Where to Focus Attention (?)

There are a lot – and I mean a lot – of things in the world that vie for our attention on a daily basis. From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep (if we’re lucky enough to be able to sleep, what with everything grabbing for our attention), there are a million and one different foci demanding we consider them first, and if I’m honest, it can feel incredibly overwhelming at times.

For example, right now I’m writing a blog post, having spent around an hour pre-scheduling photo posts for the next couple of months. But here are a few of the things I could/should/would have been doing instead:

  • Clean the back yard
  • Go shopping
  • Write more of my novel
  • Finish the symphony I started four months ago
  • Spend time with my wife
  • Eat lunch
  • Have a shower
  • Read about racism
  • Read other blog posts
  • Read a book of any kind

And I could go on. There never seems to be enough time in the day to get everything done, and you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ll likely spend the rest of your life not doing things that you could have been doing instead of whatever you are doing at the moment.

This becomes an overwhelming mental burden, and comes with a great deal of guilt associated with the things you don’t actually manage to get done. When I was younger, I used to break down and often actually collapse in a pile on the floor, unable to cope with the demands of life, and totally incapacitated from the pressure of trying to decide what to do next. In fact, I’ve ended up building a life around the concept of actually just doing whatever I want to do, rather than worrying about what I might have to do, just to avoid this sense of crushing turmoil.

I don’t necessarily think this is a healthy way to look at life, but it’s the only way I can often make it through the day. I actually had a conversation about this (closer to an argument, if I’m being honest) with my son the other day, with respect to the different views my wife (his mother) and I have on this subject. My wife is the kind of person that just does; if something needs doing she’ll just get it done, regardless of whether there are things she might rather do instead. Perhaps to a fault herself – sometimes she’ll get so caught up in getting one thing done that she lets other things slide out of focus, even if they might have needed doing, too.

On the one hand, this mentality of doing what I want to do is what’s allowed me to write three fantasy novels and a YA novel whilst working a full-time job and dealing with depression, bipolar breaks and general mental ill-health; I’ve often spent a great deal of time writing that I could have been doing dishes, working in the yard, or any number of other inane – but important – tasks. On the other hand, it’s what’s led me to still not understand how to do my taxes, or keep my car clean and well-serviced, or check the sump pump in the basement before a storm.

And this is all relating to the little things in life – the things that we all have to do just to survive each and every day. Never mind the big things, like tackling social injustice and racism and misogyny and poverty in third-world countries; how can I possibly find a way to commit to acting on these kinds of things, when I can’t even remember to brush my teeth in the morning? There are things in the world – great big things – that give me great cause for concern, such as climate change and the deaths of hundreds of thousands from COVID-19, but dwelling on them seems a fruitless endeavor when I struggle to find clean socks because I never got around to doing my laundry. All that happens is I once again get overwhelmed, depressed, and end up wanting to sleep it all away.

I don’t know if there’s an easy answer to finding balance in this respect; after all, if we all spent our lives only doing what had to be done, we’d want to shoot ourselves out of tedium. Yet if everyone only ever did what that wanted to do, none of the actual important things in the world would ever get accomplished – like finding a vaccine for COVID-19, or putting a human being on Mars. (The US president seems to do what he wants all the time, and look where that got us.)

Of course, there are days that I feel better than others, where I can put aside the wants in favor of the musts; at the start of quarantine, I think I might have been going through a manic phase and was cooking every night, cleaning up after myself, getting my work done, blogging at the same time, and actually managing to balance all the things in life that I wanted and needed to do. But those phases never last (at least for me), and eventually I come around to a point again where I either just want to write or play video games, or else watch South Park and drink myself into oblivion.

Perhaps finding more a structure in life would help some; I know there are people who set aside time for their passions and hobbies, but after that time is up they return to the grindstone of work and chores. Something in me – something childish, perhaps – rebels against that notion, arguing that creative pursuits can’t be contained or boxed in; that when the inspiration strikes, you have to attend to it no matter what. In reality, of course, I recognize that most of the time inspiration doesn’t strike, and I end up just twiddling my thumbs waiting for something to come to me; wasted time that could’ve been spent productively, if not enjoyably.

Maybe the problem is that, after two-plus decades, I still don’t really want to be an adult. Adulting is hard, filled with inane tasks and boring, challenging responsibilities, and I’d much rather spend what time I might have on this earth enjoying life (ironic, I know, for someone plagued with depression). Whether that be writing, listening to good music, or just dozing in the middle of the day, I just can’t face the idea that if I did all the boring, important stuff, I wouldn’t have time left for the stupid, fun stuff.

How do you cope? How do you make time for what you enjoy doing, without it coming at the expense of what you know must get done? Or, like me, do you kind of just … not care?

Passing the Torch of Depression

It’s incredible, to an extent, to consider that my son is fifteen.

When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth as bedtime stories for him, he was a wide-eyed seven-year-old, in love the wonder of fantasy and the magical places stories can take you. When I first published Consolation in 2014, he was ten – old enough to understand the importance of such a feat, yet young enough to whole-heartedly believe that it could be a success.

And now, five years later, he is very much an adult. Not wholly – he hasn’t entirely mastered social interactions or handling money (something he’s unlikely to learn from me) – but enough so that to hear him speak, or read his writing, you could certainly be forgiven for thinking he’s at least ten years older than he actually is. He’s socially aware, intelligent beyond books, and able to hold a political conversation with evidence to support his stance.

But there’s something else that’s happening as he gets older, and it’s as disconcerting as it might be inevitable. He’s starting to show symptoms of depression.

I might be reading too much into it – after all, teenagers frequently fall into dark moods and monosyllabic interactions – but there are many of the hallmarks of depression in his behavior and attitude, and I don’t mean from a clinical perspective.

I mean from a personal one.

At fifteen, he’s beginning to behave exactly the way I did the year depression took me away forever. He’s moody, miserable, frequently uncommunicative, and denies that anything is wrong more or less all the time. He won’t talk to me about his feelings, about his relationships or friends, and I worry that he might be falling into the great void that I did at his age.

It’s so hard to talk to him, because it isn’t ever clear if he’s really listening, or taking my words to heart. I don’t have advice; I don’t have any good suggestions. All I have is a lifetime of experience with misery and depression, and the only thing I ever wanted for him was to not descend into that same abyss.

If I could let him know anything, it would be that most important of knowledges, the one thing I never knew or felt in my own youth: he’s not alone. I wish I could help him understand that he has a companion, he has support – he has someone who intimately understands what it feels like to hate yourself, to worry compulsively over someone you love, and to wish with all your heart that things could be somehow different; that you could return to the past of youthful abandon, or fast-forward to the future where all the heartache of youth is long-spent.

He has me.

If you’re out there; if you read this; please understand that I want you to know it’s okay to feel the way you do. It’s okay to feel sad, depressed and miserable. It’s okay to despise your life and wish it was different. It’s okay to dream about escape, to hope for love and to want to avoid talking to anyone because it’s embarrassing, painful and frustrating.

It’s totally okay to be you.

And furthermore, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I haven’t been as supportive as I could have been. I’m sorry I lie in bed while you do the dishes and clean the house. I’m sorry I’m a pathetic excuse for a parent who probably seems like a cruel taskmaster, pushing my own responsibilities on you because I can’t bear them myself.

And most of all, I’m sorry to have passed you this torch of depression. I hope dearly that I’m wrong; I hope that you can find a way to grow out of it, to find happiness and joy in life. Maybe you do, and you just hate me. Hell, I don’t even care if that’s the case.

But if you are suffering in the throes of despair, please, please understand that you can talk to me. I won’t judge; I won’t discipline. I won’t even speak, if you don’t want me to. I’ll just listen, and I promise at the end of it I won’t tell you to suck it up, or that ‘that’s life’; all I can say is I’m sorry, and I know what it’s like.

Truly – I know what it’s like.

Fifteen Years Young

My son turned fifteen this weekend. Fifteen. That’s five-and-half thousand days he’s walked this earth (well, walked and crawled), and with a few small exceptions I’ve been there with him for every single one of them. This doesn’t by necessity make us close, but it makes us … well, something.

There’s no connection in my mind between the helpless, crying, infantile baby that came into the world fifteen years ago and the moody, sarcastic, increasingly self-aware teenager that thinks swearing is cool but doesn’t quite know when it’s appropriate. These are two different entities, and frankly I’m not sure I really know either.

My memory of his life is sporadic – fleeting moments in time, stuck in my mind like a photograph without context. I know he was once six – and twelve, and many other ages – but I don’t seem to be able to draw a line connecting these moments to each other. Like each memory is of a different person, one who no longer quite exists.

At the risk of being a cliché, it makes me wonder what I was like when I was fifteen. Where was I? What was I doing? What did I think? Fifteen was my sophomore year of high school; it was a summer of forgetful abandon. It was a year of adventure, of climbing and mountaineering, of school and exams and friends and excitement.

It was also my last year of happiness.

The following year, my junior year of high school, was the first year I learned depression, and I’ve never forgotten it since. By the summer of sixteen, I was catatonic in my room, drinking with my goth friends, staying up all night with candles, and cutting my arms. And it only got worse from there.

To some extent, I wonder what fate awaits my son. Will this be his last year of happiness? Will he succumb to the deep, numb despair of depression? I really can’t say, of course – the future is the future, and I’ve never really been good at predicting it. But I can see that he is, in many ways, a stronger person than I was at his age. He cooks, he cleans, he reminds me to take my meds, and he can’t stand how dirty I let my car get. He’s responsible, has a girlfriend, and frankly doesn’t get into much trouble at all. These are all things that were not true of me.

In fact, reflecting on that past fifteen years of my own life, he’s more of an adult now than I ever was – and more so than I am today. While I mope in bed and struggle to get through each and every day, leaving dishes and laundry to pile up, he actually takes care of things around the house. He doesn’t enjoy it, but it does it nonetheless.

Fifteen years ago, I was a scared, naive, miserably depressed kid who didn’t see a path forward in the world. Not that many young adults do, but for me, the end was visibly near. I was on a speeding train of mental turmoil, rushing headlong toward the abyss with no bridge and no brakes. What I’m trying to say is that without my son, I may well have tried to kill myself.

But I didn’t. And whilst I’m certainly not ‘better’, I survived. I mean, that’s probably as much as I can say for myself, really – I survived. It’s up for debate if that was worth it or not, but the point is, I’m likely alive because of my son. So there’s something.

We share interests – a love of movies, Lord of the Rings and heavy metal music, for starters – and we talk. I’ve never been secretive about my mental health with him, and I hope he doesn’t resent me for it; he talks to me (on occasion) about the things that trouble him, and I hope he continues to.

What I see when I look at him is no longer my child. He is no longer helpless. I mean, I may never have really come to terms with a person in the world being my descendant, but the point is that he is a young man, whole and independent, with thoughts and opinions that are not mine. He is a good person, and whether through my actions – or lack thereof – or not, I believe he will become a good adult. I have faith he will become a hard-working, functional member of society. And I guess I really couldn’t ask for more.

What I see is simple: my son is a better person than I am.

I couldn’t be more proud.