Sunday, August 17, 2008

Guinea Pig Me

Note: Only diehard Buckminster Fuller fans would get the joke of this title. Buckminster Fuller (the guy who invented the geodesic dome), gave himself the name "Guinea Pig B", to signify that his life was an experiment.

Before I opened the laptop to write this entry, I thought something along those lines. Realizing that my mind was filled with depressed and irrational thoughts, I immediately thought that I ought to put down the book I've been reading voraciously (as if the mere idea of stopping reading would free my mind to grasp onto the continuous tidal rush of negativity) and instead, write.

Why? Oh, not to get the thoughts "out", for long ago I came to believe that this notion was junk psychology, based on equating bad thoughts with demons, and the act of writing as a sort of exorcism. No, writing it out, I came to discover, was only giving more credence to the mistake of believing in the reality of the thoughts the depressed mind creates.

Writing for the sake of exposing the irrationality is a different concept, one that I do think is useful. And so, as the "guinea pig" of this blog, I offer up myself as an example of depression in action. Believing the stories that the depressed mind weaves (and does such an impressive job of), is as ridiculous as believing the thoughts one has when very stoned are the "the truth". Anyone who's ever smoked some pot can attest to the change of perspective that that drug gives one. For some, it's heaven, and for others (like myself) it's more akin to hell.

When I was a teenager, and smoking pot was as common as having a beer for teenagers (at least where I lived), I would smoke when offered. I would always have the sense of altered reality, and one that was not too friendly. I suspected (and am probably correct) that this is because I was basically a depressed and anxiety ridden person and when my guard was down, as pot disinhibited me (as did alcohol), I would fall into the clutches, so to speak, of my worst thoughts and fears. And so, after a stint of believing R.D.Laing's theories that using psychedelic drugs to induce negative and psychotic states would hasten the recovery of a mentally disturbed person, I stopped. Mind you, for a while, I did believe (and probably misinterpret) Laing's theories. It was immensely destructive for my young mind. I was engaged in a daily battle of trying to discern what the "true reality" was, and not in some grand way, but in a debilitating way, one that stymied my intellectual and psycho-social growth by keeping me in a perpetual state of existential fear and questioning.

That the time period (the mid-70's) seemed to promote this state of being, considering it something of a rite of passage for a young quasi-intellectual, did me no favors. At the age of fifteen, I needed to be learning how to be in the real world much more than I needed to be wrestling with phoney demons created by psychotropic drugs.

I certainly didn't expect to be writing about my early use of mind altering substances when I sat down to write. But it seems fitting. Though his conclusions were wrong, R.D.Laing was correct in seeing the similarity between psychotropic drug induced states and mental illness. Thinking that by inducing that thought-state and then acting out in a safe environment was the poor conclusion, and I'd say it's close, once again, to a notion of casting out demons. Even in our present day, the ancient belief that illness is a kind of evil within us that can be purged through ritual is still pervasive.

I stopped for a moment to plug in my laptop, and in that moment thought, "oh, you're evading what you came to write about by intellectualizing." I am going to disagree with this notion, too, as one that is junk psychology. There is absolutely nothing wrong with stepping back from irrational thoughts and spending a bit of time "intellectualizing". The amount of power we give to our emotionality is too large, I'd say.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not "for" stuffing feelings. I'm only saying that, perhaps, we give them way too much weight, when they are terribly transient and subject to mood and circumstance, especially for those of us who are prone to depression and anxiety. Learning to give these passing moods of thought (or thoughts of mood) less power over us is a good thing. Dismissing them out of hand is probably not the best idea, for there may indeed be kernals of truth amongst the onslaught of negative thoughts, but to buy all ones' emotional responses, hook , line and sinker, well, I don't think it's the best idea. I have been in therapy for a long time, and truthfully, I don't really think that spending an hour letting it all hang out has ever done me a bit of good.

You may be asking, "Hey, what's your point?! And what about the guinea pig thing?!"

(Well, maybe I was asking myself that.)

Here's the deal. I woke up at 9:00am this morning with a nasty headache and decided to go back to sleep. I re-awoke at 1 in the afternoon. It's a beautiful day, the kind of day, if I was a vacationer here in Maine, that would probably cause me to say something like "aren't we lucky to be up here on such a fine day?" But no, I'm sitting inside, in a semi-dark room, alternating between sleeping and reading a book (for dear life, as I've said).

If there are birds to appreciate, I'd not seen any. I look out at my garden, which is in disarray, but also past any peak flowering, and only see the disarray. I can hear the cicadas and crickets, but the sound of cars and those wretched motorcycles without mufflers is what my mind is focusing on. My foot hurts. I feel bloated, fat and ugly. I could go on, but the point is this: I am unable to experience anything as fine, from bodily sensations to observations of what's outside me. If this isn't a portrait of depression, I don't know what is.

I left out the absolute inability to conjure the energy to do even the simplest tasks. I washed the dishes earlier and it took nearly everything out of me (but I am forgetting how painful it is to stand up on my foot that has its mystery problem).

Another thing that I'm wondering is if my brain (or anyone else's who has depression) can not tell the difference between illness and depression. They can feel and look almost the same. And I know from my personal history, that the majority (if not all?) of my depressions were preceded by illness. Some would say that the depression caused the physical problem, but I would argue with them, and argue hard. But I will say this, once the two become intertwined, it is a vicious cycle.

I was surprised to be so depressed today. Last night I had a fine time with a friend, enjoying a nice barbecue and interesting conversation. I can be distracted, and here's where living in an isolated area plays a terrible role in perpetuating any bad mood that I may be in. I haven't left the house for anything but trips to the doctor or hospital for a week. And in that time, I have gone from being in pain but in a good mood to being in pain and utterly miserable, bordering on non-functional.

I know if I had just pushed myself to do a bit more, get out of the house at least once for an activity that would have distracted me, I would be feeling better. But when it's at least a half an hour to the nearest activity, it's hard. I missed a visit with friends that would have been fun - it was a given that I wouldn't go because I could not take a walk on the rocky shore line and my energy was down. But really, why did I have to stay home? Just because I couldn't participate 100%? That in itself is a good question to ask myself and others, for perhaps there is just not any leeway given to those of us who can't participate fully. It reminds me of being a shy kid, in a way - it's just not okay to sit by the sidelines and watch, or sit by the sidelines and read a book, participating when one feels like it. It almost seems "unamerican".

Ah, though we are a car culture, we are a culture of being Full of Energy! If you're not, what the hell is wrong with you? Take a pill! There's a pill for all your problems. Why don't they work for you? What's the problem? Find another pill, for chrissakes! Get yourself fixed up! Otherwise, stay home 'cause we don't want you at our party. And quit whining: other people are living in shacks and they aren't whining (oh, are you sure about that?)

Did I get to the guinea pig thing? Perhaps not. This has been a long rant (and I'm leaving it be, in spite of a desire to delete the whole thing). What am I trying to show others (and myself)?

The answer: that the same person who can write about the beauty of a songbird on Monday, the same person who feels transcendent and nearly one with the universe on a Tuesday, can be nearly suicidally depressed by a Sunday, and who knows what tomorrow may bring.

All I can do is learn to watch the clouds of emotionality float by without attaching too much meaning to them. Sure, there's much about my life that isn't ideal by any stretch of the imagination, but it's true that it could be far worse (far worse!) and that there's plenty to enjoy and be grateful for. Right now I'm not feeling the good things, only the bad, but I am grateful for the opportunity to write about all this. I don't know what my point really is. It's many things - the transience of mood, the fact that things don't stay the same (unless you let them) and the idea that "feelings aren't facts" (which I think is true a good deal of the time, though I tend to loathe AA expressions).

And with that, I'll end this, and return to my book (Susan Jacoby's "The Age of American Unreason").

Photo note: Under this photograph, are these words: "Welcome to University of Michigan Research Study Database, codename "Guinea Pigs," a great place to find test subjects or to become a professional guinea pig."

When I was in college, I knew a number of people who made money being guinea pigs. Across the street from the main building of my school was an office where one could get hooked up with all sorts of studies, from ones where they infected you with upper respiratory infections (which I remember because I almost participated in this one) to pain research. A friend of mine did the latter, where he received somewhere around a thousand dollars to allow researchers to attach electrodes on him that caused pain. He said that it was a flawed experiment, for one could say "stop" at any point that one felt it was too much pain. His implication is that any sane person would cheat, in a way, saying stop before they felt anything, but as he was who he was, he did wait until he found it unbearable. And me being who I was, I was sorry I hadn't heard about this in time to participate.

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