Since my last post, I went to a square dance weekend up in Vermont, came back to Boston, crashed for a night, then took the Amtrak back to New York on Monday morning. I went straight to work, and took the train from Penn Station to my office, which is in the Financial District.
It was the Monday before Thanksgiving. Our open office has four conference rooms and enough desks for thirty people. Three people showed up to the office that day, me included. Less than a typical Monday, where maybe five people would show up. It was, in many respects, a typical day of work, until around 4 PM, when I was wrest with sadness. I started thinking about how I missed being in Boston, missed working from a space with more than three people, how I missed people, so many people. I closed my laptop, packed my things, took the elevator down. The tears were coming. In Boston, I rarely went home alone. But that day I ate lunch alone, and sat on my desk alone, and the Slack channels were quieter than usual.
You can’t cry, I told myself. I walked out the building. I crossed the street. I was sniffling. I walked down the subway steps. I wiped tears from my eyes, fingers shaking, picking up my phone and holding it against the fare gates, walking, it’s rush hour; people are waiting for the train, I stare down on the floor, a reflex of shame perhaps. I’m taking the subway home, rather than riding a van with my friends going home from campus. I walk to the other end of the station. I’m crying. I’d be eating dinner alone that night. I’m muffling my own sobs. No one’s staring, right? My roommates are leaving for Thanksgiving, if they haven’t already left. Enter the train, head to the middle, stand. Grip a guard rail, arms raised up, lean my head against it, fighting the tears.
It’s a long ride.
Two years ago, I wrote Dissecting emotion. It was the summer after my sophomore year, the year when COVID turned everything remote. If you ask me what I think that post was about, I’d say it’s about paying enough attention to what you’re feeling, enough that you can describe it in a way others can understand, enough that you can give it a name.
A few weeks after that I wrote demons. I think these two posts are related, but not in the sense that they both talk about depression. In Dissecting emotion, the depressive feelings were lethargy, exhaustion, and grief. In demons, they were self-hate, anguish, and suicidality. Instead, I think these two posts are connected because both point out emotional patterns, and then give them a name.
After all, “to know the name of the demon is the first step in driving it out.” Saying that I had depression empowered me, like the trope of I know your true name! The feeling I’m experiencing, right now, is much like one I described in Dissecting emotion:
There’s the feeling of crying. It’s when tears form in your eyes. It can happen while you’re lying in bed, thinking about what could’ve happened in the past year had it been a “normal” year, rather than this stupid “new normal” one. You’re crying because you’re thinking of all the things you could’ve done, all the people you could’ve met. Weekly free food from ESP meetings, free shirts from career fair, baking cakes for your friends’ birthdays, playing tractor at three in the morning. This is grief.
And that’s what I’m feeling now. Grief. Grief for my undergraduate years, back in MIT, and all the rosy parts of it. Grieving because I’ve lost something precious. Not a person or an object or a place or a moment, but their combination. Because the people still exist, and I’m still friends with them, and we do things like eat meals and go on voice calls. And the objects still exist, like the board games we keep in the apartment, the shirts I’ve kept from career fairs past. And the places still exist; in fact, I was in MIT a few days ago, and the ESP office is still there, ET is still there.
And the moment? Well, the moment’s gone. But even if you brought the moment back, it wouldn’t be the same. Even if I was an undergrad for another year, it wouldn’t be the same, because people have graduated, objects have cycled out, places have been renovated. It’s all there, but it’s all different.
In my head the memories play on repeat, over and over, with the same people and the same objects in the same places, the same moments happening again and; again and; again and… Because constancy is sunshine and heat and light, as Spirit Island teaches us. Because “happiness is the longing for repetition,” as Kundera wrote in the Unbearable Lightness of Being; again and; again and; again and.
There’s this metaphor for grief that’s popular enough I’ve seen it on Facebook. It goes like this: grief is like a ball in a box. In the box is a button, and the button causes painful emotions. Grief bounces around in the box, uncontrollably, and when it hits the button, it causes pain, and hurt. At first, the ball is large, and the button gets pressed often. As time goes on, the ball gets smaller. Each time the button’s pressed, the pain isn’t any less intense. But as the ball gets smaller, the button gets pressed less and less often.
There’s this metaphor for chronic illness, spoon theory, that’s popular enough it has a Wikipedia page. It goes like this: spoons are a resource you use to do activities. Everything from taking a bath or getting dressed, to cooking for yourself or talking to others, costs some number of spoons. When you run out of spoons, you have no choice but to rest. People with certain disabilities have less spoons than others, and so they have to make choices about spending energy, choices that other people take for granted.
There’s this metaphor I’ve used to describe my depression, one I picked up from my parents, one my parents picked up from their church. It goes like this: having depression is like being possessed by a demon. The demon presses down, constantly, on your shoulders, like you’re carrying a backpack with a hundred rocks. The demon writes directly on your stream of consciousness: I have no friends, or there’s nothing to look forward to, or I hate myself. Sometimes, the demon shows you the myriad ways you can kill yourself. Jump from a bridge, jump off the roof, jump onto train tracks.
Flip the train of thought. Think about how these metaphors fall short. Like how grief isn’t only one ball bouncing around in a box. No one gets away with only losing one thing they care about. Though I already feel like I’ve lost so much, in the scale of things, it’s nothing; I’ve never even lost a loved one. I’m shocked that people can make it to twice my age, thrice my age, and more, still functional, while carrying many, many balls of grief inside them.
Or how spoons aren’t all interchangeable. Like how I have different sets of spoons to draw from when I do focused work, or when I talk to people, or when I play video games. Or how chronic illness is less about running out of energy, but moreso accumulating stress or fatigue. Like being stabbed with a fork. And once you get stabbed with enough forks you have to rest and take them out. (Some people have a whole cutlery theory set up.)
Or how, by casting my depression as a demon, I’m antagonizing it. I’m calling it something inherently evil, portraying it as something that needs to be exorcised. And while I’d never wish upon anyone the pain that I feel, sometimes I wonder if my depression serves a purpose in my life. Like there’s something my brain is trying to tell me, but the only way it knows how is to make me feel depressed.
Three weeks ago, while in Boston, I had dinner with Raymond, in Five Spices. It was two days after GPH had started, a project some friends and I had been working on for eight months. I put, what, hundreds of hours into this year’s GPH? And, while we got some (pretty fair) criticism, the majority of feedback was super positive. By all measures, I should’ve been happy with what we did; I should’ve accepted people’s praise and felt good.
Anyway, dinner. Raymond asked me how New York was; I told him I felt like I lost a lot of my close relationships. He said that some good relationships didn’t need constant activity, giving the example of his family:
Raymond: It’s not like I talk to my family every day, but I know that they care about me. That if I was ever in trouble, I know they’d be there for me. And that’s what makes me feel secure.
CJ: I, well, I don’t feel like I have anyone like that in my life.
CJ: Sure, people appreciate what I do, right? I do good work. I ran a lot of clubs when I was an undergrad. I worked on GPH for hundreds of hours, and got lots of praise for it. People write letters about all the cool things I’ve done. I’ve saved them, all of them, in a folder, on my laptop.
Raymond: But that’s different, though. It’s not unconditional.
CJ: I guess. I mean, there’s probably people who care about me, and not just what I do. I’m sure they exist. I’m sure if I got really sick or whatever there’d be people who’d come and take care of me.
CJ: But… it doesn’t feel like that’s true.
Raymond: Yeah. Maybe that’s why you save all those letters and stuff. Because you’re trying to convince yourself that people care about you.
CJ: That, yeah. That makes sense. It’s something I can kinda accept rationally, but I don’t feel that it’s true, you know?
Raymond: That’s like, trying to change your feelings though. Forcing yourself to feel something different never works. If I’m sad about something, I let myself feel the sadness, even if it’s irrational. Because that feeling exists in the first place, and that means something.
Emotions exist for a reason? I’ve heard that line before. The function of sadness is a signal to others that we need help. And I’m glad that, for example, my roommates see that I’m sad and ask me what’s wrong. But my instinct is to turn away. To shrivel, to withdraw, because:
What if nothing’s wrong? What if I’m attention-seeking?
What if something is wrong? What if I need attention?
What if I’m being overdramatic? What if I’m dwelling on my sadness?
What if I’m ignoring something I shouldn’t? What if sadness is a signal to myself that I need help?
What if others can’t help? What if this isn’t sadness? What if the function is different?
Let’s ask, then. Why do I feel so unappreciated? Why do I feel so unloved?
The easy answers come first. As a kid, I’d get good grades and win math contests and my parents would be happy, sure. But they never celebrated it in the way my classmates’ parents would. When I later had a crisis of faith, and eventually became an atheist, I knew I couldn’t tell my parents. Because I knew that their shelter, and my safety, was conditional on their approval. Armchair pscyhology, sure. But maybe that’s why all the approval in the world won’t make me feel better, because it’s not coming from my parents.
The tricky answers come next. Why do I feel so unloved? It’s because I’m not worthy of love, right? Because I don’t deserve to be loved. It’s not like I’ve given my love to others, for me to so selfishly ask for it myself. I have a thousand thousand acquaintances, but no one I’d sacrifice myself for, right? Or maybe I’m unappreciated because I keep chasing for appreciation. Nothing I do is out of care or passion; it’s all a shallow grab for attention, and that’s why I’ll never get it. I know that these things aren’t true. But why do they feel true? Rather: why is there some part of my mind that lights up when I think these thoughts, when I write them down?
Flip the question. Why is there a part of my mind that disagrees with these thoughts? Why does it disagree with that? Because CJ, part of you knows, that you are worthy of love. And that part of you says, that they’re sad that you’re feeling like this. And that part of you says, you’re wrong, CJ, there are people you’d take sacrifices for, and people you have sacrificed yourself for, in the past.
I listen to these parts of myself, talking like I’ve talked to them before. But it’s different, this time. It’s not a confrontation, this time. I don’t want to get rid of these parts, because there was a time in my life, years and years ago, when they were useful, and right, and helpful. And that time isn’t now.
Here’s a conflict.
On one side: Emotions have a reason they exist. Depression isn’t something you can ignore. I’ve gotta resolve my feelings by feeling them and integrating them.
On the other: My brain chemistry is bad. I don’t want to be depressed, so I’m taking bupropion and sertraline. The world is inherently random; not everything has a meaning, and sometimes things suck.
Quoting Mentopolis again:
Siobhan: I think one of the hardest things to learn, as a human, is that sometimes life is just really unfair, and it kinda has nothing to do with you.
Trapp: Yeah. I feel like we’re so addicted to narrative. Well of course we can derive meaning from this sequence of events that make a complete story.
Danielle: Sometimes you’re walking down the street and a bus hits you. How is that never gonna happen to you again?
Brennan: The idea that the bus hit you for a reason is, in a weird way, a comforting thought. The bus hit me for a reason, so I’m gonna find it, and then I can prevent it, and it’ll never happen again, because everything that happens to me is under my control. If anything bad ever happens, it’s because I did it to myself.
Depression is a demon possessing me, and can be resolved through kicking it out. Flip. Depression is a signal from my brain that something’s wrong, and can be resolved through fixing what’s wrong. Flip. Depression comes from a painful childhood, and can be resolved through emotional work. Flip. Depression is a random biochemical process, and can be resolved through medication. Flip.
Too reductive. You’re putting up strawmen. You know that none of these are true, and that all of these are true.
The question of why we cry when distressed has baffled evolutionists. Emotional tears are uniquely human. Most mammals have tear glands, but these exist purely to protect the eye against injury. No other species cries when it is distressed – not even our closest relative, the chimpanzee.
I’m back in the subway. The train leaves Fulton. Dark subway tunnels go past. I’m standing in the middle, sobbing. Warmth slips down my cheeks. The train slows. Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall. Doors open. People walk in.
It’s a voice, from behind me. I turn around. A woman. I step aside, still looking at the floor, still crying. She takes a seat. The train moves again.
I don’t know why I’m crying any more. I know why I started crying, I know I was sad about leaving Boston, and sad about coming back to New York, and mostly, sad about being alone again. That’s not what’s going through my head now. I’m thinking about what Raymond said, the other day, about feeling your feelings.
I breathe. The sobbing feels like helium, pulsing through my body with each breath, fighting the gravity of sadness.
The woman’s handing me something. I take it. It’s tissue. Eyes glance to her face. She’s mouthing something. My brain fills in words, words I can’t possibly know she intended. Words I want to hear nonetheless. You can cry.
It’s a long ride.