I started this blog three or so years ago for a number of reasons, but mostly, it was because I was deeply, deeply unhappy, and I wanted to start a journey toward reclaiming the happy, carefree person I used to be. And I knew the struggles I was having with anger, impatience, frustration, impotence, rudeness, and anxiety weren't just my struggles---it's stuff we ALL struggle with in the Western world. Most of us (though definitely not all) don't have to worry about food or shelter, so we have the luxury to worry (and get angry about) all sorts of other things. The world is rife with perceived irritations. I think what we've become as a society and the current state of the world leave a lot of people with these exact emotions. We've become a nation of divided, entitled, and angry fist-shakers, and whether we realize it or not, that affects our psyches on a very personal level each and every day.
So these past few years, I've spent A LOT of time thinking about happiness---my own and society's. I've tried all the hippie, California, New Age shit---from hiring a life coach to individual AND couples' counseling to learning to meditate to reading spiritual books to going on silent retreats to quitting my miserable job---and still happiness eluded me.
And then, about a month ago, I went away into the woods for ten days. I had no devices, no TV, no booze, no friends, no Internet, no obligations. And I just sat. Sure, I read a bunch, and I cooked. I meditated. I wrote a little. But mainly I just sat and stared off into nothingness. At the fantastic advice of one of the above-mentioned shrinks, I didn't try to make a schedule for myself or make a to-do list or set any sort of life goals. I just let myself Be. And man, it was everything I thought it could be. Y'all should try this shit, for real.
Even corporations don't want us to live in the goddamned real world.
I don't know if it was the no distractions or the fact that I gave myself full permission to zen the fuck out, but I came back from those ten days utterly refreshed. Holy shit, it's almost like I have my old personality back, pre-pain, pre-depression, pre-everything. I felt calmer and more at peace. If there was an overarching message I came away with from my Waldenesque time, it's "don't make things so fucking hard." And it's been with that message in my mind that I have moved through the world this past month.
Which leaves me wondering: that after all of this struggle and soul-searching, can it really be that the secret to happiness is to stop chasing it so relentlessly? Because that feels like something I should have known already, and part of me is a little chafed that I didn't figure that out before this whole journey started and saved myself a lot of time and mental struggling.
Well shit though, that right there is a baby floating in some bathwater. It's not like nothing was accomplished on my little spiritual adventure. It's very Buddha-y to say "its not the destination, it's the journey," right? Turns out that chubby bastard was on to something. This journey has brought a deeper understanding of myself than I ever thought possible. It's given me time to contemplate the factors I felt were contributing to my unhappiness, which, in turn, has allowed me to better figure out how to manage those factors.
Which is how I got the idea for the series of entries I'm about to write. It's been a four-year struggle for me, just trying to get back to zero, and I'm not claiming to have unlocked the Secret of Life or anything, but I have figured out a number of things along the way that I feel like were factors in getting me to a place of relative calm. First of all, I've spent a lot of time trying to get to the bottom of why I'd become so unhappy, which will be the first entry in this series. Your mileage will vary, obviously, as the things you struggle with are likely not the things I struggle with.
Pain. The obvious factor in contributing to my misery has been the chronic pain. When I used to hear people say "He suffers from chronic pain," I would think "What the hell does that even mean? He has an ingrown toenail? What are we talking about here?" Well, I'm here to tell you that it means that that person is living with some form of pain each and every day, and that pain not only affects their body, but it's slowly rotting their brain too. Their brains are expending 90 percent of its energy recognizing and thinking about that pain and how they will make it through a normal work day, let alone ever doing the things that once brought them pleasure. There is no room left to let them be functioning, pleasant members of society, no room left for social expectations and niceties. They no longer recognize themselves. Who they are now---all they are---is their pain. It defines them. There's no room left for their old personality. Which can often lead to…
Depression. As I've mentioned before, my chronic pain and how it twisted my life in the course of the first years I experienced it, led me straight into a deep and dark depression. And, unfortunately, I didn't recognize for a very long time that I was depressed. I just kept beating myself up for not being able "to pull myself up by my own bootstraps" as society teaches us to do. I figured I was just being a pussy, wallowing, feeling sorry for myself. And if I just had a stronger character, I would rise up and get past this. But because I wasn't getting past it, it was some deep moral failing on my part. Fortunately, I found a very, very good shrink who explained to me that my rational, intelligent self was trying to figure out how to think my way out of this problem. She explained that depression doesn't work that way. No amount of logic and problem-solving can dig you out of that hole because it's not a moral failing, it's fucking biochemistry. But I'm not gonna lie to you---it took me years to accept that and to stop kicking my own ass for not being able to get myself un-depressed. Unfortunately, when you're depressed and in pain, doing the things you're supposed to do---eat right, socialize, exercise, meditate, etc.---are things you don't have the energy for. So you find other things to do besides stare at the ceiling, things that are easier to accomplish than making a fucking smoothie and hitting the gym. At this point in human history, that thing is typically spending hundreds of useless hours on the Internet.
Self-doubt? Check! Anxiety? Check! Depression? Check!
On a first-name basis with the counter guy at the nearest liquor store? Check!
The Internet. For me, specifically, that means Facebook. As my depression was drawing me more and more inward, social media was exploding. So as I'm pulling away from my spouse, my family, my friends, and the outside world in general, an app that was supplanting face-to-face contact and supporting arm's-length interaction was at the height of its popularity. Depression meant I found talking to people and making plans with my friends daunting, but suddenly this platform that still allowed me to be in the world (insert eye roll here) as my old funny, witty, caustic persona was at my disposal. How perfect for me! It allowed me to present a face to the world that was the polar opposite of what my brain was feeling on the inside. "Look at me! I'm still funny, edgy, interesting, and relevant!" I could lie to the world and no one would be the wiser. But what was really happening was that the pain and the depression had created a deep-seated fear in me---fear of the outside world (due, no doubt, to the steady diet of bad news the Internet handily provides); fear of telling the world how much pain I was in because they'd think I was making it up; fear of failure when even thinking about trying something new; fear people would judge me for my pain, depression, and lack of motivation; fear of exposing my inner workings to another person (even my wife); fear that I was withering away and not living up to my potential. And man, that fear was fucking crippling. So I pretended I was still in the world using the social media tools available to me. It was an ugly, vicious cycle that further contributed to my depression because I wasn't really connecting with my people; I was merely giving the illusion of doing so.
Don't become a prisoner in your own phone. Rise up! Look up! Be in the real world!
My Addictions. Frankly, they just weren't keeping me entertained the way they used to. For the first time in my life, I was experiencing guilt over the choices I was making. If my twenties and thirties had been my decades of careless hedonism---a time where I put anything and everything into my body in the name of Having a Good Time---my forties had shaped up to be the decade where I started to regret those choices. It's usually the time in a person's life where they find themselves musing "God, can you imagine if I'd saved every penny I've ever spent on booze, drugs, cigarettes, and general frivolity? I'd have like 2.3 million dollars by now…" It's the time when you're standing in front of the giant chasm that is the Second Half of Your Life, and you realize you have to find a greater purpose in life besides drinking and recreational drugging because those things don't look quite as cute as they used to. You've long ago developed an alarming "been there, done that" about all of your usual vices so you figure you'd better have a more purposeful reason to live than happy hour or else you might start getting curious about things that offer bigger thrills. Basically, I hit the point where I was sick of my own shit and all of the things my addictive personality was reaching for to fill an ever-growing void in my soul. I knew I needed to be honest about them, to do a cost-benefit analysis, to really examine how well they were serving me at this point.
Even I'm bored with my own distractions at this point.
My Isolation. All of it---the pain, the depression, and my addictions to the Internet, my phone, my safe place, booze, drugs, etc.---caused me to isolate myself from E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E. This is typical depressed and/or addict behavior. "I'm ashamed and embarrassed at how I've lost control of my mind and body, and I don't want anyone else to know what a mess I am…" is a common refrain of both depressed people and of addicts. When you're depressed, even responding to texts and emails about a night out with close friends becomes impossible. You've already fast-forwarded into the future and thought about how that night will play out, and how you're sure that, when that night arrives, you'll just come up with an excuse anyway so why bother? Friends start dropping off because you're a pain in the ass. Worse yet, you stop telling those closest to you, like your spouse or your parents or your best friends, what's happening in your head. You are pretty much panicked all the fucking time, and this is a source of constant shame for you. So you clam up, which is the last thing you should be doing when you need help.
That this is a little slice of heaven is something on which can all agree...
but is it healthy for your messy head?
So yeah, those are MY five biggies that I wrestle with every damn day. Still. I know there are behaviors that can minimize the effects these bitches have on my life. On good days, I engage in those activities; many days I do not. I don’t like to refer to depression or life as a "battle" because a battle implies that you can be victorious which, as many of you know, often doesn’t apply to depression. In many cases, that shit will always be with you, even when you're feeling good. And bad things will happen to you in life, unless you're Prince George or some shit, so seeing it as a "battle" seems counterproductive to me. The bad stuff isn't the shit sandwich Life is throwing at you: it IS Life. You might as just roll with it.
Anyway, point being, once I isolated the things that have been dragging me down these past few years, I started paying attention more to the things that worked for me as I struggled to "fix" them. Those things will be the focus of my next few entries. Again, I'm not claiming to have any special knowledge or be some guru; this is just shit I learned when I started paying attention again.