November, depression, and the illusion of another world

November, depression, and the illusion of another world

“This is so depressing.”

It’s a common expression. I don’t begrudge it to people and frequently use it myself. I don’t like the self-righteous condemnation some people will heap on you if you use “depressing” or “depression” as throw-away words in casual conversation. If you get horribly offended by that, you may need to get over yourself.

Language evolves constantly, and our language has evolved in such a way that we regularly use “depression” without meaning “serious illness that can really fuck up your shit.” There is nothing wrong with that, and I think it has actually gone a long way toward normalizing the illness and people who suffer from it.

Having said that, depression is still very much a serious illness that can really fuck up your shit.

I am most prone to it in the month of November, and, as I have discovered from living in sunny places like Dubai and Greece, lack of sunlight may not be the main culprit. Maybe it’s due to the tilt of the earth. To the days getting shorter. To red leaves framed by a blue sky. To something.

I would love to write a buddy-cop-like parody novella about November and depression. Here they are, on yet another adventure together, barrelling through the mind, fucking it up like regular buddy cops fuck up city blocks. Here they are, making the lights go out behind the eyes while tossing comic insults at each other.

A lot has been written on the dangers of depression, but there is one particular danger I think is seriously overlooked:  Continue reading “November, depression, and the illusion of another world”

No, joyless fundamentalism isn’t an awesome way to cure my depression, but thanks for playing

Some time ago, a very well-meaning person decided to slip me a little pamphlet with the intent of helping me overcome depression. The pamphlet was made from some Russian Orthodox priest’s conversations with nuns, or, rather, his monologues toward the nuns. The passages highlighted involved two postulates (I’m paraphrasing here):

1. Gifted people get assigned some of the worst demons in existence. <<< Which is kind of a fair point, even if you don’t believe in demons. The most exceptionally gifted people I know tend to be the ones with the most problems. Also, hey, it’s a little flattering when someone thinks you’re gifted enough to get the attention of the worst demons evar!!!11! I mean, surely, there is a compliment buried in there somewhere. Maybe.

2. People who have their own opinions about things and happen to be fairly creative and ambitious SUCK. They are enemies of the church, they are enemies of God, and enemies of themselves. They don’t know what it’s like to surrender themselves to any kind of higher power, they are deeply insincere, and they love themselves above everything and everyone else, even as they also hate themselves. They are deeply, profoundly unhappy, because they’re in the service of Satan, even if they don’t realize it, and who could ever be happy servicing that dude? Their mental illnesses are not a medical condition, they’re a direct result of their Satan lovin’ nature.

“This is about you!” The well-meaning person chirped. “Don’t you think it could be helpful with your depression? Don’t you think if you began to let go of all of these qualities that he’s talking about – good things might happen?”

My initial response was somewhat similar to Eric Northman’s:

Eric evil grin

I was going to leave it at that (what could be more eloquent than Eric Northman?), but the more I thought about the latter highlighted passage, the more pissed off I got.

I don’t strive to have a life within the Russian Orthodox church, so the anger could very well be misplaced. People who are much more invested in the concept are better suited to have this type of argument. Yet on the other hand, the majority of the people I know in Ukraine are on the church’s periphery in one way or another, and it struck me as sad that they should be exposed to this.

Obviously, there’s nothing at all odd about an Orthodox priest and writer encouraging humility. And yes, his target audience is important as well. But really now, Father, why not just say: “it would be much more convenient to have a bunch of drooling imbeciles packing the cathedral”? I mean, George W. Bush pretty much got away with something very similar, once upon a time.

There are many complex reasons why “holy fools” are so revered in the Russian Orthodox church – just don’t tell me that one of those reasons has to do with how benign and easy to handle they appear to be (I say “appear,” because the whole concept of a holy fool often involves challenge to authority, even if it’s indirect). In a similar manner, the good Father prefers to preach to a very specific set of people – people who actively dumb themselves down. Cleverly, he uses the hyper-awareness that creative people possess against them. See, they don’t get depressed because they see this world a little too clearly, they get depressed because they’re actually on Satan’s payroll!

I’m not going to say that this is the church’s official position or anything, because that would be simplistic and unfair. But the kind of literature that often passes for Orthodox “thought” these days does, in fact, add to my depression. Of course, I believe that some of the best words ever written about Jesus came from that evil, evil man – Boris Pasternak. What the hell do I know?

I do believe that in order for depression to let you go, you have to let go of certain things yourself. You have to set limits on the amount of time you spend plumping the depths of any number of abysses. And I sure as hell don’t like the dramatic pose of “I am depressed because I am an extremely profound human being! *sniff*” It’s stupid, OK? Your depression isn’t any more interesting or tragic than the depression of some dude who hasn’t read a book in 20 years.

I realize why fundamentalism can appeal to people who are very, very sad. Fundamentalism makes things simple. There are very specific codes of conduct involved. If you’re very, very busy making sure that you’re following rule 1 and rule 12, 678, you don’t have much time to reflect upon how unhappy you are, at least not for a while. I meet people like that in my mother’s church with some regularity. They strike me as a little deranged, but as long as they don’t bother me too much, they might as well knock themselves out.

But at the end of the day, a climb out of a serious depressed state must also involve at least some degree of self-acceptance. So I’m not really sure how denying your nature, even with all of the bullshit attached to it, is supposed to make you feel awesome. Even if you do believe that we are all essentially sinful and corrupt – you still have to live within yourself. You are contained inside a certain body, you are contained inside a certain mind. There’s a reason why you’re you, and not the guy who sells you your cigarettes at the kiosk. And if you believe that the cosmos has a grand design to it after all, you already have great incentive to accept said reason.

Self-erasure doesn’t cure you of shit. It’s actually kind of cowardly. And even people who let go of all worldly things fundamentally remain themselves. You can’t change who you are. What matters is what you actually do with who you are.

Oh, and P.S. The good Father’s attempt to discredit the medical establishment over the definition of any kind of mental illness? Classy. And, once again, clever. Making sure that a church-goer suffering from a mental illness never sees a mental health professional means that much more control.

“Do you like being unhappy?” “Do you like the fact that rain is wet?”

No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering… – David Foster Wallace.

Someone asked me recently if I “like” being unhappy. It’s a strange and, at the same time, normal question. Unhappiness can, after all, become familiar, like a pair of well-worn boots you slip into with a little sigh of satisfaction, even if you actually think that the heel is fugly or whatever.

What do you do when you isolate and recognize the feeling of familiarity? Look for a consenting rainbow to have sex with? Hop along the yellow brick road to enlightenment picking up endearingly creepy companions along the way?

These aren’t just rhetorical questions on my part, because I’ve been thinking about the idea of acceptance lately. In TIME*, the awesome Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote that:

We don’t have to dwell incessantly on the worst-case scenarios — the metastasis, the market crash or global pandemic — but we do need to acknowledge that they could happen and prepare in the best way we can. Some will call this negative thinking, but the technical term is sobriety.

Ehrenreich is talking about responding to the ongoing economic crisis here, but I find that this kind of wisdom applies equally to other, even more abstract areas of life. Sometimes, things suck, and you have to admit it. Sometimes, you suck, and not in the fun way either. The night gets longer, and colder, and even more densely populated by howling stray dogs and drunks. Your idiot neighbours leave the building door open, and someone swipes your welcome mat, and probably trades it for heroin – along with their firstborn. A creature slithers out of a Stephen King story and sits on your chest at night, drinking your blood and breath. You struggle to write clever blog entries, when you really should be working.

Continue reading ““Do you like being unhappy?” “Do you like the fact that rain is wet?””

Depression: at the Black Gate with Anton Chekhov and Leroy Jenkins

I admire Chekhov, and not just for his writing, and not just because he was startlingly hot either. To paraphrase Ivan Bunin, Chekhov was not a little bitch. Even when he knew he was dying from TB, he didn’t whine hysterically from the pages of Russian literary journals. He didn’t ask his readers for hugs. His last words were, “I haven’t had champagne in a while,” as opposed to “OMG OMG IS DYING HALP.”

Dear sheepie, won't you hold me tighter.
Dearest sheepie, won't you hold me tighter in this winter of discontent (and sketchy hot water issues)

As you can guess, I admire Anton Pavlovich for qualities I lack. It’s like admiring a purse on someone else’s shoulder – a heart-patterned Moschino, maybe – something you couldn’t afford if you pimped yourself out to every halfway-decent publication in this city. It’s not jealousy per se, it’s more like awe. “Anton Pavlovich, where did you get that heart-patterned… I mean, Anton Pavlovich, how on earth did you manage to keep your cool like that? Is it a genetic thing? An ancient art?”

Because of passport issues, I’m grounded in Ukraine right now. On one hand, this is good, as it forces me to save money. On the other hand, this is bad, because there is nothing that I can physically do to escape the soul-crushing, cold, deep, starless darkness that blooms in vivid, elaborate splotches all over my being, like the bubonic plague. I’ve been depressed since last year, since moving to Amman. But it’s like a fever that’s spiking now. I knew I’ve lost some weight recently, but nothing could have prepared me for the actual numbers when I finally stepped on a scale. It affords me with an excuse to go shopping, and I can’t even muster up enough energy to rejoice about that. Unmoved by bright-lit shops and the swish of plastic. The seventh seal has been opened.

A Vulcan would be bemused by depression. There’s nothing logical about it. Friends will say, “you have a job, a family, and your tits are still fairly perky. Snap out of it.” By all rights, you should. The world does not suffer from lack of tragedy. Your grandmother is in hospital with a crusty rash on her skin that makes it hard to move. Someone tried to rape your friend, and there will be no legal repercussions. Your aunt’s heart has been reduced to a vaguely pitter-pattering piece of gristle after her daughter’s death. Ralph Lauren is threatening people for making deserved fun of its “X-Files”-inspired Photoshop disaster. “Peace is an illusion, says Israel FM.” And so on.

Ultimately, it’s hard to get depression to kick off the blinders and be appraised of its own insignificance. Pain is narcissistic. It’s the belle of the ball. It’s a douchebag with spiky hair, a miasma of Axe, and a publicist.

Continue reading “Depression: at the Black Gate with Anton Chekhov and Leroy Jenkins”

Good Music (Patrick Wolf) + Good Drinks (Spicy Screwdriver) + Thursday Car Rides (With Bile)

It’s Thursday evening in Amman, which means that the weekend has officially begun. Time for creative output and much corporal cuddling of kitties.

You know, today, I was sick to my stomach already when I hailed a cab to go to First Circle. The cab was driven by a man who was 120 years old, by conservative estimate. His long life had not endeared him to the earth. In fact, by the end of our cab ride, I was convinced that there few things in this world that he would not creatively swear at.

We were stuck in traffic, and because of the jolts and stops, my sick stomach turned into a virulently sick stomach. I kept thinking about what would happen if I puked on the upholstery – if a sparrow briefly hopping up on the hood provoked his ire – what would vomit inside the cab do? I don’t know about you, but whenever I need to vomit, I start missing mom. When I was a kid, she was always the one to hold my hair back, and put her palm over my forehead. How did I manage to grow up so suddenly – develop breasts and a bank account and a sad little wrinkle at one corner of the mouth?

In the meantime, my fears were somewhat assuaged when, upon noticing that I was turning the colour of pickle and pine, he courteously brought down all the windows in the car. Together, we smelled rain clouds, and new grass, and forgotten days, and exhaust fumes.

A cop on the sidewalk was having his picture taken with an antique rifle. “Why not me?” I thought jealously.

“Idiots!” The driver exlcaimed in the direction of the cop and rifle (he was swearing mostly in English, for my benefit). Or perhaps he was shouting at a group of rude schoolchildren darting through the traffic. I could taste something very unpleasant in my mouth. Was it my own tongue?

I thought about the fact that I had never before puked in public. I hadn’t even NOT made it to the bathroom – not ever – except for that one time… A cream-coloured Mercedes pulled out violently in front of us.

The driver screamed many things – “bedun” among them. I broke out in a cold sweat. An SUV with Saudi plates, full of boys who didn’t look a day over 20, nearly sideswiped us. I cannot translate what the driver screamed at them on this blog. I will admit I joined in. For all of my troubles with Arabic, swearing horribly is not one of them. Does that say something about me?

The driver crowed approvingly.

“See?” He told me in Arabic. “You DO speak Arabic!” I had insisted, earlier, that I did not.

I thought about how normally, I believe that claiming to “know” a language means being able to read, appreciate, and interpret its poetry. But I’m not at a very poetic point in my life. And anyway, I used to be able to read Goethe in the original German – but I sure as hell couldn’t scream at a man about what exactly I want him to do with his mother (yes, this is sexist – at least sexist in a way that the word “motherfucker” is, or used to be). I can sing a children’s song in Arabic – but I don’t think that actually counts.

I was still swaying a little when the driver dropped me off a little way’s past the First Circle. “You will be OK,” he told me, and his fingers floated in the air, describing something intangible, but, I think, pretty. What, in my future, could possibly be pretty? An errant strawberry shortcake sunset I might actually notice? A very good drink? I did take his gesture as a kind of prophecy. The universe will right itself. The Arab romantics will crowd my bookshelves. I’ll stop getting carsick, heartsick and headsick.

Until then, Patrick Wolf takes care of my needs when I crawl home and put a damp cloth on my forehead:

I know he talks about a Monday morning, but this is just as applicable for a Friday morning (or a Saturday one, for those of you on a different week) – or any morning at all.

Do make sure to fix a really good screwdriver and wave it around in the air as you listen to this. I do think that the best screwdrivers are made with Nemiroff pepper vodka and a bit of fizzy water to dilute the orange juice. Pop a few ice cubes in as well.

Because, surprisingly, it is spring-time. The sparrows, and the cab drivers, and the cops, and the children – they all know it. Even my cats know it. They nap energetically. The skies know it. They ripple brilliantly with clouds and hail. Amman opens like a rusty locket – swears and smiles and shimmers, bursts with birds, hunches hill over hill, cries brake-fluid, purrs traffic – its insides like locks of hair from all of your loves, present and gone.

Happy Weekend, Happy Spring, Happy Drink-in-Hand.