Monthly Archives: September 2013

Fending Off the Black Dog

I can feel it coming on. Most years, it comes around the end of September. I fall into even poorer dietary habits than usual, and pizza, cereal, and ice cream become my mainstays. I have to push myself more to socialize. I run out of energy even if I feel like I’m in a good mood.

And there’s the trick. One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is that I can think I’m in a good mood when I’m not. I can be happy with some of the more peripheral things in my life–like school or chorus–but still have a deep-seated discontent.

And right now there’s plenty of reason for deep-seated discontent. It really all began a couple of months ago, when I turned 39. Now, I don’t buy into this silly game of being ashamed of how old you are. You should be proud to be a survivor. But, as my hair falls out more and my joints betray me more often and my metabolism disappears, I’m acutely aware that I am middle-aged, and that, unlike in my twenties, I cannot take anything about my future for granted.

It was right around my birthday that I got word that a friend of mine had died. We weren’t really close but we weren’t just nodding acquaintances either. Her death has haunted me these past two months. I don’t think I’m thinking about her any more often than I did before, but now I have to stop and remind myself that she is no longer alive. All the good things I’d hoped to see her do will never come to pass. My next time to see her in class or on the bus or what have you will never come.

All of this transpired not long after I had come to the realization that I am now an atheist. It was a long time coming. For most of my Christian experience I had grave doubts about the existence of God, but I could not express or explore those doubts because of the culture I found myself in. It all came about bit by bit. I left evangelicalism because I was expected to do the impossible and punished when I was unable to do so. I left Christianity when I realized that the narrative of Jesus didn’t make much sense. But the exit from theism was more gradual. When I identified as an agnostic, I explained that it wasn’t really that I wasn’t sure about the existence of God. It was more that there were days I believed there was a God and days that I didn’t. And as time wore on, the days I didn’t grew more common, when one day I realized that I couldn’t remember when exactly was the last day I believed in God.

So I’ve been adjusting to a new paradigm, which is never easy for anyone–even and especially if they tell you otherwise. And, as my thoughts, for all the reasons above, have drifted to the nature of mortality, I’ve had to understand what that looks like, in a very literal sense. In the past, I could picture what existence after death looked like. And that picture changed over time, but it was always there. Now, it is like a friend of mine who was born without eyes. The best that I can imagine what the world is like for him is that he sees nothing but black. But this is not the case at all. My friend sees nothing, and this is impossible for me to grasp. So it is now with death.

Now, this is not to say it’s an impossible concept. The majority of people can assent to the idea that the world existed before they became conscious of themselves and the world around them, that there was a time and place that there was no “me”. And of the remainder who do believe they existed before they were conceived, most will still state that there is no way for them to mentally access a perception of the world before their present existence. And so, I can conceive that existence after I die is just like existence before I was conceived (or was born, or became self-conscious, take your pick).

But just because I can conceptualize this idea, however abstractly, doesn’t mean it is at all comfortable. In fact, I find the whole affair depressing. And I’m learning to cope. And I’m arranging some therapy.

But this round of depression isn’t solely influenced by such morbidity. There is also the sorry state of American politics. Right now, the House of Representatives is quite willing to throw most of us under the truck because it best suits their own interests. And the lower you are in the socioeconomic pile, the more screwed you’re going to get. And I’m pretty low in the pile.

We’re facing a federal-government shutdown come October 1. Now, I remember going through a government shutdown once or twice in my life (I’m not bothering to Google for the dates). And the shutdowns were just for a few days, and the only thing you really noticed was that you didn’t get any mail for three or four days. Then Congress resolved their issues and it was back to business as usual. But the two parties (oh, don’t even get me started on the impracticality of a two-party system) are much further apart now than they were ten or fifteen years ago. I anticipate that this shutdown is going to last a long time. Even as it is, the current sequestration is seriously damaging the United States. Our research labs are having to lay off scientists. Wildfires rage as the fire service can’t provide adequate containment. Preschoolers have lost educational enrichment at a crucial point in their lives. And that’s just for starters.

I’m having to scramble, coming up with alternative plans for finishing my degree, for work and for housing. Twice I’ve had to leave my undergraduate studies because of financial issues outside my control, and I will not allow that to happen a third time. I tire of always scrambling, yet it’s almost all I’ve known.

And so comes the black dog (what Winston Churchill called depression), not because of some quirk in our orbit around the sun (for the record, I’m not diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, but with major depression), but because of factors outside my control.

Sit! Stay! From Cynr via Flickr.

Now I have to soldier on. I have to keep appointments and visit friends and keep up on chores and so many other things, regardless of how little energy I have, regardless of how much it physically hurts to do these things. Because if I don’t, I could fall into a deep vortex. I have been at the bottom of that vortex before, though it’s been awhile. I’ve worked really hard to stay out of it, and I will not allow myself to go there again.

Edited 17 Dec 13: I inadvertently attributed a quote of Winston Churchill to C.S. Lewis. My apologies for not double-checking.

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Update: Out of Order

A month ago, I posted about the plight of my friends Claire, Brian, Alexis, and Ethan Robertson*, and how the way the System as it currently operates in America undermines the ability of hardworking citizens to provide for themselves in the event that the least little thing goes wrong. And the Robertsons have had more than their fair share of things to go wrong.

Well, things have just got a hell of a lot worse.  In the past two weeks, Ethan has lost all of his disability income. This is an innocent nine-year-old boy who suffers severe autism and requires twenty-four-hour supervision. And to top it all off, Alexis has lost her medical insurance, as well. The argument is apparently that, now that she has turned 18, her $3,000-per-*year* income is sufficient for her own treatment of autism, depression, and various other disorders. Even if she had the enormous amount of money to pay for private insurance, she would be turned down, because the president’s health-care reforms are not in effect yet, and she would be denied because she has “pre-existing conditions“.

I can’t even begin to quantify just how much this pissed me off–and I’m not even directly affected. Can you imagine what it’s like to be in the Robertsons’ shoes? If you can’t, then you’d better have good insurance, because you are in dire need of a heart transplant.

I may not be able to quantify it, but I can sure as hell depict it. Photo by Troy C. Boucher Photography

Someone commented to my prior post, “I wish there was something I could do.’ And I passed on to her the same encouragement I pass on to all of you:

Quit being satisfied. Get angry. Do something with that anger. Fight tooth and nail with anyone who dares presume that the answer to poverty is “get a job”. Such an argument suffers from Tinman-Scarecrow Syndrome: no brain and no heart. Demolish any argument not founded on compassion. Listen. Listen to other people’s stories. Not “my cousin Jimmy knows this one guy who knows this one guy who…” stories. Take them straight from the horse’s mouth. Don’t presume to know people you don’t actually know. Remember what your parents taught you–don’t judge a man till you’ve walked a mile his shoes. And if your parents didn’t teach you that, then it’s up to you to make up for their deficit and get that lesson in your head and heart. Impart good values to your children and your grandchildren. If you don’t have children or grandchildren, then it’s your responsibility to impart good values to those who can pass them on to their children and grandchildren. Work to build a society where a man is not punished for circumstances beyond his control.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

Keeping Up Appearances (of a Good Night’s Sleep)

I haven’t been about on the blog the past few weeks because I’ve been charging head on into my final year of undergraduate study. (Today marks the beginning of my fourth week.) I describe my time as going to school, working on schoolwork, and recovering from school and schoolwork.

At the exact moment, I find myself awake in the middle of the night after about four hours’ sleep. At one time, this would have panicked me, as I struggle with a circadian-rhythm disorder. But then, several months back, I learnt of the discovery of first sleep and second sleep. It appears that, when humans live apart from electricity, it is quite natural for them to awake for about an hour in the middle of the night. When we who live high-tech do the same, it is a matter of the body seeking to return to what is more natural. So now I’ve learnt not to panic, and to spend the hour relaxing.

And at this exact moment, I am relaxing in much the same way as I have been unwinding from studies lately: by watching British panel shows and sitcoms. I am at present working my way through Keeping Up Appearances, one of my all-time favorites. The show, in its pitch-perfect performances and skewering of class consciousness, truly is one of the greats of British television.

What do you watch late at night? Photo by Kevin Simpson via Flickr.

I realized tonight another part of its genius. The main character, Hyacinth Bucket (which she insists upon pronouncing “bouquet”) is a punctilious, obsessive social climber who makes all around her miserable in her attempts to show herself of a higher class than that to which she belongs. It would have been so tempting to leave the character at that, and if the writers had done so, the show would have fallen completely flat. But the writers wisely gave her one redeeming characteristic: Her sisters look up to her, and routinely call upon her to come to the rescue when things go awry in her lives, and in her love and devotion, she comes through–however reluctantly, and with hilarious results.

Patricia Routledge‘s character has an American parallel in Archie Bunker. The main character of All in the Family was ten times as prejudiced as Hyacinth, yet the writers gave actor Carroll O’Connor moments of great pathos and tenderness. And Archie’s views evolve, if ever so slowly.

Both of these hallmarks of television point out that three-dimensional, realistic characters are key to even the most over-the-top comedies. If a character is wonderful, give him some awful trait. If a holy terror, give him a redeeming quality. Every writer should bear this in mind.