Freedom to Hurt
On pain and its liberation
There’s a scene from The Wire that has stuck with me since I first saw it. Well, more than one actually, but the one I’m thinking about right now is when a character who goes by “Bubbles” is meeting with his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor. The sponsor, played by Steve Earle, tells Bubbles that quitting drugs is the easy part, but that after that “comes life.”
I thought about naming this post something more maudlin like “addicted to suffering,” and while I obviously didn’t, this doesn’t mean that’s untrue. There’s a real appeal to feeling like you’re at the bottom, like you couldn’t possible feel worse than you do. So much of pain is a result of the change from a previous state rather than the sensation itself; in other words, it’s the relativity of it all. So it is that if you feel like things couldn’t possibly get any worse, there’s a certain security there, a freedom. After all, what consequences could any decision actually have at that point? You’re already miserable, and after a certain point you reach your capacity for despair and don’t feel like any additional pain will even register.
The other side to this, and the one that makes recovery that much harder, is that feeling better is scary. Suddenly, you have something to lose, a way to fall again. I know for myself, this made me embrace my own unhappiness and cling to it like a child’s security blanket — it was something I could wrap myself in and feel safe in a strange way. There’s also an intensity of feeling that you get that makes you feel alive in a way that mere contentment can’t really match, especially if you don’t know how to view it.
Another scene from the same sponsor character I mentioned before also comes to mind; a couple of times, actually, he refers to someone needing to become “tired” before they’re willing to confront their addiction. That was how it was for me and depression — I avoided drugs and only kinda-sorta engaged with counseling until one winter I realized things were getting really bad. And it wasn’t that I was somehow less happy than before, but I recognized all of a sudden how much energy it was taking me to keep up basic functioning, and how little I had left. Meanwhile, I was a spouse and parent, and on some level I realized that I couldn’t let myself completely fall apart. This took some doing, as I’ve always been very good at downplaying (even if not especially to myself) the severity of my own conditions.
So I finally decided to get on antidepressants. It took a couple tries to find a regimen that did anything, and this was while trying to manage my ADHD as well. Even now, I’m pretty sure the reason I feel tired in the morning no matter how much I sleep is due to one of the meds I’m on, and while I may see about lowering the dosage a tad, it’s still better than the alternative. Caffeine also helps, as do the stimulants I’m on for ADHD.
The down side to stimulants is they metabolize a lot faster. It’s not like an antidepressant where they work all the time as long as you continue to take them; I burn through stimulants in a few hours.
When they’re working is when I feel most like myself. Suddenly doing things doesn’t feel pointless, and I can really focus and dig into whatever it is that I’ve decided to do. I can pay attention at a basic level to anything I want, and it’s no longer a roll of the dice as to whether something will engage me. I can actually finish what I start, and more significantly, continue something I’d started previously. Suddenly I don’t have to do something in one sitting or bust.
But all this is a double-edged sword, since it makes living without stimulants that much harder. Suddenly I have something to compare that feeling to, and it’s harder to adjust as a result. Plus the improvement in depression makes my ADHD more noticeable, since there’s not this weight on my mind all the time that suppresses anything and everything in its path. The best analogy I can use for the neurotypical reader is how you feel in the morning without caffeine, and now imagine that that feeling comes back when your coffee or whatever wears off. Only worse.
It could always be worse, of course. But I need to give myself some room to be displeased with it; the person with one broken leg is better off than the person with two broken legs, but they’re still not fully healthy. Still, I never know quite where the line is. More importantly, I don’t know at what point feeling sorry for myself stops being cathartic and starts getting in the way of actually living. It also starts to get dangerously close to those feelings of settling that I’ve written about before.
Perhaps more importantly, though, I don’t want to be so focused on what I can’t do. Part of the process of dealing with this is just accepting that, for example, there are certain jobs that I may be objectively smart enough to do (for example) but that my mental conditions would make unrealistic. For example, I would make a lousy psychologist, since I wouldn’t really be able to pay attention to what my patients were telling me half the time. I don’t feel like I’m missing out in any meaningful way, but this is a pretty new thought nonetheless. It never would’ve occurred to me a year ago that there were things that I couldn’t do. It’s interesting, then, that giving up is actually a form of progress in this instance, rather than being something to hide behind. I suppose it all comes down to the why?
Of course, “why?” is a much harder question to answer most of the time. It all gets very existential, the only satisfying answer to which is “because.” This is my interpretation, at least, of what Camus meant in his Myth of Sisyphus. He suggests that even Sisyphus could find meaning in his existence by choosing it himself (Camus rejects any “objective” or external source of meaning for one’s life). Of course, one of the things ADHD does is make me have a very difficult time with open-ended questions. I always hated those assignments in school where we had to write an essay on whatever topic we wanted, because it was extraordinarily difficult for me to narrow “anything” down to something more manageable. So it is that trying to find an arbitrary source for meaning, even if it’s the only way, hasn’t been fruitful.
Of course, a lot of this search for a “why” presumes a lot more data than we can ever hope to have. All of us cause ripples in the world, but we can’t see where they go (or the others they interact with) any more than the rock thrown into the pond. I’m reminded of an old Zen poem:
Scarecrow in the hillock
Paddy field —
How unaware! How useful!
In other words, the scarecrow doesn’t know that it’s serving a purpose, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t serving one. Knowledge isn’t a pre-requisite of purpose, as frustrating as that can be sometimes.
Of course, knowing why I can’t do something requires knowing that I can’t do it, something I was blissfully ignorant of before. Yet somehow this doesn’t bother me. My only guess is that it’s because I recognize that knowing I can’t do something isn’t the reason I can’t do it; that is to say that I couldn’t do these things whether I’m aware of that fact or not.
Still, it’s hard sometimes to let go of this idea of doing something Majorly Important, even if I don’t understand what that actually means. I also haven’t lived all of my life yet (hopefully), so who’s to say what I’ll accomplish in the future? But now we’re back to the problem of open-ended questions: if I could pick anything to accomplish in my short time on this earth, how do I choose out of near infinite possibilities?
One of the thoughts that keeps me up at night is being on my death bed and feeling like I’ve wasted my time on this Earth. I can hope that I’ll be sufficiently satisfied at having been a decent partner and parent, at least, and maybe that’ll be enough. But I do know that I won’t wish I’d given more time to the Bureaucracy, even if that is what keeps a roof over my head. There is definitely an “enough” there, even if it’s higher than I would prefer.
How will I look back on things like this, things that I do just because? In addition to blogging, I’m also a translator, but have rarely been published. I mostly do it because it’s interesting, and maybe that’s enough. I have no idea how I’ll feel about it in however many years; maybe it’ll be satisfying to know I finished some things or maybe I’ll feel like it was a waste of time. How could I know? And maybe that’s the real answer: there’s no way to know how the me of the future will view certain things. I certainly don’t regret the time I’ve spent on writing and translating so far, and if anything wish I’d done more of it. There’s also an inherent optimism to this question, of course; it presumes that I’ll be happy enough in my future life to notice a few regrets here and there. Maybe that’s a good problem to have.