Happy Photo

(Scroll to end if you just want to see the photo! What follows is an intro to this series of photo features I am calling “Happy Photo.”)

All my posts lately (and by “all my posts” I mean the few I’ve managed over the last six months) have been pretty weighty, mainly because I’m struggling. It feels good to connect to other people who are experiencing similar struggles (i.e. depression and anxiety). And I hope there are some people out there reading my posts because they want to understand these kinds of struggles better. Because unless you experience such things personally, it can be really, really difficult to imagine what it is like.

I’m in a difficult period of life. I went through a similar phase of feeling stuck, angry, depressed, and hopeless ten years ago, when I was in my late twenties. Maybe it comes around every decade. But the truth is, there are many issues I had then that just never got dealt with. Which is fine. I wasn’t ready. Now I am. So that’s where I’m at. Wondering where my life is going, what I want, what I need, how I want to change. This includes reevaluating the 10+ years I’ve had with my bf and whether I want to continue that relationship (the answer is, sadly, looking like a no). This is extremely painful for me, as I’m sure it would be for anyone.

I’m dealing the best I can. And I have faith that this is a process of learning and growth. What I am experiencing is growing pains, and I will emerge in a happier place. (In my worst moments, though, I feel that everything is at an end and can’t bear the thought of more decades of life – don’t worry, though, I’m not gonna off myself!)

What I mean to say is that while I do have many, many hours that are absolute hell, and I don’t always cope in ways that make me feel good about myself, I also attempt to get what pleasure I can from my daily life. My creatures are a big part of this. I go outside to throw the ball and enjoy my gorgeous backyard. I snuggle them and get kisses. I have my few good friends, whom I am increasingly trusting with what’s going on in my head and heart. Ditto my family members. I have my writing.

And, in the last year or so, I have my photography. I bought a used DSLR and a couple lenses from a friend, and am slowly learning how to use it. I’m not great at the technical aspects, but I have a good eye for subject and composition. I love sharing my photos. I’ve been doing so on Facebook, which is not really an ideal venue, and am thinking of starting an Instagram stream (I also have a separate blog for them but don’t update regularly enough). But I also thought it might be nice to share some here. I do share many in my regular posts, but I want to feature single photos that I particularly like, accompanied by a few beautiful words – probably quotes, but perhaps sometimes my own. I want to call this series of posts “Happy Photo,” because photography is one of the few activities that has brought me genuine happiness recently.

So here’s my first photo in this series, one I took at the botanical gardens I visited last week with some good friends who came all the way down from Philly to visit me. I’ve always been fascinated by bright sunlight illuminating brief places among shadows, but only recently realized that the visual beauty of this, in the particular way that I see it, is something I can accurately capture on camera.

Light and Dark Waterfall

“From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.” (Emerson)

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I never played team sports

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A good friend of mine grew up playing team sports. He often uses this analogy when talking with me about his approach to life: In sports, you learn how to get back up and brush yourself off. And he often jokes with me: If sportspeople all had your personality, we’d have mass team suicides after every loss.

I am a tad bit on the emotional, sensitive side (haha). My emotions often dominate me, and they are incredibly strong. So strong, they come on like an attack. Sometimes they prostrate me.

I grew up skiing. I skied with my family, but skiing, at least at the recreational level, is an inherently solitary sport. It’s you and the mountain, and the overseeing sky. It’s you against yourself, seeking to do better on the next run. There are no losses or wins, just you trying to feel that bounce in your turns. Sure, you fall. But once you reach a certain level, you do so rarely if ever. Which is a good thing when you’re going 20 miles an hour.

Skiing frees me. Team games, when I did them in gym class, were like playing a sport called “extreme stress.” I worried about making mistakes and being made fun of. Which is an almost certainty when you are a pale, shy, nerdy little girl without much skill. Even the gym teacher despised me. He was a buff, macho guy who was, it was rumored, biased against honors kids. He once called me out during a basketball game in a tone clearly meant to convey both disgust and dismissal: “You can’t run with the ball like that, little girl!”

Which is all to say, team sports and I never got on. I don’t think that’s the only reason I didn’t acquire much emotional resilience, though. I was sensitive and shy, and my parents did not press me to do things that were so obviously against my nature as team sports. Nor did they send me marching back to piano lessons when a mean teacher made me cry (actually they did make me finish out the course of lessons they’d paid for, but then let me quit). Their reasoning was probably that I was not very interested in piano. All I wanted to do was read. Read and read and read some more. And they let me. But I would have benefited from some lessons on not giving in to feelings of hurt and victimization. (I must stress that I do not intend “victimization” here to mean I often feel victimized by others – I am more of a self-blamer; it’s typical of people with depression to internalize anger at being hurt into self-loathing and, well, depression. However, it cannot be denied that I do place myself in a position of emotional victimization – again, not so much with regard to other people, as to my own reactions to traumas.)

Yes, as a child I was coddled emotionally. To my detriment. Not that I blame my parents – they are simply very gentle people who believed children should be allowed to pursue their own interests and didn’t quite understand that children must be taught discipline and endurance in the face of failure.

The end result, however, is that I’m not very good at getting up and brushing myself off. Not that I’m a quitter – I am still hammering away at a seemingly unfinishable dissertation, after all. But I do tend to let feelings of failure roost in the self-worth part of my brain until it resembles an overcrowded bat house. A loss, to me, feels permanent. My friend may be exaggerating when he says sportspeople with my personality would kill themselves after losing, but they might miss practice for awhile because anxiety makes it impossible to get out of bed. Or they might develop a phobia of their sport that makes it difficult for them to enthusiastically engage in it thereafter.

And how ridiculous would that be? Even as I write it, I roll my eyes. What kind of self-indulgent, self-important sportsperson would react this way? And yet, it’s often my reaction to traumas in my life. (Hmm…I detect some self-loathing in this paragraph.)

But I want to be fair to myself. My struggles with depression and anxiety do make dealing with things so very difficult. I am most decidedly disadvantaged by this when compared to people without these particular handicaps. And I do always eventually drag myself to my feet. Brush myself off with lacerated hands. Stumble forward and profess my faith through debilitating pain. (I’m not exaggerating – this is exactly how it feels.) Again and again. And then again. Honestly – just to balance this admittedly dramatic and dire picture with some humor – it’s a little like that soccer goalie who keeps getting hit in the face. Except without a bunch of people cheering me on.

It may appear to someone like my friend that I missed out on some important life lessons, such as resilience, that children learn through participating in team sports. I can’t argue with that. But I’ve learned some of those lessons in other ways. Life itself can sometimes feel like a team sport to which I am not naturally suited but required to play. It necessitates a kind of strength and endurance that my friend, who lets things slide right off his back, might not be able to summon despite all his team sportiness. I don’t really know, though. Perhaps all of us, or most, are born with the capacity for such strength and endurance, and just use and express them in different ways. I wish my friend could appreciate that I, too, have these qualities. Even though it often appears that I do not.

And, I must add, while he no longer plays team sports, I continue to ski.

An adventure story

I’m not so great at this blogging thing (though I’ve heard blogging is dead, so maybe it doesn’t matter).

The thing is, I go through periods when I just want to be private. I have nothing to say, or nothing I feel a need to share. Or I don’t have the energy to write. I think that’s okay. Much is made in the blogosphere of consistency, finding a topic, finding an audience. But for what purpose? So people will think I’m consistent, have something to say, and am worthy of giving their time to? Eh. When is it ever good to do something so other people will think something specific about you?

I do long to be more consistent in my writing here. That’s a goal, though one I admittedly have not tried hard to attain. But I’ll never find a topic to write about constantly. My life is not a set topic – I mean, seriously, how do people continue to write about the same basic thing week after week for years? What about growth and change? What about changing your mind?

For example, when I started this blog about a year ago, I wrote a lot about being child free and happy with that. I thought that one of my blog topics could be about being an independent woman who lives alone (despite having a boyfriend of ten years) and doesn’t want children. That’s a cool topic, because that kind of woman isn’t too common.

But life has a way of laughing at decisions. I’ve been thinking about having a child. I wouldn’t say that this is a sudden change of mind, because it’s been percolating for a while now, but it’s a big change, and it’s exciting and scary. And I think it’s fine that I changed my mind. I might change it again.

Another big change in my life – and no doubt related to both my absence from this blog and my changing feelings on motherhood – is that I started a medication for depression in December. I was very anti-medication because the several I’d tried before had either numbed me or made me worse. But things were getting dire, and I decided to give meds another shot. I was prescribed one in a different class than those I’d taken before. And it worked. It was like a miracle. I not only was able to get out of bed, but I did so with enthusiasm for the coming day.

Unfortunately, the early high did not last. But I am still getting out of bed at a reasonable hour every day, doing my work, getting exercise, etc. – and this during what has admittedly been a rather shitty several months. I have to remind myself that my goal was to be functional. I don’t need to feel happy every day, all day. I am a writer, after all. I need my feelings, the good and the bad. So I’m sticking with the meds.

So here I am. Just me, with a mind that changes a lot. Just me, who doesn’t know what she wants from day to day. With not much consistency to offer, and no great wisdom to share, at least not today. Just another human living a human life.

I made a photo essay, though, that I shared on my Facebook and am sharing here, because I’m kind of proud of it. It’s silly and fun – which are not states of being that have been abundant in my life lately. But yesterday I arrived at a place in Arizona that my parents call “Little House,” and took my camera out on a walk, and something about the landscape inspired me. So here’s a little story about finding my way back home after a slight misadventure.

So I saw this ladder and I was like, I think I’ll climb it and see what’s on the other side of that wall.

DSC_0141This is what I saw. Kinda inhospitable looking, but I was like, why not take a walk?

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Then I saw this and I was like, whoa bugs, that place doesn’t look too comfortable. And I got pricked four times while taking the picture.

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Then I walked some more, and it was really dry and prickly, and I started feeling lightheaded.

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So I was like, I should eat something, and I had a quick bite.

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Then I was like, you know, this place is kinda pretty. All the pretty colors. So pretty, the pretty colors.

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And even though we have these aloe flowers in Florida, they are like so much more psychedelic cool here. So I wandered around some more and lost track of time…

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Then I looked up and I was like, am I in Italy?

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But guess what was behind the trees! Little House!

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I’m starting to get friendship

15168558829_6e77be913b_oMy family values self-sufficiency. We never ask for help if we can get something done ourselves. We don’t borrow money, or ask other people for rides to the airport, or hire someone to mow the lawn.

I came up with three reasons why we are like this, not all of which necessarily reflect well on us, but what can you do:

1. We consider ourselves to be talented individuals who can do nearly anything if we put our minds to it.

2. We do not want to get used to depending on others, in case there comes a time when others are not available to help.

3. We dislike the burden of reciprocity.

Our self-sufficiency extends to our emotional lives. If we are sad, stressed, or lonely, we deal with it on our own. I grew up thinking this was natural and admirable. But lately I’ve been wondering what the heck friends and family are for, if not to assist us in times of emotional need. You may find it unbelievable that I never considered this before, but I haven’t. When I feel depressed, I isolate. I don’t want to burden others, and I don’t believe they can actually help me.

Then the other night I mistakenly called one of my close friends (who moved to another state a year ago) on FaceTime while trying to figure out what my own ID was. I quickly terminated the call, but an hour later I got a text from her thanking me for calling and asking if I wanted to chat.

My first thought was, Wow, she thinks I called on purpose! My own assumption in a similar situation would be that the person probably made a mistake because why would they call me randomly? (I personally prefer a heads up on calls so I can “prepare” myself.)

My second thought was, Wow, she’s happy I called! It dawned on me that my friends might actually want me to call them. (I always assume that if they want to talk, they will call me – I rarely fell a “need” to talk because of my self-sufficiency.)

My third thought was, Wow, now I understand why so many of my long distance friendships have faded away or even ended badly. Those friends probably thought I didn’t value them. Here I was thinking they didn’t want to be my friend anymore when all the time they were probably thinking the same of me. And it was my fault.

Truth is, I’ve kinda sorta known this in my heart all along. But I blamed my depression. It makes it very difficult for me to function normally, which includes keeping up with friendships. And there’s the whole self-sufficiency thing. After all, how can friends really help with depression? Nothing can help.

I’ve noticed something recently, though, that makes me think I’m seriously developmentally delayed when it comes to friendship. I’ve had long talks with a good long distance friend twice in the last three months (two different friends). Both times I opened up about how depressed I’ve been (something I’ve only started doing recently, as part of exploring new coping mechanisms). Both times the friends listened, gave advice that didn’t necessarily help (because nothing helps), and talked about their own and other people’s experiences with sadness.

After both phone calls I woke up the next morning feeling awful. Because talking to friends doesn’t help. But then, magic occurred. At least to me it felt like magic. As the day went on, I felt better. Lots better. Like, almost normal better.

You guys, last night I picked up the quilt I started earlier this year and haven’t worked on in eight months and I sewed four squares together! This is a big deal.

I can’t tell you how astounding this all is to me. True, only two experiences isn’t a large enough sample size to base any conclusions on, but you know what I’m going to do next time I feel hopeless and down? Call a friend! My preliminary findings seem to indicate that the act of talking with a good friend who cares and takes the time to listen and respond actually helps me feel better. Not because of anything they said, but because they were there to say it.

You might be thinking, Duh, and I get that! Like I said, I’m clearly lacking in some kind of fundamental understanding of how to make use of the benefits of friendship. But I think I’m starting to get it.

Photograph taken by my father in Keystone, Colorado.

Getting through the steps

I feel the end of the year rushing toward me. In a few weeks I will collide against the annual family trip, and the pieces will scatter where they will.

Yesterday I went to buy supplies to make these. I want to give them as presents to my mother and various other people I know on the island we all gather to in this season. Except when I stood in front of the shelves of clay at Joanne’s I couldn’t decide which colors to buy. Or whether I should buy a multipack or separate blocks. Then I couldn’t decide which kind of paint to buy. Metallic? Gold leaf? Or what size brush.

The choices stymied me. I picked some clay, walked over to the paint aisle, picked a paint, went back to the clay aisle and returned my choices in lieu of others, went back to the paint aisle and did the same, and repeated this exercise for another 45 minutes. It was exhausting. I no longer felt inspired by the project. I left the store without buying a thing.

This happens to me more and more often. The imagined future becomes so bloated with expectation that it bursts right into the present and bowls me over. I wasn’t seeing clay or paint on those shelves. I was watching myself hand out beautiful objects I had made to people I care about and they were so happy…. And suddenly, I could no longer envision how to actually get to that time and place. The steps required – buy the material, roll out the clay, mix, press, bake, paint, pack, find right moment to give – how on earth could I possibly manage all of those steps in the right order and right way so as to find my way to my imagined future?

Here’s the thing. When I was younger, I believed in the possibility of those imagined futures. That belief carried me through all the steps. And sometimes it would work out. But most of the time it turned out differently than I had hoped. And sometimes my efforts resulted in failures. Big ones.

This is life, right? Grownups know this. I know this. But for some reason, instead of learning to accept failure (or its possibility), I find it increasingly difficult to convince myself to make the effort required to move forward. Even though intellectually I know it’s still worth trying, regardless of outcome, I no longer possess enough faith to get me through the steps, let alone begin.

Even so, I endeavor, because otherwise I truly have failed. It’s not faith but fear of miring myself in that black hole of hopelessness I tumbled into among the aisles of Joanne’s that drives me now. I came home from the disastrous shopping trip and bought the materials online. Although I still spent an inordinate amount of time making choices, at least I could do it from a seated position. Step one accomplished.

It’s just one step. Like many activities in my life right now, this one is progressing incrementally, and I don’t know if I’ll get to the finish line. I take back what I said about not having faith, though. Maybe I’m growing a braver kind of faith – the kind you have when you can’t see where your foot might fall on the next step, but you take it anyway.

You can’t control the message

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High summer is usually a difficult time of year for me. The heat, the awareness of diminishing days until school (even though I am not teaching this year I still feel that end-of-summer anxiety), knowing I am nowhere near completing my summer goals…it all combines into a big black morass and I wade right in and get stuck.

Then I commence with feeling sorry for myself, which is combined with a constant, expanding fear that I am lazy, worthless, talentless, and worst of all, always feeling sorry for myself.

Then Robin Williams kills himself and I wonder if there is any hope for anyone, anywhere. If being talented, a hard worker, and surrounded by family and adoring fans means nothing, then nothing means anything, not even that I am in a deep depression, which means that there is no point to trying to get out of it, which I can’t do anyway.

Then my requested copy of Sartre’s Nausea comes in at the library and I am excited to think that there are people in the world, or were once upon a time because the existentialists are all dead now, who see things as I do.

Then I reread all the stories I have posted online and my heart and stomach mix together in one big feeling of sick. Oh. My. God. They suck. My first thought is I have to make that blog private asap before anyone else has a chance to read them. I feel shame.

It is the same shame I feel when I reveal anything that matters about myself to others. The same shame I feel when I’ve been part of a community long enough for people to get to know me a bit. Or when I’ve gone out the night before and had some wine and talked to a total stranger for awhile about something completely innocuous but without carefully evaluating everything that came out of my mouth. It’s what I feel when I am not controlling the message.

The thing is, I know I can never control the message. But oh do I try. And when I can’t anymore, I say goodbye. I end friendships. I stop going to church. I make blogs private. I stay home when I drink wine.

But there was something else when I read my stories. Even though I could see every awkward phrase, every cliche, every bit of unrealistic dialogue, and whoa, the problems with pacing, I still liked them. I read each one through to the end with a certain pleasure, and I was moved. Even though I was crushed realizing how far my work is from what I want it to be (note to self: don’t read any of your own stuff right after reading two amazing stories in the New Yorker), I still liked what I read.

I’m trying to convince myself that matters in some way.

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The shoes in the picture above are twenty-year-old Clarks. They were given to me in Italy by someone special when I was there on a year study abroad. He also gave me the tag from his Clarks, which were tan.

I never wore these much until the last several years. They were never in style and I had money to spend on shoes. Now they are suddenly in style and I have no money, so out they came from the closet. I love them. The other day I went looking in boxes and found my friend’s tag. I took the photo and sent it to him. I don’t know what he thought of it. He responded, but didn’t say anything about the shoes.

I guess I was feeling nostalgic and hoped he would respond in kind. Or would realize how much he meant to me all those years ago and how much the memory means to me now.

But I can’t control the message once it’s out there in the world. And chances are I garbled it in the telling.

Keep going. Keep trying. Let go of the outcome.

Being slow in a southern summer

TiOne of my favorite aspects of Florida living is that it is indoor-outdoor nearly year round. I have a front and back porch, and spend much of my time on one or the other depending on season and hour of the day.

I love being able to have my windows always open. True, this means I must constantly deal with the fine black dust that coats everything. And this year, the laurel oak pollen gave my furniture a nearly nuclear yellow-green glow. I’m often sneezing from allergies. But it’s worth it.

Except it gets a bit hot here in the summer, which is everything from April to October. Yesterday it was 88 degrees inside my house by 3 in the afternoon and stayed that way until 8 p.m., when it went down to 87 degrees (oh, the relief!).

I refuse to use the air conditioner for as long as I possibly can in the summers. I’m getting better, year by year, with how well I tolerate heat and humidity down here. I love my slow, sultry Southern summers.

The magnolias are just beginning to open.

There are many hours in which it is too hot to do anything but porch sitting.

And I am contemplating in my hours of slowness what it means to be strong in myself, and not chase after a behavioral or psychological ideal. For many years I have believed that there is something wrong with me because according to psychologists I have “disorders.” (Anxiety and depression.) I fail to live up to the happy, healthy, self-actualized individual that we should all try our darnedest to become.

Only recently have I begun to accept that in fact, much of what I “suffer” from is simply my personality. I was born the way I am, and while I do believe nurture has an influence, I also think nature in large part determines who we are.

I was born highly sensitive, intuitive, introverted, thoughtful, creative, and with a strong awareness of the melancholic: an inherent existential angst.

In another kind of society, or perhaps in eras long past, there might be a role I could inhabit that valued what I am. Mystic, future-seer, wise woman, hermit philosopher, truth teller, storyteller (one supported by society! If only!). Or maybe not. But what I do know is that the society I live in now classifies me as damaged, disordered, imperfect. American society, in particular, does not value introverted, thoughtful, quiet people. I found some acceptance of who I am during my years in Asia, and that’s when I began to realize that maybe how I am is okay.

I think my anxiety and depression are a reaction to my inability to fit. That is to say, although I was born prone to feeling nervous and melancholy (as many writers are, and these can be good things for creative people), the severity of these in my life is due to my failure to deal with the way our society is set up.

So I work on creating a life for myself that suits me. And the hot, slow Southern summers suit me, because something opens up inside and I begin to breathe a little easier, and who can find the energy to fret when it’s 88 degrees inside the house?

How to deal with travel stress when the truth is you can’t

tallpinkFor people like me, who have issues with anxiety and depression, traveling can be enormously hellish. Even when it’s a trip you want to make, like the one I took up to Philly last week. One the one hand, it was great – I finished revising the first 1/4 of my novel and reconnected with some people from my past. On the other hand, the whole time I was swamped with intense anxiety, disorientation, and the depression blahs that made it difficult to muster enthusiasm for any of the good stuff that was happening.

I think the worst part, though, is dealing with all these feelings even after I return, because they tend to linger for up to a week. I mean, I get that for me, travel is going to be stressful. It just is. And there’s little I can do about it. Travel is an experience that occupies that realm of “so stressful all my coping mechanisms will fail.” I deal with this by trying to focus on the good stuff and on how nice it will be to return home. And taking an occasional chill pill.

But then when I come home, I still feel bad for days. That’s just not fair. However, such is life for someone like me, so here’s what I’m doing to get through my travel hangover.

1. Forget about getting back to normal.

My routines keep me stable. In the mornings I drink coffee and read for an hour. In the evenings I cook dinner, keep my hands busy and thoughts calm by quilting, and watch fairly mindless TV. (My Little Pony, anyone? When things are really bad, that’s about all I can handle!) I read in bed before turning off the lights.

When I’m feeling like I am now, none of this stuff makes me happy. The idea of cooking a meal is exhausting, and I wouldn’t want to eat it anyway because I lose my interest in food when I’m in down. And of course making it worse is the stress this causes me, because I feel that I should be able to get back to my life.

So I’m telling myself, yeah, this sucks, but it wouldn’t suck as much if you had come home expecting a week of blah instead of expecting to go skipping through the tulips with the joy of being back in your comfort zone.

2. Good habits will die, and bad habits will resurface.

There are many ways I try to make my life better. Exercise more, drink less wine, go to bed earlier and wake up earlier. The first week back from a trip? Expect to feel like you have fallen all the way back down the mountain and are lying battered and demoralized at the bottom, looking up at those steep cliffs.

This is what I’m telling myself: This is not a failure. Cut yourself 100% slack. Next week, when you are not so exhausted and demoralized, you can pick up where you left off.

3. Don’t try to get it all done. In fact, don’t try to do much at all.

When I get overwhelmed, my reaction is to withdraw. I still get the essentials done, but I cut as many corners as possible and spend a lot of time on nonproductive activities, like reading, TV, and sleeping.

The problem is, when you get back from a trip there are so many essentials you have to get done in order to catch up. It may not be possible to take the down time you need.

Take it anyway. Yesterday I cancelled my office hours and came home to take a nap. I am taking all of today off by knocking most of the essentials right off the list. They’re actually not that essential after all. I still feel down, but at least I’m coping in a way that prioritizes what is good for me, not what is good for other people.

4. Do this one thing: practice active gratitude for home.

I am saving myself from falling into a morass of despair over how unproductive and regressive my life feels right now by giving myself one goal I can achieve repeatedly throughout the day. This is my job for today: spend as much time as possible feeling grateful about the things I love about home.

All my windows are open because I live in Florida. The osmanthus is blooming and it smells like warm peaches. The mint is coming back in the pot on the back steps. The sun is shining and I can sit on the bench in the back yard while throwing the ball for my dog. Tonight I can make chocolate lava cakes if I want, because all the ingredients are in my pantry. I may not want to eat real food, but I could probably muster some enthusiasm for warm, oozing chocolate.

If I do this all day long, then this day will have been a success and I will be well on my way toward recovering from my travel stress. I hope.

Photograph taken at Longwood Gardens.

There is no universal easy-button choice

This morning a facebook friend posted a quote that I found both depressing and sanctimonious. Yeah, I know irritating facebook posts are par for the course, but this one really got to me. Here is the quote (attributed to Philip K. Dick):

“Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error of judgment.”

The friend who posted this is a complex thinker. He’s an artist, a storyteller. He gets nuances. So for him to fall back on such a black-and-white, uncompassionate characterization of the complex and awful experience of addiction indicates a psychological reaction that is probably based on past experiences with drug users. In fact I know some of this history. He has been hurt by the drug use of others. He has lost people. His self-protection reaction is to harden his ideas.

I, too, have been hurt by the drug use of others. My reaction has been to soften my ideas, incorporate less judgement and more compassion. I do not think this makes me better than him – my reaction is also ultimately about self-protection. And I have plenty of judge-y moments, believe me.

The quote saddens me because of its implication that addicts are akin to idiots who deserve what they get, but what upsets me more is its  sanctimoniousness. It’s easy to assume that a certain condition involves more choice than it really does if you have not experienced it personally, i.e. in your own person. One of the most ubiquitous traits of human beings is that they like to say how much better they would behave in any given situation if it happened to them.

“Just say no.”

There’s a reason that campaign failed. If it were as easy as making a decision to do the “right thing,” we would have won the drug war.

We tend to like to think that we have pure free will, but in actuality many, if not most, of our “choices” result from a complex interplay of psychological and biochemical factors that are unique to individuals. There is no universal easy-button choice that everyone should be able to make and if they don’t, they have failed in the simplest of tasks and must be idiots. Thinking there is allows us to avoid contemplating a world in which there is no easy answer. Sometimes solutions seem too hard to come by. Or impossible. Who wouldn’t want to think that the scourge of drug addiction is an easy fix if only people wouldn’t be such idiots and just make the right choices?

I write this as someone who has a condition that many would say involves choice: depression. Happiness is a choice, after all. Many people really believe this. Why don’t I just buck up? Why do I let myself get so unhappy?

Of course the truth is complex. Sometimes happiness is a choice. When I am not experiencing an episode, I can make daily choices that maintain and increase my happiness. Eating well, exercising, making sure I make time for reading and contemplation. During an episode, I am robbed of most of my ability for choice, and more importantly, even if I make the same behavioral choices they will most likely either make no difference or actually increase my unhappiness.

It is not something you can understand unless you’ve been there. And that’s fine. Human experience is full of things we only witness, and never personally experience. I really believe, though, that we create harm when we judge others as weak or failures for any given reaction they have to life. It could be a direct harm, i.e we ourselves fail to help the person in trouble, or we fail to help ourselves deal with their situation. Often, though, it is a more amorphous type of harm, that of contributing to a culture of hardline thinking.

Which really doesn’t lead to anything good, as has been so amply demonstrated in our culture over the last decade.

We have consistently failed to deal with mental health and addiction problems in the United States. And for those who associate addiction with drugs or alcohol, and thereby with people who are degenerates or slaves to vice, let me point out that the most problematic addictive substance in our country is food.

You may be wondering what my response to my friend’s post was. Nothing. About ten acidly sarcastic comments came to mind, but I know that posting any one of them, or even a well-thought-out reply, would make utterly no difference to his thoughts on the matter. This is the saddest thing of all, I think. How little people are willing to entertain the possibility that life looks different, and is different, seen through a different set of eyes.

I did unfollow him, though.