Priorities, When Depressed and When Not: Grief/ Cancer/ Depression Diary, 2/21/13

So there’s this thing that’s making it harder to manage my grief over my dad, and my recovery from cancer surgery, and menopause landing on me all at once like a sixteen-ton-weight, and what can only be described as mild PTSD from having all of these things happening within less than a month of each other, and the depressive episode I’ve been having as a result.

When I’m in a depressive stretch of my life, I have to make managing my depression pretty close to my top priority. And among other things, this means that if I have any impulse at all to do something that alleviates the depression, I do it if I possibly can. If I have any impulse at all to go to the gym, to get outside, to socialize, to write, to masturbate, to get a manicure, to read for pleasure… I do it if I can.

This is actually one of the best pieces of advice I ever got about depression management. If I’m having a hard time getting motivated to leave the house and take a walk, and a window opens up where this amotivation lifts… in that moment, my friend told me, I should get the hell up and get out of the house. The self-perpetuating, vicious-circle nature of depression is one of the shittiest things about it: there are all these things you could to do to make the depression better, but the depression is sapping your ability to do them. (And the depression then makes you feel guilty and worthless and lazy for not having the minimal will power it takes to get off the sofa, put some clothes on, and take a walk.. which then makes you feel worse, which then makes it harder to get up.) So if your brain is giving you a reprieve and offering you a window in which you actually do feel motivated to do things that alleviate your depression, you take that window, and you fling yourself through it.

All of which means that my priorities aren’t what they normally would be when I’m not depressed.

For instance: I’m prioritizing going to the gym a lot more than I normally do. I’m prioritizing getting outside more, which means activities that give me an excuse to get outside are getting prioritized as well. (Take a forty-minute walk to go to the bakery and get a loaf of bread? Sure!) I’m prioritizing things that reliably give me pleasure a lot more than I normally do. And if I have the impulse to write anything at all, I write it… whether it’s on a topic that my normal, non-depressed self would consider a priority or not. (Translation: Yes, I’m writing about fashion even more than I normally do. Writing about fashion is fun, and it gets me writing.)

But I feel like this sometimes creates a problem with the people in my life. I worry that people in my life are thinking, “You have time to go to the gym, but you don’t have time to make a lunch date? You have time to get a manicure, but you don’t have time to give me feedback on my book/ video/ blog post? You have time to blog about fashion, but you don’t have time to blog about this important issue I’m letting you know about?”

I feel like I want to scream to the world, “No. I don’t think getting a manicure or blogging about fashion or going to the gym is more important than whatever it is you want me to do. I think that managing my depression is more important than whatever it is you want me to do. I think that keeping myself away from the rim of the event horizon, keeping the black cloud from descending over my head, is more important than whatever it is you want me to do. I’m genuinely sorry that I can’t do as much as I normally can… but managing my depression is what’s going to get me back into a condition where I do have all that energy I used to have. Please bear with me.”

But complicating this is… well, a few things.

Complicating this is the fact that I don’t have a clear sense of whether anyone in my life is really thinking any of this, or whether this is just the usual critical voices in my head, telling me that whatever I’m doing, I’m doing it wrong. Voices which, inevitably, get amped up when I’m going through a depression. Even at the best of times, it’s hard for me to tell when the people in my life are actually disappointed in me, or whether I’m disappointing my own high expectations of myself and then projecting that disappointment onto other people. I suspect that sometimes it’s one and sometimes it’s the other… but I have a hard time telling which is which. And I have a harder time making that distinction when I’m depressed.

Also complicating this is the fact that I think the whole question of personal responsibility and mental illness is incredibly complicated. This is a very large question that I plan to write about in another piece… but the tl;dr is that I don’t think my depression absolves me of all responsibility to other people. It absolves me of some of it, but not all of it. I think I get to cut myself some slack while I’m working on getting better — but I don’t think I get to cut myself infinite slack.

And complicating this is the fact that these are my own priorities we’re talking about here. It’s not just about what other people expect from me. It’s not even just about what I expect from myself. It’s about what I want from myself, and for myself. I don’t actually think that getting a manicure or taking a long walk is more important than blogging about atheism or having lunch with a friend. And while intellectually, and even emotionally, I get that managing my depression has to take pretty much top priority… on a day-to-day level, doing this often feels like I’m making the wrong choices, like I’m dicking around with trivialities, like I’m wasting the one life I have.

Then again: Part of being depressed is that, with a few exceptions, I’m uncomfortable with almost everything I do. When I’m feeling depressed, with a few exceptions, I pretty much always feel restless and twitchy and like I want to move on to the next thing these days. Even when I am doing things that resonate with me deeply and that I think are important. So that feeling that I’m doing the wrong thing and really should be doing something else… right now, it’s not a reliable barometer.

I don’t know. I think I’m going around in circles here. Thoughts?

On Sometimes Feeling Okay and Sometimes Not: Grief and Cancer Diary, 12/19/12

So I’m having this situation. It has to do with my recovery from cancer surgery, and with my depression, and with my grief over my dad’s recent death.

There are stretches when I feel pretty okay. When I feel pretty good, even. My health is getting better every day, and I have minutes, hours, days even, when I feel like my old self: cheerful, optimistic, energetic, motivated, engaged.

And there are stretches when I really don’t. There are stretches when I can’t make myself get off the sofa: when I sit there thinking about all the things I need to do and even want to do, and cannot make myself do any of it. There are stretches when I’m irritable, anxious, needy, pissy, all out of proportion. There are stretches when I’m just tired, and have to rest.

So here’s the situation: When I display one or the other of these facets of my life right now, in the public sphere or even to my friends and family, I feel like a fraud.

When I talk about how hard the depression is; when I talk about my grief about my dad; when I talk about how my post-surgery stamina is still low and I need more rest than usual… I feel like I’m giving a false impression. I feel like I’m making it look worse than it is. I feel like I’m being self-indulgent, whiny, lazy. After all, I went to the gym for an hour and a half two the other day. I just stayed up until two in the morning writing about human rights violations against atheists. I’ve been joking around on Twitter about Hug Club. How bad could it be? What’s all this darkness and exhaustion about?

And when I’m doing better and am talking about the silly fun things that bring me joy in life, when I talk about music and atheism and politics and kittens and Christmas and going to the gym… I feel like I’m giving a false impression, too. I feel like I’m making it seem like everything is hunky-dory and awesome and totally back to normal now — when it’s really not.

Complicating things is the fact that one of my most common coping mechanisms, especially for depression, is acting more “up” than I really feel. It’s the whole “fake it ’til you make it” thing. If I feel the self-perpetuating downward spiral of depression coming on, I try, if I possibly can, to make myself be social, or go to the gym, or even just dick around on Facebook and Twitter. Acting as if I’m engaged in my life is a big part of what gets me genuinely engaged in my life. But when I’m still in the “faking it” part of “fake it ’til you make it,” it feels… well, fake. Like I’m putting on an act. And the flipside of that is also true. If I’m in a funk that I can’t pull myself out of, it feels fraudulent and self-indulgent: since I was able to pull myself out of it the last time, obviously I should be able to do it again now, and this whole depression thing is just bullshit, I’m really just a lazy, self-involved whiner and malingerer. (Yes, I know. People who aren’t depressed typically don’t spend long hours berating themselves for being lazy, self-involved whiners and malingerers.)

And because I’m generally a self-conscious person even at the best of times, and because so much of my grieving process has been about endlessly parsing how it looks and whether I’m doing it right, I’m worried about what these false impressions are going to make people think of me. When I’m being upfront about the grief and depression and illness, I worry if people are going to think, “Gee, she seemed fine the other day — was she just putting on an act?” And when I have a stretch of being more positive and upbeat, I worry if people are going to expect me to be all better now, to be like that all the time now… and if they’re going to get irritated and critical when I can’t keep it up. I worry if people are going to think, “Wait a minute, what do you mean you don’t have the energy to (meet a deadline, go out for drinks, blog about misogyny)? You were just (dicking around on Twitter, ranting about atheism until two in the morning, hitting the gym for an hour and a half)! What’s wrong with you?”

(And then I get into a pissy defensive argument with those imaginary people in my head. Always useful.)

Not sure where I’m going with this. I guess I maybe just want to say this, to put it officially on the record: I’m doing better — and I’m still sometimes having a hard time. I can do a lot of what I could do before the surgery, and before my dad died and the depression hit — and I can’t do as much of it, I still need long stretches of rest and can’t take on as much as I used to. I can do some work now — and I’m still behind on a lot of stuff. Where I am right now is very in-between: on the road to Wellville, but not there yet. And the in-between state, for the physical health stuff and the mental health stuff and the grief, doesn’t always look like a subdued but calm even keel. It sometimes looks like a seesaw. (So imaginary people in my head, cut me some slack already.)

And I guess I want to put this out there: Does anyone else ever get this? Especially if you’ve been having a hard time, if you’ve been recovering from a bad illness or have a chronic illness or are dealing with bad news or grief or something… do you ever feel like a fraud because you don’t feel the same way all the time?

Grief Diary, 10/12/12

10/12/12

The thing I’ve been having a hard time with in the last couple of days: The fact that grief feels horrible — and there’s pretty much nothing I can do about it.

I’m very used to tackling my problems. I’m used to trying to fix the bad things in my life, or at least taking action to alleviate them. And I can’t do that now. There is a basic, unfixable problem in my life, which is that my dad is dead. There is another basic, unfixable problem in my life, which is that grief happens, and takes time. And the only thing I can really do is to slog through it. There are a handful of things I can do that sometimes make me feel better, or at least that don’t make me feel worse: exercise, time outdoors, socializing, chocolate, making plans and having things to look forward to. But basically, all I can do is ride it out, sit and wait for time to pass. There’s a line from the movie “Tootsie” that Ingrid keeps reminding me of: “I’m going to feel this way until I don’t feel this way anymore.”

And I. Fucking. Hate. That. I’m a control queen. I hate just sitting around waiting for days and weeks and months to pass, so I can feel better. This helplessness itself is just one more fucking thing that feels bad, just one more shitty layer of meta piled on to the core of the grief itself.

I’m also realizing that I’m feeling cut off — voluntarily, but still cut off — from one of my usual avenues of connection and expression and participation in the world… namely, the ongoing conflicts and debates in atheism. I’ve always been someone who’s relatively unafraid of conflict, who’s willing to speak her mind even if it gets blowback. I pride myself on that, and to a great extent I’ve carved it out as a major part of my career niche. But right now, I just don’t have it in me.

And that’s very frustrating. There’s a whole host of pieces I’ve been writing in my head, pieces where I think I have a valuable and unique perspective that could make a real difference in some of these conflicts… and I’m not writing them. I don’t have it in me right now to moderate a flamey, 200+ comment thread about feminism, or sex work, or Atheism+. Even the fairly small or private conflicts I’ve been participating in have been upsetting me and depressing me and freaking me out, all out of proportion. I wake up to a couple of mildly angry emails, and it fucks me up for hours. I know that holding off on these fights for now is the right choice, the best thing I can do to take care of myself. But that sense of being cut off… it’s yet another shitty layer of meta. On top of the 23,452 ways that I feel uncomfortable and restless and like nothing feels right, I have the profoundly uncomfortable sensation of keeping my mouth shut when I normally would be speaking. Keeping my mouth shut does not come naturally to me. Not saying things, solely because I’m afraid that people will be mean to me and I can’t handle it, does not come naturally to me. I fucking hate it.

(A few hours later)

On the other hand — damn. Going to the gym. I really have to remember going to the gym. Made it to the gym tonight — absolutely did not want to go, was not in the mood to go, seriously considered being a bad angel and trying to talk Ingrid out of going and into hanging out with me at the cafe instead, had to pull together all my fortitude and inner resources to force myself to go — and was so very glad I did. Went to the gym, and afterwards we picked up take-out burgers and took them home and ate them in front of “Project Runway” and read Tom and Lorenzo and watched South Korean pop videos on YouTube and let cats crawl all over us… and it felt great. It didn’t feel ecstatic or mind-blowing or anything. It just felt like a Friday night. It felt like myself, enjoying my life and my home and my marriage. Yet another note to self: Go to the fucking gym, as often as you possibly can. Do not keep telling yourself, “I don’t have time.” Your productivity is for shit right now. You are spending hours every day staring blankly at a computer screen and re-checking Twitter for the fiftieth time. Your productivity will be vastly improved if you wake the fuck up. Going to the gym wakes you the fuck up. And besides, you just like it. So go.

Richard Hermann Muelder, 1933-2012

My father died on October 1, 2012, at the age of 79.

My dad, like me, was an atheist. And when you’re an atheist and a non-believer, and the people you love die, you don’t get to tell yourself that they aren’t really dead. You don’t get to tell yourself that you’re going to see them again someday, in some hypothetical post-death existence that somehow both is and is not life. You have to accept that death is really permanent, and really final.

This may be surprising to many believers… but atheist ways of dealing with death and grief are not actually dire, or hopeless, or without consolation. I’ve been surprised, in fact, at how comforting my humanism and my naturalism have been during my grief. And one of the many consolations in a humanist view of death is the idea that people who have died live on: not literally in a supernatural afterlife, but metaphorically, in the ways they’ve changed the world. The people are gone, but like the water in a pond when a rock is tossed in, the ripples continue to radiate out, even after the stone has sunk to the bottom. My dad is dead, he is gone finally and forever… but the world is different, and I am different, because he was alive.

I want to talk about that today. I want to talk about some of the ways that my father lives on in me, and in the world.

My father had this loud, booming laugh: so loud it made people turn and stare, so loud it embarrassed the rest of the family at movies and plays and other public places. I now have an absurdly loud laugh that makes people in crowds turn and stare. It’s different from my father’s — my dad’s laugh was a deep, booming, Santa-Claus-on-laughing-gas “ho ho ho,” while mine is a high-pitched harpy shriek that I’ve learned to cover with my hand so people won’t think I’m being murdered. But I have my father’s noisy laughter. And I have my father’s priorities: his valuing of laughter and joy over not embarrassing yourself. The degree to which I don’t give a shit about making an ass of myself in public is the degree to which I am my father’s daughter.

My father used to read to us — me and my brother — from fun, brainy books for kids: The Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland. His copy of Alice, the Annotated Alice with annotations by Martin Gardner, is the version I fell in love with, the version I still think of as the classic. I learned the poem “Jabberwocky” by heart when I was in third grade. I got the Jabberwock tattooed on my arm when Ingrid gave me a tattoo for my wedding present. And I didn’t just get my dad’s love of Alice. I got his love of ideas. Not a refined, high-falutin’ version of the “life of the mind,” but a delighted, silly, deeply joyful life of the mind: a sense of the playfulness in ideas, a sense of ideas as toys or puzzles or games, a sense of the deep pleasure and straight-up goofy fun that could be found in just tossing ideas around and seeing where they landed.

My father was a math teacher. He never taught me, not in school anyway — he was always careful to never have me in one of his classes — but I knew other kids who had him as a teacher. And the word I got was that he was one of the fun teachers. He was one of the teachers that kids were glad they got. His love of math, his love of the puzzle-and-game aspect of it… it was infectious. There are people in the world now who enjoy math, and aren’t scared of it, because they had my dad as a teacher. And my dad had a love, not just of math, but of the act of teaching itself. He understood that unique pleasure of conveying ideas to other people, the unique pleasure of sharing not only the ideas but the love and the fun of them, the unique pleasure of watching other people not only catch your ideas but run with them in their own direction. I’m not a teacher… but that pleasure is a big part of what motivates me as a writer. And it comes from my dad.

My father was a union organizer at his school: one of the two chief organizers, in fact. I remember once when I was a kid, I found a piece of paper with a list of teachers on it, and I asked my dad, “Why are only some teachers on this list? Why is Mr. Abernathy on the list, but not Mr. Mason?” My dad got very, very serious — not like him at all — and said gravely, almost in a panic, “You can never tell anyone that you saw that list. If you do, I could lose my job.” I’d had a vague understanding before then of this union business… but at that moment, it fell into sharp focus. And I got that my dad was willing to take a risk — a real risk, a risk not only to himself but to his livelihood and his family — to do what he thought was right, and to take a chance on making life better, not only for us, but for the other teachers and their families as well. I got that the administration relied on that “I can’t endanger my family” instinct as a way of intimidating teachers who might otherwise have supported the union. I got how much this scared my father… and I got that he was willing to fight for the union anyway. I got, at that moment, that sometimes you have to go out on a limb. I got that people in power rely on fear to keep their power in place — and that you sometimes have to do things that scare you, things that put you at real risk, in order to make change in the world. I got that courage doesn’t mean not being afraid: it means being afraid, and taking action anyway. I treasure all of that, and do my best to live up to it.

(And yes, the union won. As far as I know, there is still a teacher’s union at the University of Chicago Laboratory School today… and it’s there, in large part, because of my dad.)

My father was always proud to have a smart daughter. I remember the summer he taught me BASIC. I remember the time he mentioned, quite casually, that he knew I was smarter than he was. I remember his delight whenever I picked up a tricky idea, or stumped him in an argument. My ease and confidence with my intelligence, my sense that of course women can be smart, that it’s entirely natural and desirable for women to be smart, that there is no contradiction between being a woman and being smart and anyone who says so is a dolt… I owe that, in large part, to both my mom and my dad.

My father and I got into many arguments, heated ones even: not about personal family stuff so much, but about politics and history and science. And as heated as those arguments sometimes got, he never once tried to discourage me from arguing with him. He never once pulled the “I’m your father, don’t argue with me, treat me with respect” card. No matter how deeply he disagreed with me, he always respected my right to argue, and engaged with my arguments seriously, and valued my ability to make my case. If I am stubborn and fearless about making an argument, and unconcerned with offending people in authority and power when I do… that’s my dad.

My father used to make up silly songs ad hoc. I remember the summer that he grew pole beans on the balcony of our apartment, marking every day’s growth on the string with a pencil, and making up endless ridiculous twelve-bar blues songs about feeding pole beans to turkeys and rabbits. He had a love of absurdity for absurdity’s own sweet, stupid sake… a love that I carry with me.

My father cursed like a longshoreman. He didn’t try to curb his cursing around his kids… or maybe he did, maybe that was the dialed-back version we were exposed to all those years. When I see a shitty dumbfuck douchebag and call them a shitty dumbfuck douchebag, when I celebrate Blasphemy Day by saying “Fuck God in all sixty of his non-existent assholes,” I am my father’s daughter.

And did I mention that my father was an atheist? My father was an atheist long before I was. My father was an atheist, and an out atheist, in the 1950s. My father talked his younger brother into being an atheist… when he was in high school. My father figured out that there was no God, pretty much on his own: without atheist billboards, without the atheist blogosphere, without a local atheist support group, without a dozen atheist books on the best-seller list, without anything but Bertrand Russell and his own fearless, “fuck authority,” razor-sharp mind. And he did it when he was a teenager. I hope I don’t have to explain how that particular ripple has rippled out into my life. And now, into yours.

There was bad stuff, too. A lot of it. Not all the ripples have been good ones. My father shaped me in wonderful ways that I treasure, but he also shaped me in fucked-up ways that I struggle with, ways I’ve spent years trying to dig out and throw away, ways that make my life harder every day. And I’m not going to pretend that that isn’t true. Ours is a family that speaks its mind and values the truth: we don’t cover bullshit with sprinkles and pretend it’s a cupcake, and I’m not going to disrespect my dad by doing that now. My father was often a difficult person, and a difficult person to love. And that became more true, not less, as the years went on. I’ll probably be talking about that more in the coming days and weeks and months.

But not today.

My dad is dead. He is gone, finally and forever. But the world is different, and I am different, because he was alive. And for much of that — not all of it, but much of it — I am grateful.

Grief Diary, 10/10/12

10/10/12

A better day today. Took yesterday off from, you know, pretty much everything. I was having some female trouble, so I made that my excuse to do what I’ve been desperately wanting to do and have been afraid to for fear that it would push me deeper into my depression: namely, just check the fuck out. Lie on the sofa in my pajamas and nap and eat chocolate and watch TV for twelve hours. In this case, curled up around a hot water bottle. The kitties loved the hot water bottle, so of course they were visiting me off and on all day. I was really worried that a check-out day would make my depression worse, but at least this time it doesn’t seem to have done that. It wasn’t a great day or anything; but it seems to have actually re-charged my batteries a bit. At least, it didn’t make things worse.

And today I had some good stretches. Got caught up on some of the emails that had been piling up over the last few days: got started moving forward on taking care of a little business, scheduling some new speaking engagements and re-scheduling some ones that I had to cancel when Dad died. I’m feeling a little apprehensive about the speaking gigs: my moods are still so unpredictable, I’m still being fairly functional one hour and then shambling around like a zombie the next, without any warning, and I have no way of knowing whether I’ll be more on the “reliably functional” side of that balance in a month or so when I start doing speaking tours again. I suspect I’ll be doing better by the time those gigs come around, but I don’t know for sure. But I can’t keep putting my life on hold forever, just because I might or might not feel up to it in a month. And being engaged with my life and my future, making plans for the work that I love to do, does make me feel better.

I also think I’m getting a little better at figuring out when I’m reaching my limits. Spent about two, maybe three hours catching up on emails… and then realized I was starting to fade, the fog was starting to settle in, and I needed to shift gears. I felt bad, there was some important business that I had to leave unattended… but I heard the voices of every one of my friends and family, the voices of all my blog readers and colleagues and everyone in the Grief Beyond Belief group, all saying, “It’s okay. Give yourself a break. You don’t have to get back to work full-swing right away. Grief is exhausting. It’s okay to take some time.” And I put away the computer, and picked up my Kindle, and just read for a bit. It is funny, though. I had to first convince myself that reading counts as work for me, before I was able to feel fully okay with it. I’m glad I’ve learned enough self-discipline to be able to be self-employed as a full-time writer: I’m glad I have the instinct to want to actually work when I’m at home during the day, and not just fuck off and read books or watch TV. But it makes it harder to let go and give myself a break when it’s appropriate.

Speaking of which: All of this grieving shit is making me realize a big downside to being self-employed: I pretty much have to work if I want to pay the mortgage. And I can’t phone it in, either. I have to actually work… and I have to be self-motivated about it. If I had a day job right now, all I’d have to do is muster the self-discipline to drag my ass to the office. I could clock in for eight hours and wander around like a zombie and not get fuck-all done, and still bring home a paycheck. For a while, anyway. But I can’t do that now. I feel like a jackass, complaining about the downside of being a full-time self-employed writer when 98% of all writers would give their eyeteeth to be where I am in my career. But it is a downside, one I hadn’t thought about, and it’s making the grief harder to manage.

The main thing I’m wrestling with today: the unpredictability of my moods. I feel like I could manage my shifting moods better if I had some sense of when they were coming, and what sets them off. But I have literally no idea. Reading might make me calm and happy one day, twitchy and restless and unable to focus the next. Surfing the net and reading blogs might make me feel engaged and connected with my work and my community one day, irritated and enervated the next. One day I’ll wake up from a long night’s sleep feeling rested and refreshed; the next day, I’ll wake up from the same amount of sleep feeling groggy and like I just want to sleep for four more hours.

Part of the issue, I think, is that depression and grief aren’t the same thing, and I’m still struggling to learn the difference. If some experience cuts through the fog of my depression, if it wakes me up and lets me connect with what I’m feeling… well, the feeling underneath the fog could be anything. So even positive, engaging, depression-cutting experiences could make me feel crummy… because they get me to feel what I’m feeling. And a lot of what I’m feeling these days totally sucks. Cutting through the depression is like scratching off the gray schmutz on a lottery ticket: I don’t know whether what’s underneath is a thousand bucks or a “Sorry — better luck next time.”

Oh, I’m realizing a flip side of the whole “letting other people help me as a form of compassion” thing that I was writing about the other day: Listening to other people, getting engaged in their problems and their lives, is a way of taking care of myself. Hung out with my friend Rebecca tonight, and of course we talked about my dad and how I was doing, which was good and which I dearly wanted to do. But we also talked about her life, her work and her wife and her friends, and we talked about Ingrid, and we talked about stuff and people we had in common… and it helped, just as much as gassing on about my own grief did. Maybe even more. I want to let my friends support me and listen to me… but I don’t want to get so wrapped up in my own grief that it becomes a bubble, isolating me from the world. Listening to other people forges a connection, builds a bridge to the world outside the bubble. And it’s… I don’t know how to put this. It’s what I do, what I would do in my normal life. That’s really important right now.

Of course, the other thing I would do in my normal life is to quit writing because “The Player” just came on TV. So I’m going to go do that now.

Grief Diary, 10/8/12

10/8/12

A hard afternoon today. The fog is settling in over my brain a bit. I knew it probably would be. Today is, as they say, the first day of the rest of my life. Today is the first day that’s not being set aside to deal with death and grief, or the recovery from it. Today is the first day that I have to just live my life, and start moving forward through the coming days and weeks and months while managing my grief. That’s hard.

I’m realizing that there are some important differences between managing grief if you have a tendency towards depression, and if you don’t. If I didn’t have a tendency towards depression, if I hadn’t already been having a depressive episode when Dad died, I might be more likely to let myself spend a day or two in bed or on the sofa, just resting and recovering. But since I’m dealing with depression as well as grief, I know this is a bad, bad idea. I know that I need to get up, get dressed, leave the house, get things done. I don’t need to get as much done as I usually do; I don’t need to be as driven and workaholic as I usually am. Hell, if all I do is get up and get dressed and leave the house and then sit in a cafe all day reading Carl Sagan, that’s okay. But at moments when I feel exhausted and overwhelmed and like all I want to do is lie down on the sofa and flip on the TV or sleep, I absolutely cannot do that. That will not make me feel better. That will make me feel worse.

This is pissing me off. I really, really, really want to just lie down and sleep. I really want to be a person who, when they’re grieving, can just lie down and sleep for a couple of days, and come out of it feeling rested and refreshed.

However. That being said.

I am, once again, feeling immense gratitude for my years of experience in skeptical thinking and living; my years of understanding about cognitive biases and the importance of evidence-based decision-making and the fact that my brain isn’t always right about everything. At this point, after all those years, knowing that my brain isn’t always right has become natural, almost a reflex. The humility of skepticism is helping me manage this, is helping me do the things I need to do to take care of myself, even when I don’t feel like it and can’t see the point.

You know, I’m struggling to say what I mean here, and I already said it once in my piece Depression, Rationality, and the Difficulty of Perspective, so I’m just going to quote myself:

Because of my participation in the atheist/ skeptical/ rationalist communities, I am steeped in the habits of rational thinking. I’m not a perfect rational thinker, of course — nobody is — but I know about cognitive biases. I know how emotions color perception. I know that the perspective I’m seeing the world through at any given moment is not necessarily the most accurate one. I know that I’m not always rational… and I can take steps to counteract this. And because of my participation in the atheist/ skeptical/ rationalist communities, these habits of thinking — and of acting — are becoming second nature.

Which makes it much easier to act in a rational manner to take care of my mental health… even when I can’t immediately see any reason to.

When I’m feeling depressed, and am feeling entirely unable to see the possibility that anything could ever make me feel different… I can still know, rationally, that this is not the case. And because I’m in the habit of trusting my rational mind, I find it much easier to take action to make myself feel better. I can make myself get up off the sofa and go outside: not because I can feel any point to it, but because I know, intellectually, that there is a point. I can drink a big glass of water every couple/ few hours: not because I have any appetite or desire for it, but because I know, intellectually, that it will help wake me up. I can take a long walk before I go to work: not because I take any pleasure in it, but because I know, intellectually, that it will alleviate the depression. Etc. I’m in the habit of trusting my rational mind… even when I don’t have any immediate ability to see the point.

Which is why, after a hard afternoon, I had a pretty good evening. Made it to the gym — not wanting to go, not feeling like going, not having it in me to do anything but stay at home and sit on the sofa and eat and watch TV and play with kitties — and was so, so, so, so glad I did. I fucking love lifting weights. Lifting weights is one of the great sensual pleasures of my life. And vigorous exercise is one of the best natural anti-depressants I have. Vigorous exercise wakes me up, breaks through the fog. Vigorous exercise makes me feel like I’m actually present in my life. When we went home afterward and made a healthy dinner and sat on the sofa and petted kitties and watched Fashion Police, it didn’t feel like I was hiding from the world, or sinking into torpor — the way it would have if I’d just stayed home. It felt like… well, it felt like our life. It felt like a regular Monday evening with Ingrid, where we go to the gym and then come back and enjoy our home and each other.

And I was able to go to the gym, in large part, because I was able to trust my rational brain. I was able to trust the part of my brain that said, “I know you don’t feel like you want to do this… but trust me, you do. This will make you feel better. Remember that you don’t always feel this shitty, and that going to the gym is a pretty reliable way of breaking through the shit. Remember that in the years you’ve been going to the gym, there have been maybe half a dozen times when you’ve regretted going, and every single one has been when you’ve been profoundly sleep-deprived… which you aren’t now. So just put one foot in front of the other, and go.”

Thank you, rational brain!

Grief Diary, 10/7/12

10/7/12

Ingrid and I went to the Cindy Sherman exhibit today. In a perfect world, this wouldn’t have been the day to go see a challenging and disturbing art exhibition: we just got back home to San Francisco yesterday, and in a perfect world, this would have a day to rest, play with the kitties, maybe take a gentle little meditative walk. But today was the last day of the exhibit — we’ve been meaning to go, and things kept interfering — and I knew if we missed it, I’d hugely regret it. I’m feeling very “carpe diem”-y right now, very conscious of missed opportunities, and I didn’t want to miss this one. Very glad we went. It was somehow both cathartic and distracting: the exhibit was intense, on themes that resonate very strongly with me… but mostly not the themes I’ve been obsessing on in the last week. It was kind of a relief to be having intense, challenging, unsettling feelings about something other than loss and grief and paralyzing meta-meta-meta self-consciousness. (Although there was one photograph that was very close to home, one I kept returning to and flinching from and returning to again: one of the “centerfolds,” the one that to me looked like an entirely exhausted and defeated woman on the verge of finally falling asleep but with shell-shocked eyes that won’t quite close.) And I went out of my way to walk on the top-floor walkway, the one where you can see straight down through to the four floors below you. I think I wanted to have the experience of the ground not seeming solid under my feet… and experience it as adventurous and pleasurable, and know that it was actually safe. And the long walk to the museum — an hour, maybe a little more — was excellent, and much-needed.

Speaking of which: Memo to self about long walks. During this stretch of grief and depression, I’ll often have a moment during a long walk where I’ll think that I’m exhausted, a moment where I’ll think, “I can’t keep doing this, I have to stop, I have to sit down right this second.” It usually comes early on in the walk, not even fifteen or twenty minutes in, long before the time when I would actually be physically tired and needing to stop. Memo to self: I am not actually exhausted. Not physically, anyway. I am fully capable of continuing to put one foot in front of the other. And if I push through it — if I continue to put one foot in front of the other for a while, even if it’s in a zombie-like daze — I am always happy that I did. I push through it emotionally as well as physically, and feel more awake and alive.

Oh, I remembered what it was! The thing I wanted to say about ways that self-interest and compassion intertwine, the thing I wanted to say yesterday but couldn’t remember or put into words.

It’s this: I’ve been resisting, somewhat, the idea of letting people take care of me. (Except for Ingrid.) Lots of people have been saying, “If there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know” — and I’ve been feeling reluctant to take them up on it. I’m somehow afraid that it’ll suck me into a vortex of self-involvement, that I’d be taking unfair advantage of their kindness. Or something.

But something occurred to me. When people in my life are grieving, or are otherwise suffering, I want to help. It’s not that I think I should help, that I feel obligated to help. I want to. I feel better if I can. I feel helpless and shitty in the face of suffering and grief, especially the suffering and grief of people I love — and being able to help, even a little, makes me feel better.

So letting people help me isn’t just self-involved or taking advantage. I mean, it wouldn’t be anyway, that’s dumb, my father just died and it’s okay for to ask for help. But letting people help me is also, in this complicated intertwining of self-interest and compassion, a way of helping them. My friends want to help me. If there’s a way that they can, I’m doing them a kindness by letting them. Besides, the help isn’t just about the practical help. It’s about the connection being created by the act of helping, and of accepting help. I’m reminded a bit of one of the vows Ingrid and I wrote for our wedding: “I promise to give you my help and support, and to accept help and support from you.” The second half of that is as important to the connection as the first.

Have been having thoughts about atheist views of death and meaning, and how we create our own meaning instead of persuading ourselves that it’s handed to us by God. But Kanani gave me her old Kindle today (she just got a new one), and I bought “The Demon-Haunted World” by Carl Sagan, and I want to get into it. I’m feeling slightly less frantically and obsessively driven to record every single thought and feeling every single day in this diary, slightly more willing to let things simmer, and I want to go with that. The atheist meaning of death is not time-sensitive. It can wait until tomorrow.

Grief Diary, 10/6/12

10/6/12

The problem with stress eating: It actually does work. Ate half a bag of Terra Chips, more than half of a big Chocolove bar, and two nasty generic shortbread cookies from the airplane… and I do, in fact, feel better now. Worse in the long run, better in the immediate run. Sometimes, that’s a bargain I’m willing to make.

Another kindness from strangers that I forgot to mention earlier, from yesterday or the day before, I now can’t remember which. Went to a cafe, and the barista didn’t even ask what we wanted: she took one look at us and said, “I’m going to make you the best latte in all of Chicago.” Like the gelato guy, I don’t know if she could tell that we were having a hard time and needed a little happy kind moment, or if she was just a playful person having fun. Didn’t matter. It still stuck with me. The funny thing was, I didn’t actually want a latte: I’d already had a biggish breakfast, and really just wanted a coffee. But I wanted the moment of kindness more. And yes, it was a pretty damn good latte.

Have been thinking some more — just for a change — about all this self-conscious processing about grief I keep doing, and am looking at whether it’s making it easier for me to be compassionate about the others in my family who are grieving over my dad. Or hell, with anyone who’s grieving over anyone. It seems like it is. I’m so hyper-aware of how out of balance my own thoughts and feelings and actions are… so when other grieving people are being stressed or paralyzed or displacey or obsessing over tiny decisions and details, I’ve been more able to recognize it, and cut them slack, and not take it personally. I do worry somewhat, though, about whether I’m going to start falling into my “wise counselor doling out sage advice and insight whether it’s asked for or not” shtick. Probably a bad idea. Especially now, when my insight and wisdom aren’t working so hot.

(Is that more than two layers of meta, Ingrid? Do you have to smack me with a newspaper now?)

I do notice, however, that I’m getting much more irritated by conflicts and arguments in atheism… and am taking them much more personally than usual. I just want all of it to stop, now. I want to put my hands over my ears and scream, “Shut up, everyone! My dad just died! I cannot deal with this! Can’t we all just get along, for one fucking week?” Ironic, since I was just chiding someone about making it all about themselves, and here I am making it all about me.

Oh, and can I just say: Two fucking Benadryls last night, and it still took me forever to fall asleep. Brain, will you please just shut the fuck up? I know you want to process everything and make sense of everything and figure everything out, and I know that falling asleep itself feels weirdly scary and you want to cling to consciousness like it’s the last helicopter out of Saigon. But really. You will feel better if you get some sleep. You will do a better job making sense of things if you get some sleep. And you are not going to figure out the secret formula for making it all better if you just stay up for fifteen more minutes. Trust me on this. Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream. It is not dying.

Deeply, deeply tired right now. Feeling driven to write; not sure if I’m making any sense. But you know… I’m actually, uncharacteristically for me, not really caring all that much. Normally when I write, I’m very conscious of my audience, very conscious of the fact that I’m trying to communicate with people. Especially when I’m doing news reporting or making an argument. But the grief diary, not so much. I’m doing this almost entirely for myself. The feedback and kind words have been extremely valuable, for certain. And I am happy that it’s having a positive effect on people. There’s even a sense in which I am focused on that positive effect: part of what I’m getting out of this diary is that it gives my dad’s death and my grief some meaning, some value, makes it something more than just purely pointless suffering I have to slog through. But ultimately, it’s the self-interested desire for that meaning and value, and the self-interested desire to process and analyze and try to make sense of things, that’s driving this exercise. That, plus the fact that writing is one of the few times in all this when I feel something vaguely resembling peace, when I don’t feel restless and like I’m crawling out of my skin, when I don’t feel that no matter what I’m doing I’d really rather be doing something else. Publishing this diary doesn’t feel noble or brave or self-sacrificing. It feels necessary. There are things I’m doing to make myself feel better: walking outside, reminiscing and making sick jokes with my brother, eating junk food, mindlessly watching dumb TV, touching Ingrid, reading about the moon rock heist, blogging about my grief.

More thoughts roiling around in there somewhere about the ways that self-interest and compassion intertwine. But I can’t quite get hold of them. They made sense yesterday; they’re not making sense now. Maybe tomorrow.

Grief Diary, 10/5/12

10/5/12

Have been contemplating the different usages of the word “home.” A few days ago, I was flying home to Chicago because my father had just died. Tomorrow, I’m flying back home to San Francisco. Both of these phrases mean such different things, and yet they’re equally true.

I’m feeling a bit apprehensive about starting the “getting back into my regular life” phase of all this. As stressful and painful as it’s been, the intensity and drama of the “flying home on short notice and seeing the family and having the commemorative gathering” thing has been… not a distraction, that’s not what I mean at all, but something like that. It’s been like stepping out of my regular life, and into the land of grief. Next week, I have to start figuring out how to get on with my life, how to weave this loss into in my daily life, how to manage my grief while also meeting deadlines and paying bills and returning emails and scooping cat litter and watching Project Runway. Also, the time in the land of grief has an endpoint. The time living my life with this grief woven into it… I have no idea how long that’s going to last. The rest of my life, to some extent. It’s going to gradually dial down over time, with better moments and worse moments and an overall arc towards better… but it’s not going to have a stopping place. That’s daunting.

I’m noticing that my reminiscences and trips down memory lane are almost as much about Mom as they are about Dad. I guess that makes sense. Of course Dad’s death is going to remind me of Mom’s; of course remembering his life is going to remind me of hers, since for years they were so closely woven together. Plus, when Mom died, I didn’t process it for shit. Her death was so premature (she was 45), so out of the blue (six weeks between diagnosis and death), and it came at such a bizarre time in my own life (two months into my first year at college)… and I kind of just shoved it on the back burner. Where it periodically boiled over in stupid and self-destructive ways. In a weird way, it feels good to be re-processing her death in a more healthy way. (“Re-processing her death in a more healthy way”? Sweet fictional Jesus, could I sound any more like a Northern Californian?)

Big insight of the day: I think I’m starting to see where some of my “am I doing it right?” self-consciousness about my grief is coming from. The thing that’s dawning on me: Grief isn’t just personal. It’s social. A grieving family or group of friends grieves together (ideally, anyway): comforts each other, supports each other, gives each other perspective and wisdom, takes turns taking care of each other. I don’t, in fact, just want to “grieve in my own way”: I also want to support my grieving family members as they grieve in their own way.

There’s a saying from Hillel that’s always stuck with me, ever since I first heard it decades ago: “If I am not for myself, than who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, than who am I?” The balance between caring for yourself and caring for other people, between resisting pointless social pressure and conformity while at the same time genuinely caring about not upsetting people, between being true to ourselves while at the same time being conscious of the effect we have on others… even at the best of times, this balance is both important and difficult. And during a time of grief, getting that balance right is both much more important, and much, much harder. Right now, I know that my usual perspective and my usual instincts are totally fucked up. So right now, I need to carefully think them through. Hence… self-consciousness.

Also, I strongly suspect that when we’re grieving, our personalities and natural tendencies get dialed up to eleven. If we’re naturally introverted, we probably tend to withdraw; if we’re naturally demonstrative, we probably tend to cry and vent; if we’re naturally work-oriented, we probably tend to throw ourselves into our work. I already have a tendency to be introspective and self-questioning. I generally value this trait, in fact I think it’s one of the best things about me. I don’t want to always assume that everything I do is right; I want to be willing to question my ideas and actions. But right now, this tendency is cranked waaaaay up, to the point where I’m spinning my wheels over ridiculously trivial shit. (Today, among other things, it was about which size and variety of Frango Mints to buy.) I’m reminded a bit of the time right after I read “Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me,” the book about the process of rationalization, and was so conscious of my own processes of rationalization that I was paralyzed for a week with massive self-doubt over every tiny decision, and with massive guilt over every tiny mistake.

Today we — Rick and Ingrid and I — mostly walked around in downtown Chicago, visiting assorted spots from our past. It was good to be outside, getting exercise, reminiscing. And then I hit a wall. Actually, I ran into a wall at about sixty miles an hour. So far with the grief, I’ve often been able to feel myself beginning to fade, gradually getting less focused and more tired and foggy. Not today. Today, I was totally fine one minute, exhausted and paralyzed the next. The prospect of buying a train ticket in an unfamiliar train system seemed utterly impossible, like a brain-teaser for super-geniuses. Rick finally had to do it for me.

Of course, after spending hours being exhausted and wanting nothing more than to sleep, now I’m wide awake again. I think writing this diary tends to wake me up. A good thing in one sense: it makes me feel alive, connected, moving forward with my life, not buried in a fog. But it also wakes me up right when I’m about to try to get to sleep. I think I’m going to take a Benadryl and call it a night.

Grief Diary, 10/4/12

10/4/12

Self-conscious meta-emotion of the moment: Wondering how much all this public documentation of my grief is really helping. At the moment it seems to be — it’s helping me process the grief and make sense of it, and it’s helping it seem meaningful. But I’m also having the self-conscious “am I doing it right?” worry that this grief diary project will make me hang on to the grief for longer than I need to. I’m also wondering if it’s going to seem weird when I start wanting to do it less often. Well, I’m not going to stress about it too much. I’ll cross those bridges when I come to them.

Ingrid continues to be so patient, and so present, and so saying the right thing and knowing what tone to take pretty much every time. Yesterday at breakfast we were talking about the whole meta-emotion “worrying if I’m doing this right” thing, and she said, “You’re allowed two levels of meta. After that, I’m going to smack you with a newspaper.” It cracked me right up.

Had a hard time this morning: insomnia is a bitch, it’s been bugging me intermittently for a while as I’ve gotten older, and more so since Dad went into home hospice and my latest depression hit, and way more so since he died. My mind will not shut the fuck up about things I don’t want to think about, and will not let me switch over to happy fluffy restful thoughts that let me drift off. But much of the day today was okay. Am starting to feel more like my normal self for longer stretches of time. Rick and Ingrid and I took a long walk around the neighborhood: the neighborhood where I grew up, where Dad lived, where Rick lived until pretty recently. It was one of those ridiculously perfect Midwestern autumn days, and we walked and walked and walked, reminiscing, and talking about Chicago history, and admiring the beautiful neighborhood (Hyde Park really is sort of ridiculously gorgeous), and showing Ingrid the place behind Rockefeller Chapel where I used to get stoned in high school.

Tonight we had a small commemorative gathering: not any kind of public event or service, Dad wouldn’t have wanted it and none of us did either, so it was just a few family members and friends gathering to eat pizza and schmooze and remember Dad. We were hosting it at the bed-and-breakfast where Ingrid and I are staying, and I was flitting around anxiously beforehand making sure there were plates and glasses and chairs and clean flat surfaces and no junky crap lying around, and in particular getting very fretful about the exact right place to put one of the two soft comfortable chairs. Rick said, “You’re obsessing” — and I said, “Yes. I know. Every atheist on the Internet says it’s okay for me to deal with my grief however I want to. Right now, I’m dealing with it by displacing it into obsessing over where to put the furniture. Suck it up.” And we all started cracking up. I do love my family sometimes. My brother especially. We’ve had ups and downs, of course, it’s far from idyllic… but most of the time, we can tell each other the truth. I’m beginning to realize how rare that is in families, and how valuable.

Speaking of the truth: I keep waiting for the moment when I wish I wasn’t an atheist, when I wish I believed in God and an afterlife… and it keeps not happening. I’m beginning to think it’s not going to. This surprises me somewhat: Dad is the first person I’ve been close to who’s died since I abandoned any belief in any sort of religion or any sort of afterlife. (There was Jude, Rebecca’s son, who I loved; but he wasn’t around long enough for me to get really close to him. And there were cats, of course, but that’s not the same at all.) I’ve been assuming that this was going to be hard, that I’d be having a hugely hard time accepting the finality and the permanence of this death. So far, that’s not how it’s playing out. So far, facing this death without God feels totally normal. Beneficial, even. I’m not twisting myself into knots trying to make a nonsensical story make sense. Godless grief is hard, but it feels clean.

I get that this isn’t true for all atheists, that some grieving atheists do sometimes wish they believed. That’s totally fine, it makes sense… and, of course, for the zillionth time, we have the repetition of the grief mantra, “everyone does it differently.” But so far, I’m not having that reaction, at all. Some of that may be because Dad himself was a big old atheist, and facing his death without God feels like a way of honoring him and remembering him and keeping his memory alive. And some of it may be because my own atheism is now so deeply ingrained in me, such a central part of my philosophy. Falling back onto religion just seems alien. I’m way too familiar with all its weaknesses to see it as a useful or desirable crutch.

The commemorative gathering was good, by the way. Me and Rick and Ingrid; a friend of Rick’s; our aunt; some cousins I haven’t seen in ages. It was good. A little weird at times: more “schmoozing and catching up” than I’d been expecting, and not as much formal “telling stories and memories about Dad.” There were some poems that some relatives who couldn’t be there had suggested we might read, and we never found the right time to stop the conversation and do that, and that felt a bit awkward. It’s making me see the advantages to an organized service commemorating a death instead of an informal social gathering. But I think this was something that Dad would have enjoyed if he’d been here, probably more than a formal service. Just sitting around shooting the shit, telling funny stories about our childhoods and wild years, and comparing notes on New York pizza places, with pictures of him propped up on a nearby table.

I am wishing we could have read the poems, though. So here they are. The first is one that Dad loved, and recited often — especially the lines with the profanity. The second is from the Spoon River Anthology, which is strongly iconic in our family, and it’s the one Dad read at his own mother’s funeral: it speaks more to her life than it does to his, but the last few lines are very on-key. And the third is so perfect it almost scares me. [Read more...]