I’ll start with an apology. The last blog I posted was the low point for this blog so far. That was a real dick move. I’ve been working on this post for almost a month now, and I found myself with a peculiar combination of something I felt I needed to say and a complete lack of motivation to say it. This is due, in part, to my tinkering with my medication.
I hope at least a few of you have cracked Breakfast of Champions over the past few days. It’s premise has a lot to do with this post, and a lot to do with mental illness.
In it, an otherwise harmlessly mentally ill man is driven on a violent rampage because he reads a science fiction book and takes its message literally. The message is this: he is the only human being on earth with free will and feelings. Everyone else is something like a robot made of meat, doing the things they do purely to stimulate him. The Creator of the Universe just wants to see how HE will react to them, what HE will do next. Everyone else is a prop. Everyone else is doing what they must do as a matter of course.
(Incidentally, the first time I read the book, I missed the glaringly obvious social commentary on the selfishness, bordering on sociopathy, of modern America.)
The author also wryly inserts himself as a character in his own book. He is the Creator of the Universe and everyone else is a prop. It’s beautifully symmetrical.
He (also wryly) refers to himself as a writing machine. When he writes well, he is a writing machine in good working order. When he writes badly, he is a writing machine in bad working order.
He speaks, too, about his own depression. Among other gems, he describes it as follows:
“This much I knew and know: I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbors believed.”
“When I get depressed, I take a little pill, and I cheer up again.”
“I was sick for a while, though. I am better now.
Word of honor: I am better now.”
Sometimes I feel like an online poker machine.
Sometimes I feel like the first quote. Sometimes I feel like the second quote. Sometimes I feel like the third quote.
Then I go back to feeling like the first quote again.
I am thankful for the days when I am an online poker machine in good working order. It gives me something to do, a sense of purpose. I’m good at it. I can make enough money to feed myself, and my dog, and remove most of the obstacles in the way of me being comfortable.
I stopped taking some of my medicine. It made me feel groggy and unfocused. I haven’t been playing well the past couple of weeks. It seems both perfectly reasonable and perfectly ridiculous to me to stop taking anti-depressants because they affect how well I can play poker.
It is ridiculous that so much of my sanity, self esteem, and psychological safety is wrapped up in a zero-sum game, and that when it goes poorly, so do all of those things.
But it’s also true.
For as long as I can remember, I have not liked myself, and I have expected other people not to like me.
I spent most of my energy, from the time I was 12 on, trying to get better at measurable things, because the only way for me to feel good about myself was to have some objective way to determine that I was good. I was fortunately pretty smart and decently athletic. What really brought me success at competitive things, though, was what I thought was an outstanding work ethic. When I played hockey, I would never skip a day in the gym, and never turn down a chance to play. There were very few weeks during high school when I had less than 8 workouts a week. During the summer, I peaked at around 25.
This supposed work ethic wasn’t really work ethic at all. It took no discipline. I was able to approach hockey with single mindedness not because I was willing to give up on the other things that made life good, but because the things that should make life subjectively good for a teenager (women and light substance abuse, mostly) brought me no joy. I didn’t lose anything by giving them up.
After I quit hockey, I brought the same discipline to the gym and had moderate success with extreme single-mindedness again. I’m not a super-athletic guy but I am very bright. Once I found poker it was easy to give up everything else. I had no problem putting all of my energy into getting better, and I got very good very quickly. My self-esteem improved rapidly.
I didn’t get any happier.
That I am making decisions on my medication based on how useful I am, and not how happy I am, makes perfect sense in the context of the rest of my life. The fact that it makes perfect sense in context shows how batshit insane the context is.
Most people spend most of their time being machines of some sort or other. Most of the time, we are measured by others (and as a result, measure ourselves) based on our outputs. It starts with our first report card and continues through the working world.
Breakfast of Champions is a masterpiece on the absurdity of measuring people. The “spiritual climax” of the book, as Vonnegut puts it, comes when someone dares to question an irreproachable Olympic Gold medalist. Mary Alice Miller, the fictitious olympic swimmer whose father “taught [her] to swim when she was eight months old, and that he had made her swim at least four hours a day, every day, since she was three.”
In response to this tale of discipline, hard work, and the American Dream, an artist dares to ask “What kind of a man would turn his daughter into an outboard motor?”
He’s right. It’s ridiculous to turn a perfectly good human being into an outboard motor or a weightlifting machine or a range calculator. I have lived a ridiculous life. I have gotten very good at doing without getting any better at being.
I don’t think that this tendency is the sole propriety of the mentally ill, but depression sure does exacerbate things. I think if I focused on the tasks and the medicine that made me happiest, instead of “best” (whatever the hell that means), I would be much better off, and I think that’s true for a lot of people.
It’s going to take me a lot of hard work to change the habits I’ve had for so long. At least it’s a good time of year for new resolutions.