Monday, February 27, 2012

depression is stupid - part 6

Normally, I'm a very energetic person. I teach, write, play guitar, cook, walk, ride a bicycle, and perform most other activities with tremendous intensity and vigor. I even sit and read ferociously.

When depressed, I lose almost all of my power. This is not only a terrible obstruction to getting things done, but it's a cruel insult to my sense of self. I am nothing if not intense, so if I'm not intense, it follows that I'm nothing. Logic aside, that's how it feels.

I shall first illustrate by way of music. My guitar playing is a little off, because I never really learned the things most guitar players learn, so what I do is based on a very vivid sense of alienation from music, actually. I play the guitar very much in the same vein that Ionesco wrote plays, if you dig that (and maybe three people will).

It's been impossible to play the guitar lately. I can't catch hold of the weird relationship I have to music that drives me to play and to write songs - the compulsion to make this thing do something it's not inclined to do. But there's nothing there. I hold the guitar in my hands, and I don't know what to do with it.

Cooking has been the same. I have a smattering of French and a bit of Northern Italian, and what I love to do is walk into the kitchen, decide on some fairly arbitrary course of action, and make madcap gorgeous food happen. Pork loin stuffed with fennel in a sauce Robert? Solid! How about improvising on prawns poached in court bouillon and served with a sauce of the reduced stock and cream, with chives? Okey-dokey. Whip that up.

Lately? Nix. I made black bean chili Thursday. It was the most creative I've been in the kitchen in months.

I think my definitive characteristic is ferocious, iconoclastically-bent invention. While depressed? Bupkis.

Depression is stupid. It makes my music and food stupid, too.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

depression is stupid - part 5

I've mentioned my therapist several times in this space. I've had a few therapy experiences. When I was a kid, my family was in group therapy. Even prior to that, I saw the psychological counselor at my grade school a few times, during my first depressive episode, I think. In high school, I was somehow referred to an awful psychologist who had a fixed theory about adolescent development, and insisted I fit the profile he was interested in. He was worse than useless, and may have written a series of fantastically successful and terribly damaging books based on his pet theory. I saw a therapist back at UNC-Charlotte, who was excellent the first few times I saw him, but then suddenly had a revelation about his work and, like that awful jerk I saw in high school, started making everyone fit his pet theory.

I saw a student psychotherapist at Duquesne a couple times. I liked the idea of it, because Duquesne is one of very few psych PhD programs in the US that adopt a phenomenological/existentialist approach. I'm not sure how helpful that experience was to me, primarily because it was only about three sessions. She decided not to continue our sessions, and, to be candid, I think it was because we were both very attracted to one another.

Years later, here in California, miserably depressed, I called the mental health hotline that I have access to through our insurance, and they hooked me up with my therapist in Modesto. They gave me two or three names and phone numbers, and I had to call them. She was the first one I reached.

By that point, I was pretty jaded about psychotherapy. I knew I didn't want someone operating out of what is basically a behaviorist model (like the guy at UNCC, and, really, the jerk in high school). I had doubts about psychoanalysis (still do). So, in our first contact, I asked my would-be therapist about her methodology. She was taken aback. She was also a little amused at my arrogance - a theme that would repeat throughout our relationship.

In retrospect, she was deeply committed to cognitive therapy. I gotta say, cognitive therapy is stupid.

The thing is, depressives have distorted pictures of reality. We think in terms of doom, all-or-nothing options, and we repeat to ourselves messages that damage us. For instance, in a really good bout of depression, I tell myself, about 4 dozen times a day, that I'm a terrible, worthless person.

The gist of cognitive therapy is to counteract those distortions by deliberately introducing a different set of messages. My therapist had me do this by actually writing myself notes of affirmation. Whenever I heard that negative message in my head, I was supposed to pull a piece of paper out of a pocket and read it: "You're a caring person" or "You're a good teacher" or "You're kind" - crap like that.

And it is crap. It's indescribably stupid. Think about this scenario. You're miserable. You're at work, and you're fighting against crying for no reason at all. You have to go be in front of other people in a few moments, and you believe you will fail. You think you're a fraud. So, what you do is, you reach into your pocket, and there's a folded piece of paper in there that says something inane like "You do things that make the world a better place." That's supposed to make you think differently about the situation, turn off the negative messages, and give you the fortitude to go do what needs doing.

This is what's stupid about cognitive therapy, from my experience: it works.

Since cognitive therapy is that stupid, it must be the case that either I'm that stupid, or depression is that stupid. Wait, let me read this folded piece of paper. It says "You're a smart person." Obviously, then, depression is stupid.

Monday, February 20, 2012

depression is stupid - part 4

In November of 2010, after a brief spate of depression in October, I decided to do something crazy, just for kicks: I participated in National Novel Writing Month. The aim of this is to encourage the creative spirit, I'd say. Participants attempt to write a novel of at least 50,000 words during November, starting from scratch.

I just jumped into it. I wrote a ridiculous book: the autobiography of a character I'd invented 20-some years ago called Biff Nurfurplerberger, who is a pop music singer-songwriter. The autobiography was written by two authors, Biff and Simon Ratmason, both of whom are unreliable narrators. Several chapters, and many depictions of events, flat out contradict what is stated elsewhere. Silliness abounding. (It's called Cake, and that link sends you to the Amazon page for it.)

It was the sort of satire I've been writing since I was 10. I pulled out every trick in my book. In one chapter, maybe my favorite, Biff (I think it's Biff - it's sometimes unclear whether the text is Biff's or Simon's) describes his role in the Beatles, and his feelings about the break-up of the band. Another chapter, the existence of which is denied by the foreword to the reader (which is pretty clearly not written by either Biff or Simon, but unsigned), is about the worship of cats. I stole the text from the Catechism. (Do you get it?!?!)

It was a blast. I cackled - yes, cackled! - while writing it. I finished the 70,000 word opus in 30 days (I crossed 50k on the 15th), and never looked back. The result was exactly what I wanted it to be, and I don't think there are more than a couple dozen words I would want back. Seriously.

In 2011, I decided to try again. This time, I had a serious novel in mind. Again, it was satire, but a dark one. It was to be a slightly futuristic, dystopian novel about a world run by one corporation, where repairing anything is illegal. The corporation has a division called Quality Assurance that makes certain that products break, by having what they call Warranty Workers break into people's homes and damage their appliances.

There was absolutely no way I could complete this project, like I did Cake. The story was too complex, involving too many characters' arcs. The world I was creating had to take more time to invent. I struggled, but I got through my 50,000 words.

And I hate it. I regard it as a complete failure. To write this book - which I still think would be an excellent book - I'd need to start over again.

My expectation for myself was that I would write around 60, 70 thousand words of the same clean, shiny prose as I had for Cake. That was impossible. Cake relied on about 30 years of developing a satiric, silly voice, a flair for absurdity and cognitive dissonance. This new contraption had to be seriously written, had to be funny (in that dark way - almost the way Kafka or Beckett are funny), had to carry the story, and had to be consistent.

This really, really, can't happen with a story as complex as I had in mind.

I approached the project with an all-or-nothing attitude, which is, of course, another characteristic mental attitude of depression: if I am not totally successful, I am a total failure. (Note also that the depressive does not give himself/herself credit for any past successes.) Since I could not succeed in those terms, I counted myself a failure, and I got nothing positive from NaNoWriMo. I can't even bring myself to share the book with anyone but my Loveliest, even just to ask how to start it over again.

Setting yourself up to fail is one more way that depression is stupid.

Friday, February 17, 2012

depression is stupid - part 3

Among my most annoying depressive symptoms is my struggle with self-worth. On any given day, I really don't have any.

One day, my therapist asked me about my self-worth. I forget the exact wording of her question, but the gist of it was to ask what the basis of my feelings of self-worth were. I couldn't really answer her at first.

Then I said I thought I was good at certain things, like teaching and cooking. I said I was intelligent and articulate. She interrupted me, and said that intelligence isn't something that you do for yourself or create for yourself, and being good at something, although you do in large measure create that for yourself, isn't intrinsic to you. She restated her question: why do you regard yourself as having worth as a person.

At this point, I got kind of frustrated, and argued, not in so many words, that my worth as a person was contingent upon my doing good or being worth a damn in the world. She responded that those were measures of others' esteem, not my own self-worth.

I still struggle with this, on two levels - practical and theoretical. (I suppose Aristotle would approve.)

Practically, having a tenuous sense of self-worth means that I'm dependent on a daily basis on others responding to me as though they value me, in order to feel good about myself. Most people who attempt to be entertaining feel this way, I believe. The vast majority of stand-up comics do, for sure: they need people to laugh with them, to assure themselves that people aren't laughing at them. The upshot of this is that bad days make me feel like I'm a bad person, not a person who had a bad day.

Theoretically, I still don't understand the concept of self-worth very well. The other day it occurred to me to distinguish self-worth from self-esteem. Self-esteem looks to me like a fairly vacuous self-boosterism, and I'm not sure what it's supposed to achieve. Do people who believe that they're always doing such good work do better work as a result? Self-worth is more a matter of having dignity and respect for oneself, and regarding oneself as worthy (sorry for the circularity; Aristotle would approve). But to my therapist's question of its basis, I'm still perplexed. I guess she had in mind something like "because I'm me, because all humans ought to have self-worth," but I'm not sure I buy that. (Too Kantian? Maybe if there was an eschatological explanation of self-worth, I'd find it more plausible.)

In any event, the problem of self-worth is yet another reason that depression is stupid.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

depression is stupid - part 2

A common symptom of depression is usually called something like loss of capacity to enjoy pleasurable activities. For instance, over the last few months, I have had less enjoyment from playing the guitar, from listening to music, and even from cooking.

The irony is that these are activities that I engage in not only because I enjoy them for their own sakes, but because they are calming, soothing, even meditative. They relieve stress.

Instead, I've felt like it was worthless for me to play the guitar (because I'll never be a great guitarist), and I haven't been listening much to music (because I can't ever figure out what I want to hear), and I have felt like my cooking was in a rut (because I haven't been patient or exploratory). The distorted perception related to my depressive outlook discounts the value of the activities that generally do, and generally should, make me happy, and so the prospect of them is sometimes overwhelming.

For several years, I found an hour every day to play the guitar (guitars, I suppose), but lately I practically force myself to play, sometimes just out of guilt that I own them and they just sit there taking up space. As one might well imagine, playing an instrument with that motivation is not all that enjoyable. It also doesn't lead to the best performances, which reinforces my perception that I'm so lousy at playing that it's not worth it.

My Loveliest will say that I play beautifully, that she loves to hear me play, and that what should matter is that I play because it feels good to play. This is a difficult message to understand, because I can't think about it in terms of what it does for me. Instead, I feel stressed.

So, the activities in life that I enjoy, that, in a manner of speaking, I need to enjoy, are not relieving stress, but causing it, because I am depressed, in large part because of stress.

Ergo, depression is stupid.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

depression is stupid - part 1

I'm going to see my doctor tomorrow. This evening while vacuuming I was thinking about the cognitive therapy I had before, and how it helped me identify bad mental habits that reinforced depression - in particular the "I'm fraudulent," "I'm not worth shit," and "I'm doomed" parts.

One thing that I need in order to feel happy is social and political involvement. Getting involved in the Society for Phenomenology and Media back in 1999, and getting involved in CFA in 2002, helped me through two dark periods. In particular, CFA activism consistently restored my sense of genuine meaning, purpose, and my own value to the world.

Being in on the politics on campus helped me to understand what was going on, to see my own troubles in a context that showed I wasn't being judged on my merits, but according to a distorted, managerialist, authoritarian model of control that is experienced by the majority of faculty in the US. Learning about our working conditions from my CFA colleagues, and from the contingent faculty movement, was empowering and gave me hope.

A couple years ago, my depression and anxiety symptoms started to return, triggered in part by the last few horrible years of administrative malfeasance, hypocrisy, and greed, and in large part by the resultant increase in my job insecurity. At the same time, I became even more involved in activism, more involved in resisting the autocratic management in whatever way possible.

Much of that effort has seemed to fail, from my perspective. The autocrats remain, they hire more autocrats to carry out their bidding, and they gleefully spend education budgets on union-busting and on consultants whom they hire to figure out how to get rid of more faculty and staff. The stress I'm experiencing from all this is ridiculously high.

Thus, I have a dilemma. I have relied on this range of deep involvements in my institution and in the faculty labor movement for creating meaning and purpose in my life. Besides which, the person I am just can't sit by - I'm simply a born dissenter. On the other hand, the stress is definitely a factor in my depression and anxiety. If I reduce or eliminate those involvements, I will increase the anxiety I feel for not being involved, taking some control over my fate. If I continue, I will maintain or increase the stress that contributes to my anxiety.

My therapist would ask something at this point like, "Is it realistic to think you can control your fate, either way?" Or, "Is that the only way you can control your fate?" One or two of my friends would likely tell me to give up on the union and campus politics. While I get that, I also feel conflicted. Even just last week, a CFA meeting followed the next day by a committee meeting (on college dean evaluation) lifted me from a point where I wasn't sure I could continue going to work. Then on Tuesday of this week, a discussion in academic senate weakened my hope and resolve.

So my conclusion for now isn't that I should or shouldn't stay so deeply involved with things. It's simpler: depression is stupid.

Monday, February 13, 2012

the end of the world - and why it still seems to be going

I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan's seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth. But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
 --Revelation, 2:13-14

My loyal readers may have been having some difficulty squaring their experiences with my explanation that the world had ended last week. That's understandable, and, to be candid, I've had some difficulty, myself.

First of all, let me make it as clear as I can that it's a good idea to continue to pay your bills and your rent, even if the world has ended. I have no information that settles once and for all the question of whether debts transfer beyond the Apocalypse. Given our recent experience of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, I'm guessing "yes." Word to the wise.

Second, as I suppose goes without saying, I cannot accept any liability for your failing to pay said bills during the last week.

Moreover, those experiences are very hard to understand in light of today's text, which includes tomorrow's text, since it's about to be Valentine's Day. It's a challenging text, since it does not specifically denote doom, but instead, more of a snit, over behavior that's normally given severe condemnation -- eating sacrificial animals and having hot sex. From my perspective, both eating animals and hot sex are au courant this time of year, so I am sure that's what's referred to. (I think the idea in that last line has something to do with rabbis trying to stop us from eating sacrificial animals and having hot sex. I'm not sure.)

But to what end? And how does this explain how we've had to go to work for almost a whole week now, after the apparent end of everything?

These are challenging times. Dark times. My loyal readers will know that, despite all the portents, we must push forward. After all, tomorrow isn't another day.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

the end of the world - 7 February

Some things are abundantly clear, in this world. It is clear, for instance, that the fate of the world is tied to the fate of former senator Rick Santorum. We know this to be true because he tells us so.

In an earlier post, I noted the close connection between Santorum's candidacy for the Republican Presidential Nomination, Newt Gingrich's relationship to truth and falsity, and the ultimate end of everything. Gingrich proposed that the South Carolina primary would be "armageddon" for Santorum, and on that basis, I suggested the possibility that Santorum's defeat in South Carolina would herald the end times.

No such luck.

I have since become more clear in my understanding of Newt Gingrich's relationship to the truth. When he said South Carolina would be "armageddon" for Santorum, he had to be uttering falsehood, because he's Newt Gingrich.

Upon further reflection, it's clear that Gingrich provided us the clue we needed to understand these signs. Since Newt cannot tell the truth, his invocation of "armageddon" in South Carolina, on the grounds that Santorum would lose big (as he did), clearly indicates that the true sign of the final end of all ends will be a Santorum victory.

To sum up: Everything Newt Gingrich says is false. Therefore, when he proclaimed that armageddon would follow Rick Santorum's terrible defeat in the South Carolina primary, the truth of that statement was, really, that armageddon would be presaged by Santorum electoral victories. Since Santorum won in the three non-binding, non-elector-selecting primaries and caucuses Tuesday, it's obvious that those elections indicated the end of the world.

Obviously, this means that any work you've done since then will be unpaid. Sorry.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

the end of the world - ?

February 2 is Groundhog Day. It's not Groundhog Day, which is a filthy, depraved, disgusting so-called motion picture that was filmed in Clarion, Pennsylvania, not Punxsutawney, since Punxsy is kinda crappy, actually, compared to Clarion. Groundhog Day, the day, not the movie, is an enduring tradition involving drunkenness and rodent exploitation, like most traditions.

What does this have to do with the end of the world, you ask?

As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.
Song of Solomon 2:2

We must interpret carefully this perplexing text on Groundhog Day. As always, reading it in the context of Revelation is helpful.

I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
Revelation 2:2

You see? It's odd, until you probe a little deeper.

The lily, thorns, love, and daughters part has a pretty direct meaning, as I'm sure is clear. It's about boinking, and spring, which is, of course, the season of boinking. Groundhog Day is the day that Punxsutawney Phil interprets the omens only he can, in order to determine when spring will arrive. Hence the relevance of the season of boinking line from Song of Solomon.

The verse from Revelation is the pickle. To whom is this addressed? That is, who is "thy"? What are "thy labor" and "thy patience"?

Let's be clear about this: Punxsutawney Phil is an innocent groundhog, who is ceremoniously yanked from a tree trunk at the ass-crack of dawn in godforsaken Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on the second of February in the midst of a couple thousand college students in the tenth hour of a drunken binge, hoisted aloft by twerps in top hats, and then stuffed back in the tree. If anybody labors patiently, it's Punxsutawney Phil.


Plus, think of the labor he is thus required to perform: he looks for his shadow, among this mayhem (sometimes empty bottles are thrown), and, I can tell you from having seen the spectacle, he's very, very afraid! He can't bear them evil drunken hooligans. (I have always been concerned about Phil's little ears. The crowds are terribly loud.) It is therefore obvious that the "thy" referred to in Revelation is Punxsutawney Phil.

What this tells us is that Phil will tell us whether the end of days (read: the season of boinking) will be delayed six weeks. As a result, I must hold in abeyance my further information about that date and the circumstances of the final and ultimate end of all ends. For now, it's all in Phil's hands paws.