the gay and straight communities, and, therefore, are far less likely to come out than their homosexual peers.

I came out to myself over dinner with a close friend in my mid-twenties. We’d had a few drinks, and he confessed to me that he was bisexual. I started weeping. He asked me why. And I said what I had never said, even to myself, before: I am too. I like men and women. That’s who I am. I wept with relief.

I finally started actively dating women. One night, I went to a gay club night, where I met a beautiful, intelligent woman. We starting dancing, and, as I held her, and looked around a room filled entirely with female couples, I started to cry, this time in joy. It felt so fitting, so right—such a relief to be in this place, to feel safe, to belong.

I came out to my mother shortly after that. I was terrified of the conversation but she, like many of the close friends I later told, didn’t seem very surprised. Instead, she gave me a book, Portrait of a Marriage, which chronicles the unusual, but highly successful marriage, of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West (Virginia Woolf’s friend and brief lover and the protagonist of Woolf’s novel Orlando). Both were bisexual, and they enjoyed a long, happy and decidedly not monogamous partnership, during which both had relationships with men and women. I was thoroughly surprised, and very moved, by the gift. My mother, I realized, understood me better than I had understood myself, and here, finally, was an example of a kind of marriage that just might work for someone like me.

This is not to say that bisexual people are not by nature, or cannot be, or do not choose to be monogamous. Being attracted to both men and women does not mean that one needs to be sleeping with both genders at any given time. Many bi people are in happy monogamous marriages. However, for me, I find that my relationships with men and with women are very different in feeling and character and that both are complimentary. Many men I’ve met or dated seem, at first, to be very “pro” bisexual when I come out to them; often, it turns out that they think this means we’re going to have a lot of threesomes. That’s not really the case. It does mean that I enjoy having substantive, meaningful romantic interactions with both men and women. It also means that, as a result, I’ve had to think more thoroughly and critically about traditional relationship models, marriage, and monogamy, because these are structures that weren’t really built with people like me in mind. But my thoughts on that will probably have to wait for a later post, as they deserve a lengthier explanation than I can give here.

Even after I came out to my close friends and family, however, I stayed, for the most part, closeted. It seemed easier to pass for straight or pass for gay, depending on the circumstances. Going to that club, I felt that I belonged—but only because I presented myself as gay. In other situations, I was able to enjoy the privileges that come from letting everyone assume that I was straight. It was easier to swing back and forth from side to side than to persist in the difficult, distrusted middle.

In doing so, however, I was doing harm to myself. Hiding a significant part of one’s identity, and living constantly behind one fa├žade or another, is, as discussed, highly triggering for depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Forming a strong and integrated sense of myself has been important work for me as I’ve emerged from depression and started to rebuild my life. This work is impossible to complete if I continue to hide crucial aspects of myself because I fear backlash or stigma.

Sex columnist Dan Savage has repeatedly and vocally called on bisexuals to come out of the closet.[2] He argues that the only way that stigmas against bisexuals in both the straight and gay communities will change is if bi people come out, en masse, and claim a place in our public dialogue about sexuality. Since starting to be more openly out myself, I’ve been happily surprised by the number of bisexual men and women I’ve met; I’ve been more disappointed by the number who are still in the closet. As with mental health, the only way our social understanding of these things will change is if we start to speak more publicly about them. And, in doing so, we will have a richer dialogue with one another about what it really means to be sane, to be crazy, to be straight, to be gay, to be human.

So, here it is: I like men, and I like women. I date both. It’s not a phase. It’s who I am. And now it’s on the blogs.



[1] You can find a summary of the data on the APA’s website: http://www.apa.org/monitor/feb02/newdata.aspx 

[2] I highly recommend Dan’s Savage Love podcast to anyone who doesn’t already listen. You can also find a quick summary of his thoughts on bisexuals coming out here: http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/bisexuals/Content?oid=8743322

Friday, October 25, 2013

asmr and the strangle alchemy of the internet


Andy Warhol eating a hamburger. That was my epiphany.

A friend and I were working on a project that revolved around the late 80s New York club scene, and, in reference to this, he sent me a YouTube video of Warhol and a hamburger. The description of the video read: “a classic ASMR trigger.” I had no idea what ASMR was, so, like any good office worker trawling the internet, I looked it up on Wikipedia. This is what I read:

Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is a neologism for a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, olfactory, and/or cognitive stimuli. (Wikipedia)


And I thought, oh my god, there is a word for this. It’s not just me.

***

If you are like me—if you experience this strange phenomenon that is ASMR—maybe reading this essay will be your eureka moment, and you are thinking the same thought that I thought two years ago, sitting at my cubicle desk on a dusty summer afternoon: holy shit. That's what that is. Or maybe you’ve been immersed in the strange and wonderful little subculture of ASMR for some time already, and you’re simply nodding your head in agreement, because each of us has lived some version of this moment.

It’s likely, though, that you are like many of my friends, who know little about ASMR and find no corollary for this phenomenon in their own experience. The feeling has been described in many ways, as “tingles” or a “brain orgasm” or a “brain massage.” I can best describe it as a warm, glowing, buzzing sensation that, for me, originates in the back of the head and neck and spreads from there down the spine; when intense, it can spread into the legs and arms and scalp as well. It is not unlike the feeling of approaching orgasm, in that it builds in intensity and culminates in short bursts that radiate throughout the body (in this case, downward instead of upward), but it is decidedly not sexual. It is less intense than orgasm, gentler but longer in duration, and is accompanied by feelings of relaxation and sleepiness.

There are many different triggers for ASMR, and each person who experiences it finds a different “ideal” combination. Soft and textured sounds are frequent triggers, including whispering, soft speaking, tapping or scratching, the sound of a pencil on paper, boxes being opened or unwrapped. Close personal attention is also a component of the trigger; many people experience ASMR at the hairdressers or during doctors’ exams, for example. Watching someone complete a detailed mundane task, demonstrate the characteristics or use of an object, explain a concept in detail, or tell a long and meandering story are all common triggers. The Home Shopping Network and Bob Ross are often cited as initial triggers by many who experience ASMR.

My first experience of ASMR occurred in preschool. My class went to a local library, where the librarian read us several stories. Many of my classmates were bored and fidgety; I sat in rapt attention. The librarian spoke softly and slowly, lending a special roundness to vowels and diphthongs. As I listened to her speak, pleasurable tingles started to radiate through my back and shoulders. It was a delicious feeling. I could have listened to her speak for hours. Even now, describing it, I feel echoes of those tingles in my back, in the spot between my shoulder blades.

Other triggers followed: teachers in elementary school, my middle school piano teacher, my mother telling me a bedtime story. Female voices, particularly soft or slightly accented ones, were the most frequent triggers, and this remains true for me today. YouTube is now blessedly full of ASMR trigger videos—produced with great care by my fellow ASMR-experiencers—that cater to almost every variety and combination of triggers. I personally prefer videos made by women with accents (especially Russian or Korean accents) that include stories, demonstrations of objects or tasks, or role-plays of hairdressers or doctors. Many people love sounds (scratching, tapping, etc.), but those have a less reliable effect on me.

Since I discovered ASMR for myself, I’ve been intent on sharing this experience with others in the hope that more of my friends and acquaintances would actually know what I was talking about. The particularity and oddness of the experience, and the fact that many mistake it for a sexual fetish (which it decidedly isn’t), made me shy at first, though I’ve since gotten over that. So far, however, I have only one close friend who has known right away what I was talking about. I’m not surprised; she has always known how to scratch my head in a precise way that induces ASMR tingles. She, however, prefers male voices. I’m not sure if there is significance in that.

***

ASMR videos have been a great source of relief and solace for me, especially when I am anxious, depressed, tense or unable to sleep. I enjoy them both for the pleasure they induce and for the relaxation and calm that follows in their wake. They are one of my most reliable strategies for distracting myself from my own mental pain.

As I’ve spent more time in the online ASMR community, I’ve noticed that a striking number of its members—both “whisperers” and listeners—report suffering from a range of psychiatric and mood disorders: depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar I and II, etc. Video comments are filled with grateful listeners expressing thanks for the peace these videos can bring to nights filled with mental and emotional anguish. I have, observing this, come to wonder if there is a link between ASMR and mood disorders, and if, with time, a better understanding of the odd phenomenon of ASMR and the relief its triggering can bring might improve our understanding of depression and its treatment.
***

In a 1997 paper, “Sensory Processing Sensitivity and its Relation to Introversion and Emotionality,” authors Elaine and Arthur Aron investigate sensory processing sensitivity as a phenomenon distinct from (though at times correlated with) introversion and emotionality. A heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli—aural, visual, tactile, and olfactory—is not the result of more finely calibrated sense organs, but rather lies in the way in which this sensory input is processed in the brain. This sensitivity is an innate trait, largely determined by the genetics that shape the production and uptake of dopamine and serotonin and the linked systems of susceptibility to punishment and reward. The ways in which this sensitivity shapes personality and psychology, however, are determined in large part by the environments these individuals are exposed to, particularly in early childhood.

Highly sensitive people tend to be more easily overwhelmed by sensory input and report having to invest more time and effort into managing these traits. In Aron and Aron’s study, sensitive people who report having happy childhoods “saw many advantages to their sensitivity, although their lives had been considerably shaped by its demands” (351). In contrast, those with unhappy or stressful childhoods reported significantly higher rates of mood disorders, addiction, and antisocial behavior. Aron and Aron conclude that, in raising such children, one of the primary challenges is “helping them to contain and reframe their fears and sadness due to perceiving so much that is distressing and that goes unnoticed or unreflected on by other children” (365).

Heightened sensitivity can be a gift or a curse. Subsequent research has further expanded on how such a genetic susceptibility can bestow strength as well as weakness, and why such sensitivity has remained with our species as we have evolved. I plan to discuss this in greater depth in a subsequent entry.

I mention this briefly now, because, to me, ASMR seems to be a form of sensory-processing sensitivity, the result of individuals being exquisitely sensitive and responsive to nuances of sound and attention. It may be one of the blessings that come with the burden of a susceptibility to depression and anxiety. It can certainly help to relieve this suffering. At the moment, scientific research on ASMR is limited (though, if you are interested, I would suggest checking out asmrresearch.org, which is promoting this endeavor). Though likely a longstanding phenomenon, ASMR has emerged into a common consciousness only recently, thanks to the efficacy of the internet in exposing and uniting those who experience strange internal phenomena. The subjective and highly variable nature of the experience also makes it a complicated area of study. I believe, though, that it is a worthwhile study to pursue, particularly as it relates to sensory sensitivity and related inquiries into personality and the psychology of depression. I hope that someone more talented and scientifically capable than I will take on this project someday. I would love to see the results.

***

The ASMR community on YouTube is remarkably strong and close knit. Whisperers attract devoted followers and develop relationships and collaborations with one another and with their fans. It is, for the most part, a very kind and supportive collection of people.

For those who don’t experience ASMR, I suspect the phenomenon seems alternately strange, intriguing, and somewhat questionable. One person may watch a twenty minute video of boxes being unwrapped with deep and pleasurable engagement; another may find that same engagement odd and vaguely disturbing. I’ve heard many people report that they would rather their roommate catch them watching porn than ASMR videos.

There is, however, an aspect of the experience that I find universally appealing, and that is the comfort that ASMR videos provide in the form of close, caring personal attention. On days when I struggle with the sad, lonely space between waking and sleep, I watch these videos and feel warm and reassured, drawn close to people who I have never met or spoken to but whose thoughtful, attentive investment in the creation and distribution of these videos resonates with me. Most of those who make videos began as listeners themselves and then began to post both to give back to the community that had offered them comfort and because the creation of these videos is a pleasure and a source of healing in and of itself. Alone in our beds with our headphones and our iPhones and our overwhelming feelings, we are drawn into an old human dance of care and community, giving and receiving, in turn, the close, comforting attention that is the source of ASMR—a particular phenomenon, but one that has its roots in a universal desire for care.

Luddite that I am, I worry about the rise of digital engagement and the loss of human intimacy that it may engender. But then I am heartened by this: the way in which the internet has allowed me to discover what had been, until recently, an isolating and disturbing quirk of internal experience, and to share this with others in a way that brings joy, pleasure, and relief. This gives me hope. And when I can’t sleep, there is always a gentle, accented voice explaining various techniques for folding towels to comfort me until I can.  
***

If anyone reading this has experiences with or thoughts on ASMR, I’d welcome your comments.

If you’re interested in exploring ASMR videos further, I’d like to recommend three of my personal favorites:

GentleWhispering – youtube.com/user/gentlewhispering
TheWaterWhispers – youtube.com/user/thewaterwhispers

References

Aron, Arthur and Elaine Aron. “Sensitivity Processing Sensitivity and Its Relation to Introversion and Emotionality.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1997. Vol. 73, no. 2: 345-368.

“Autonomous Sensory Meridian Reponse.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Ince. 23 Oct. 2013. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.  

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

an object in living

          But yield who will to their separation, 
          My object in living is to unite 
          My avocation and my vocation 
          As my two eyes make one in sight. 
          Only where love and need are one, 
          And the work is play for mortal stakes, 
          Is the deed ever really done 
          For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

                          -Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” st. 9

I have a very clear memory of my mother explaining to me the difference between “vocation” and “avocation.” I was in middle school at the time and starting to consider what I wanted to do with my life. “Vocation,” she explained, comes from the Latin root “vocare,” to call; it is the work you are called to do in the world and also the work from which you make a living. “Avocation” is different; this is a pursuit you love but do not make a career in, though you may pursue it with an intensity equal to that with which you follow your vocation. A balance between these two things, avocation and vocation, makes for a happy and full life.

At the time, I was increasingly convinced that I wanted to pursue a career in music. I started playing violin at the age of five, encouraged by my parents and in particular my father, an amateur cellist for whom music is an avocation that eclipses his vocation. I don’t think either ever suspected that I would want to pursue music as a vocation, and certainly neither pushed me in that direction. I felt that my mother, in explaining “avocation” vs. “vocation,” was trying to dissuade me from this commitment—or at least urging me to consider other options.

By fifteen, though, my mind was already made up. I knew that I was going to be a musician, even though my understanding of this as a calling was shaped before my sense of myself and who I was in relation to the world were fully formed. Few professions—outside of music, athletics, and perhaps mathematics—call people at such a young age and require such rigorous early training, though of course there are prodigies in every discipline. I was not a prodigy, though I often wished to be; I was talented, though, and this is in part why I was drawn to music.

I have written before of the sense I have always had that the depression was latent in me, a dark and hidden place threatening to erupt into the world. Many friends of mine who also suffer from mental illnesses have spoken of their afflictions similarly, as something that has been with them from a young age, marking them as different long before actual symptoms developed.

I have always had a second sense, though, of having a vocation: a special ability and desire within me, a strong creative spirit that made me different in a positive way. It made sense to me, then, when teachers told me that I had a gift for music. This, I decided, was the natural expression of my positive difference.

The possession of a gift is a seductive thing, particularly when you are too young to understand the difference between what it means to pursue something as a vocation instead of an avocation. Music is a particularly alluring gift because it pulls on all of us so strongly. There are few people who do not have a deep emotional response to some kind of music, be it classical or pop or jazz. My mentors and teachers in turn reinforced the idea of music as a higher calling, a human pursuit that, at its best, overlaps with the divine. This made sense to me. I felt a deep affinity for music and felt that it redeemed a world I often found difficult and incomprehensible and made it, for brief and beautiful moments, rich with meaning.

In high school, as my pursuit of a career in music intensified, I built a community of peers and teachers through orchestra, chamber music, and summer programs. Often alienated at school, I found in music a world of people who, like me, pursued something they loved with intensity, rigor and discipline. In music, I found both a pursuit that I loved and a world in which I felt at home. At the time, this seemed like a solid foundation for a vocation.

There is another side to vocation, though, which I did not consider: the contingencies of making a living from one’s passion. It is one thing to love something and to find meaning and purpose in it. It is another to make a living from that love: to spend hours alone practicing every day; to take shitty gigs in distant towns and teach unmotivated students; to overcome an endless array of petty obstacles in order to survive in a competitive and poorly compensated field. I loved music for all that was glamorous and seductive about it. I never really considered the practical difficulties of making a living at it.

As I began to prepare for a career in music, some of the obstacles that I would face became increasingly apparent. First and foremost, I had not practiced rigorously enough at a young enough age, and so was left with a number of technical shortcomings. The refrains “you are so talented, but…” or “you have such amazing hands for violin, but…” or “you are so musical, but…” haunted my lessons each week. I was stubborn, though, and I told myself I would simply work harder and practice longer, and somehow overcome this.

But practicing was a battle, too. I never learned to practice well. I would practice regularly for long hours but would fail to do so efficiently. Eventually, becoming frustrated by slow progress, I would stop practicing altogether. One early teacher, who helped me to make enormous strides in overcoming my technical and psychological setbacks, encouraged me to learn more about effective practice. But for later, less sympathetic teachers, my failures in practicing were flaws of laziness and discipline, and that is how I came to understand them: as personal failings that I had to beat out of myself. Music, while at times still a pleasure, increasingly became a source of stress and frustration.

By the time I started taking college auditions, I was at war with my instrument and myself. This culminated in an unconscious decision to stop practicing the week before my final audition for the school I most wanted to attend. The audition was disaster. I decided to go to a liberal arts school closer to home instead, telling myself that they had a good music department, and I could continue studying with my current teacher.

I kept up a haphazard practice until my junior year of college. Then I stopped altogether. The break was sudden: I quit orchestra and chamber music in order to have time to pursue other interests. That spring semester was the first time in 12 years that I had not attended weekly rehearsals.

The decision was the culmination of a long process, a slow coming to terms with what becoming a professional musician would require of me and the dawning realization that I was not willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Since I wasn’t going to pursue music as a career, I no longer understood why I was playing violin, which had become such a fraught and painful pursuit. And so, I stopped.

I recently had lunch with a college friend, also a musician, who made the opposite choice around the same time, committing more seriously to his instrument. Like many of my friends from high school and college, he went on to graduate school and is now making a living from his art, difficult as that is. I admire these friends immensely, but in speaking with them, I know that I made the right choice. There is an old truism about music (and other similarly difficult vocations): if you could imagine yourself doing anything else, do it. I would phrase this differently: if you are not willing to overcome endless difficulties and to sacrifice many normal satisfactions (money, social regard, professional recognition), and if the idea of this trade-off does not bring you joy, then find something else that does.

My first major depressive breakdown coincided with my quitting violin. It is hard to determine a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the two, but they are certainly linked. When I gave up violin, I lost faith in my sense of vocation; without that, it became easy to give in to the overwhelming sense of pointlessness and despair that accompany depression. I also no longer trusted myself, and when I did find glimmers of vocation in other pursuits—in writing and reading and teaching, in particular—I was quick to give up on them as soon as obstacles or difficulties arose.

In the first chapter of The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon describes a meeting with Phaly Nuon, a survivor the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia who works to rehabilitate women who suffered tremendously during the war. Her program has three steps: first, she teaches the women to tell their stories and to forget; then, she teaches them to work; and finally, she helps them learn to love again. I have spent much of the time since I left music working on the first and third steps of this process, slowly coming to understand what I have lived, to let go of past suffering, and to rebuild a loving relationship with myself and with those close to me.

The third piece—a sense of vocation—has only come to me recently, largely thanks to the work I have done with a wonderful therapist over the last year. This vocation—writing—is something I have pursued my entire life. An avid reader, I have always written stories and journals and letters and poems; writing and reading are the fundamental ways in which I understand the world and my experience of it. Yet I have considered and turned away from the idea of writing as a vocation many times since leaving music. I have been afraid to claim this desire—the desire to write—as mine, lest it turn out to be another false calling.

Unlike music, though, I continue to come back to writing. I cannot escape it. The driving impulse to create—the core of that vocation I felt as a child—has never left me. It erupts, again and again, even though I deny it. And so the stories come. I cannot escape the overwhelming sense of the world as a beautiful thing beyond understanding, and from this follows the desire to create work that might capture and articulate some aspect of this gorgeous mystery of being alive. I have tried to stop writing many times, but I always come back.

As a result, I have come to understand vocation differently: it is not the loud voice that calls to you from outside yourself. It is the quiet but insistent voice that speaks to you in solitude, when you feel at one with yourself and with the world around you. It is the voice that does not go away, that demands that you learn to listen to it. And this is what I have been doing these past years, and especially this last year in therapy: learning to listen to that voice and building the strength and courage I will need to follow it.

In this pursuit, my training in music has been immensely helpful. I understand what it means to practice something every day, alone and often without great encouragement or progress. I was not ready, when I took my college auditions, to commit to this kind of practice; I still believed too much in grand gestures of fate and talent that would save me from my shortcomings. Now, I find solace in the mundane details of my work, in striving to find the most precise word, the most elegant phrase, the clearest structure.

And I work to make a living out of this practice as well. I teach writing; I share work that has meaning for me; I look for work that pays. In the work that I find, mundane as it may be, I also find a growing sense of satisfaction and a strengthening of self.

Vocation, I understand now, is where love and need intersect, where what one pursues in solitude may be brought into the world in a productive way. I chose writing as a vocation not in one grand sweep, but rather in the slow discovery of what I find necessary each day. It is calls to me not in moments of transcendence but in little whispers, in the itch I feel until I sit down at the computer or take up a pen.

As I have found this vocation, and as I have begun to emerge from depression into a more stable understanding of myself, I have also returned to violin. Though returning after long absence has been painful, it has also been a joy. Practicing a little each day, I recover a part of me that has been eroded by years of chronic illness: the part that finds contentment in work, that sees purpose and meaning in my life, that has direction and discipline and passion.

Last night, I went to my first orchestra rehearsal in six years. It was exhausting, and I was disheartened by the loss agility in my fingers and clarity in my tone. But afterward, I came home feeling clear and calm, and I woke up this morning excited to write. Music, I see now, is my avocation: the calling that I pursue because it strengthens who I am and helps me to pursue my vocation with greater purpose and discipline.

So my recovery continues. Each day, I practice the things that give shape to myself and meaning to my life: I run, I play violin, I speak with the people I love. I write, and I try to find ways to make a living from writing. Many days, I do not want to do these things, nor do I always succeed in doing them. But I keep trying, with the faith that the practice of trying itself will slowly make the days clearer and more cohesive, and that my sense of being gifted will grow stronger as the dark tide of depression recedes.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

the flaw in love


“Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair. When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself. Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself.”
                -Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon, p. 15*  

My first major breakdown occurred at the end of my junior year in college, arriving on the heels of an ugly break-up with a boy I loved but could not find a way to be content with. I remember sitting in my dorm room in the days or weeks that followed—I’m not sure when—and watching the walls dissolve in the dim yellow of the overhead light; I felt myself becoming unmoored from any sense of order or structure in the world. I was afraid to stand up, convinced that I would disappear into the yellow abyss opening in front of me. 

I remember very clearly the particular shade of yellow that the walls took on as I sat pinned to the couch; it matched the color of a recurring childhood nightmare that haunted the nights before holidays and birthdays. In the nightmare, I was trapped in a dimensionless yellow room filled with large blue spiders—or rather, a horrible approximation of spiders, with smooth spherical bodies and spindly stick-like legs. The room seemed to rotate as the spiders moved around it, and I remained suspended in a disembodied state, unable to find a floor. There is no sense to the terror that accompanied this dream—only that it was proportionate to the excitement and happiness of the day that would follow. 

This kind of pale yellow has remained, to this day, the color of my dark moods. This suggests to me that the depression has always been a latent facet of my mind, a quality as ingrained as my sense of humor or ability to run long distances or affinity for language. I have always had the sense of being too attuned to the dark places of my mind, to the transience of all things, to the abiding facts of sorrow and loss. Loss experienced in early childhood often prefigures adult depression. I do not remember learning what death was; I feel as though I have always known. But this knowledge in no way prepared me for my first experiences of death—the passing of the grandparents who had cared for me as a child. I railed against the loss, the fact that anything could vanish with such permanence in a world in which all things had seemed possible. 

Death takes from all of us, sooner or later, the illusion that we have permanent agency in our lives. For me, the loss of this illusion came early, but I did not accept its absence gracefully. Instead, I became overly sensitive to any small departure or goodbye. Leaving summer camp, friends moving out of town, the passing of any high point in the yearly cycle- any minor loss was colored by a violent sorrow. 

***

This winter, as has been the case with most winters in the past six or seven years, I fell into a deep depression. This one was worse than usual, with my typical dull hibernation increasingly interrupted by a sharp, suffocating pain. Unemployed, I was able to sink into deeper and darker spaces than I had before. I started therapy, too, and the excavation of these spaces pushed me to sink even further.

In February, I thought my dark mood was starting to lift. My theater company hosted its first big public event, which, in spite of the usual array of last minute obstacles, was a great success. I arrived home at three AM riding a wave of jubilation that I thought would sweep away the sediment of my despair. The next morning, I awoke to the news that a beloved friend, a woman who had been a surrogate grandmother after my own had passed away, had died during the night as I celebrated my success. It reinforced with striking clarity my sense that every good thing I experience must be paid for with equal amounts of pain. 

Two weeks later, I ended a long relationship that had been fatally eroded by my depression and my partner’s well-meaning but baffled response to it. I was gripped by a dark mania at the time, an agitated depression that provoked impulsive, destructive behavior. The break-up was not unconsidered, but I carried it out swiftly and suddenly, as though determined to dismantle every stable thing in my life. 

So much was lost. But then, as if to compensate for that, something miraculous happened: I fell in love. Swiftly, suddenly, totally, a tidal wave of joy that I had not experienced in years, that I was not sure I still had the capacity to feel. I met this beautiful man and found him wonderful, and I could see that in his eyes, I was wonderful too. I thought that he might be the answer to all my problems; when I was with him, the depression vanished. When I told him about my struggles, he said only, “maybe I can help with that.” And I thought, you already have. I wanted to be around him all the time. I felt prepared to let go of everything else in my life in order disappear into some beautiful other world with him, a place where I would be healed, would be at peace.

It ended as suddenly as it began. We had the fight that was the beginning of the end on the morning that I received news that my surrogate grandmother’s husband, who had been like a grandfather to me, was in the hospital with advanced prostate cancer. He passed at the end of that month. During the same time, my company lost a grant that we had been expecting, and our operations were put on hold.
For at least a month, I was paralyzed, alternately grief-stricken and obsessively anxious. I fought with my parents and my best friends. I sent the boy streams of crazy text messages. We had a fight one night, and I pushed him into a wall. To distract myself, I started a novella, and then a series of stories. After I lost the ability for sustained concentration that writing requires, I began drawing a cartoon strip. I filled several notebooks. And still, there was no escape from grief. I felt that I had lost more than I could bear, and so I clung to the remnants of that failed relationship with a bitter force, convinced that it was the one thing in my life that I could somehow fix, and that if I could fix it, I would be okay. 

I have spent a long time trying to understand why this brief relationship fell apart and why it had such a disproportionate impact on me. In part, it was simply the timing—a compelling person colliding with me at a tumultuous and vulnerable moment. It was also the last flaring of an old idea of mine: the sense that my problems could be solved if only I could find the right alignment of person and place and job and way of living, that the core of my suffering was environmental and not endemic to me. When I lost this boy, I lost my faith in that idea. I felt, in his absence, more deeply alone with my troubled self than I had been in a long time. So I held on to my multi-faceted grief because, even though it was painful, it was easier to be violently heart-broken than to confront the darker depression lurking just under the surface. 

Accumulated grief, however, can easily decay into depression. Loss, experienced as a phenomenon that is ameliorated by the passage of time, is a transformative force; it renews our sense of self and purpose in the world and our capacity to love in the same way that regular fires ensure the health of a forest. When this loss detaches from its cause, when we cling too desperately to our grief, we prevent the renewal that should follow; the grief becomes ingrown, a blight on the mind and heart, and from this, depression springs. 

The most serious breakdown I have ever experienced came on the heels of these combined losses. I was consistently struck by bouts of blinding pain, a psychic anguish that is hard to explain to those who have not experienced it. It is the kind of pain that brings no relief in its wake, like the nausea of a stomach bug that is not alleviated by vomiting. It would trap me in my bed or on a park bench, and I would be stuck there, unable to move or speak or sometimes even breathe, except to cry. And then I lost the capacity for crying, too, so that I was caught, mute and suffering, in an anguished maze of my own making that, like a Chinese finger trap, seemed to grow more and more constricting the more I railed against it. Eventually, I stopped fighting and gave into it, letting myself drift down and down and down.  

Finally, though, I found myself at a point so low that I felt I could go no further down. I didn’t know how to get out, but I knew that drastic change was required. So I quit my job and left town. I went, with my mother, to a place that is very dear to my family, one also associated with my grandparents, both biological and adopted. As we drew closer and closer to our destination, I felt something unlock within me, and the circular pain of my stunted grief started to uncoil in a long stream of weeping. I felt a sharp, pointed kind of pain—the kind of pain that has purpose and that, if expressed, may at last leave the sufferer in peace. 

I felt at first that there was no end to this hurt, that it might unspool forever. My mother, though, listening to me cycle through yet another obsessive attempt to explain why this relationship had fallen apart, finally pointed out that it was not understanding that would set me free. I simply needed to let go. I can’t do that, I said; I’ve lost too much. I can’t lose this too. I just can’t bear it. And then she said, you don’t have to let it go all at once. Just start now, for five minutes. Breathe. And I did. 

***

We love in proportion to our ability to grieve for what we lose. It is why we seem able to love most fully in the moments where the permanence of that love, or of its object, seems threatened. As a child, I felt that I loved my parents so much that it was painful; that, in loving them, I experienced their loss in miniature each and every day. I began to suspect that life would be a long practice in the art of losing. In my more maudlin moods, I became convinced that it would be my particular destiny to lose everyone and everything dear to me before I died. As a result, I clung too much to things that were not mine to keep, and it is in part from this trait that my depression arises. 

Of course, the genesis and progression of depression is more complex; this is only one aspect. It is a crucial one, though—the accumulation of unresolved grief that begins to erode one’s sense of self, so that the capacity to love becomes warped, becomes only the desire to cling desperately to remnants of things gone. 

In the end, everything is lost. I have always known this. What have I learned only more recently, though, is that the opposite is true as well: nothing is lost. It is only changed. And when we learn to accept that, to mourn and to let go, to exist gracefully in balance with the flux of all things, then we are, paradoxically, able to keep that which has gone. When I finally breathed in and let go of this boy and of my grandparents and my grief and anger at their passing, I felt suddenly that they were with me. I gave up an imagined future and received instead an enduring sense of love, the feeling of a thick protective blanket draped around my shoulders, as sure in solitude as it had been in their presence. All the beautiful things I could remember of them seemed clearer and brighter in my mind. The past and the present and future seemed much closer together, as though time itself were a thing of little matter, and physical presence and absence irrelevant.

Depression destroys time. It renders the sufferer unable to move beyond a single endless instant of pain; one loses the capacity to imagine a past or future outside of this transfixed moment. All one can do is weather this horrible eternity, and try to keep faith that somewhere outside the mind, time is passing, and that this passage will, ultimately, bring relief. 

In between bouts of depression, though, or when one is beginning to emerge from an episode and trying to reconstruct a life outside of the illness, I have found that this practice of letting go speeds recovery and builds resilience. It acts as a bulwark against relapse, and it nourishes the strength one will need to endure when depression comes again. It is a way of cultivating the kind of present-mindedness that has been shown to be as effective as drugs or therapy in combatting depression. One can only exist fully in the moment if one accepts that it will pass and, in passing, be knit into what has come before and what will come after. In this practice, I am learning, at last, to be at peace with the small losses of each day and week and month, the minor passings that teach us to weather the major ones. 

So it is with love, too. We love well in proportion not only to our capacity for grief, but also to our capacity for letting go. I am immensely blessed to have wonderful friends and family. On my good days, I experience a surfeit of love in my life, a feeling of immense warmth that feeds my capacity to feel joy in the simple facts of existence. I feel that love is boundless and omnipresent; that I have an extraordinary capacity to care; and have in return been cared for by many wonderful people. 

On my bad days, though, this love feels like a suffocating weight, a burden and a responsibility that I did not choose. I suspect that the good qualities that draw others to me are not really mine; that I do not deserve these gifts. Instead, it is the bad qualities that feel concrete, and I feel guilty for having duped other people into caring for such an undeserving person. I resent their love because it binds me to the world and traps me in myself. I want to run away from it all, to disappear into some alternate reality; but I have tried this, and it does not work. 

I have a friend who sends me a message every day that says, “you are not alone.” If I am feeling unwell, then I find it hard to take this idea in. I protest: we are all alone in the end. Depression, like all pain, is isolating. Still, he sends these messages, and I read them. I read them because I have faith that the day will come when the sadness lifts, and the boundless joy—the sense of being at one with all things—will return, and those words will feel true again.

There was a brief time when I thought this friendship might turn into something else, something more. I have learned this year, though, that one cannot love fully or consistently when one is not well. And while I am much better, I am not yet recovered. So I let go of that idea, and from that, something stronger and more permanent is growing. 

We are alone in the sense that there is no escape from the self; no other person or place that will offer redemption. Instead, we must work to find a compromise between our positive and negative qualities, our healed and our suffering selves. I have come to feel that it is the interaction between my good qualities and bad qualities that makes me human, that it this interaction that allows me to make my gifts useful to myself and others. Cultivating this idea helps me to reconcile fully with myself, which aloows me to love as well as I am loved. On the days on which I would prefer not to go on, when thoughts of darkness and death haunt every step, it is this love that keeps me going. On these bad days, I do not experience this feeling as love, in the warm and joyful sense; it seems more like a dull gravity that slows down every movement. But that is enough to keep me from self-destruction and to grant me enough measure of resilience to keep going until the mood lifts, and I find my capacity for joy returned to me. 

*Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon is a wonderfully thorough and thoughtful account of depression, a combination of his first-hand experiences and a wealth of research and interviews with fellow sufferers. I cannot recommend it enough to anyone suffering from or curious about the illness. It is a ravaging and gorgeous book.