the storm (2014)Apr 22, 2014
"It’s better to burn out than to fade away," Kurt Cobain wrote in his suicide note, quoting a Neil Young Song. It isn’t, really, but it’s an incredibly attractive idea to the depressed. I’d rather go out like a supernova than a black hole, was my formulation of what is pretty much the same idea.
The single most accurate description of depression is perhaps—yes, indeed, I’m fucking going there—David Foster Wallace’s short story The Depressed Person. The titular person is a woman so utterly consumed with her own emotional pain that she completely lacks empathy for others—she cannot see her therapist, who will over the course of the story commit suicide, or her terminally ill friend as real people with their own stories, emotions, joys and sorrows and pains. Depression has made her what society would probably term “a narcissistic asshole.” She is an utterly unlikeable person, and she also believes this herself but fails to see completely how and why that is. To a person who has not experienced clinical depression, I suppose she is an asshole. And yet I like and identify with her.
To me, demanding empathy of a person so utterly consumed by their own pain is like asking a person lying between life and death at a hospital after a potentially fatal accident, bones shattered, to think of the poor children in Africa. Such a person is in so much pain that they become absolutely solipsistic—all that exists for them is their own pain. And yet obviously the reaction of others to this selfish assholishness is absolutely understandable, and it is something the depressed person halfway senses and therefore spirals further down. Frantically overloading her Support System—the clinical term Wallace’s fictional therapist invents to describe, basically, her friends, insofar as she has any real friends—with her own whining, she is consumed with emotional diarrhea. So consumed by her own pain is she, she can’t stop herself from being that person, and when she senses this, she only becomes more absorbed by the pain.
I can painfully recognize in myself these lines:
The feelings of shame and inadequacy the depressed person experienced about calling members of her Support System long-distance late at night and burdening them with her clumsy attempts to describe at least the contextual texture of her emotional agony were an issue on which she and her therapist were currently doing a great deal of work in their time together.
The depressed person confessed that when whatever supportive friend she was sharing with finally confessed that she (i.e., the friend) was dreadfully sorry but there was no helping it she absolutely had to get off the telephone, and had verbally detached the depressed person’s needy fingers from her pantcuff and returned to the demands of her full, vibrant long-distance life, the depressed person always sat there listening to the empty apian drone of the dial tone feeling even more isolated and inadequate and unempathized–with than she had before she’d called. The depressed person confessed to her therapist that when she reached out long-distance to a member of her Support System she almost always imagined that she could detect, in the friend’s increasingly long silences and/or repetitions of encouraging cliches, the boredom and abstract guilt people always feel when someone is clinging to them and being a joyless burden. The depressed person confessed that she could well imagine each “friend” wincing now when the telephone rang late at night, or during the conversation looking impatiently at the clock or directing silent gestures and facial expressions communicating her boredom and frustration and helpless entrapment to all the other people in the room with her, the expressive gestures becoming more desperate and extreme as the depressed person went on and on and on.
Text messages and Facebook chat have replaced late-night phone calls, but the issue is the same. The story, which deliberately overwhelms the reader by pounding the tragicomic pathetic qualities of the nameless depressed person into the reader, ends with the protagonist demanding, essentially, that her terminally ill “friend”—all her “friends”, all her Support System is something she secretly fears are a collection of characters who secretly loathe her but somehow tolerate her whining due to some sense of pity—tell her in detail what a terrible person she is.
And looking over my text and chat logs, here I sit, alone on a Saturday night, I recognize that all too well. But what the depressed person can’t see is that the way out of the self-conscious, solipsistic hell she is in lies in two simple things: first, she must somehow redirect her attention outwards, so that the pain fades away long enough for her to become a real human being with empathetic qualities, and second, that she must somehow let go of the fear that whatever person she burdens with her presence secretly loathes her and only tolerates her out of some sense of obligation—the latter, partially, by actually becoming A Real Person again, a person who is not a bore because they actually bring something to the table which is not simply a relentless focus on their own pain.
Both things are extremely hard, but extremely important. The temptation encapsulated by Cobain’s letter is to go the other way—in an attempt to redirect rather than deal with and make the pain away, turn the pain into pleasure. Rather than become an emotional black hole, to become a fiery hedonistic comet consuming and taking part in everything at once, drugs, sex, crime. To self-destruct gloriously, to go out blazing. Wallace didn’t go out blazing: he faded away and hanged himself. Cobain went the other way, with a shotgun and heroin and valium. The short story leaves the depressed person there, still alive, still desperately and pathetically attempting and failing to suck emotional energy out of her dying confidante.
The way to become A Real Person with both likable and empathetic qualities is to avoid either, to avoid both fading away and burning out. Sometimes, it seems easy. Other times, such as now, here I sit alone, remembering my attempts both at fading away and burning out—I have never attempted suicide, only vacillated between the two forms of self-destruction, the quiet solipsism and the loud hedonism—it seems awfully, terribly hard. I sit here looking at myself somewhat objectively as an accomplished, witty, engaging artist and writer with a score of followers on social media—and I see not A Real Person, but a fraud.
But this is hardly a public suicide note. I am not, in actual fact, a fraud. In actual fact, I am A Real Person convinced that I’m not. And so my attempt is to realize this by lying to myself until the lie becomes real, because the lie is real, it is a lie I can believe intellectually but have trouble accepting on an emotional level. And that is the sort of emotional failure that leads to the black hole—to the tragicomic depressed person so self-absorbed by pain as to become what she fears she is: a fraud, a drain, a bore, a black hole.
Some people find writing therapeutic. I’m not sure if I’m one of them. Perhaps it is because I don’t believe that thoughts are language; I don’t believe that, when I think I’m worthless, the words “I’m worthless” pop into my head. The thought happens on a much more primal level. And so while writing definitely requires sharper attention, it is not in itself the same as thought. And if it is not, then writing through an issue doesn’t necessarily think and process and finally, disassemble and eliminate the issue.
That doesn’t make writing worthless. Writing is communication, and good writing requires an attempt at making a sort of empathetic connection with the reader. One must anticipate, and therefore empathize, with the reader in order to communicate properly and eloquently what one has thought, and that is exactly the sort of exercise required to become A Real Person. To live the lie until it’s real.
There is no Nirvana. There never was. There is only life.
Yesterday, I was A Real Person and it went fine. Why not tonight?Apr 5, 2014
It’s the little things in life, no? How many people noticed this in a busy train station?Apr 2, 2014
Self portrait (broken mirror), March 2014Mar 31, 2014
Reinhard, a random guy I met at a bar. He works as a plumber.
Still getting over my fear of photographing strangers. He was nice. Nice light, too.Mar 31, 2014
osloMar 31, 2014