Fundamentally Wrong: I Can’t Just Do It If I Choose

One of the deepest and oldest philosophical and psychological debates revolves around the concept of choice and free will. The question of whether we truly have control over our lives is something that comes up across all fields of human reasoning, from whether the universe is pre-determined to play out the way it does, to whether or not there is a god who gives us the perception or reality of choice.

These concepts are so basic that most people find themselves on one side or the other of the debate without really even knowing it, or understanding it. People are brought up with certain beliefs, and many of those beliefs – especially if they reinforce or are reinforced by the events in our lives – become indistinguishable from fact in our minds. The notion of god, or the concepts of organized religion, for example, survive by the very fact that they fit so well into the world-view of most of the world.

My wife, for example, was raised from an early age with the idea that you can do anything you put your mind to. She’s shared stories with my of her father teaching her and reinforcing these concepts, such as using ”elbow-grease” to clean the tub (which turned out, of course, to just be a great deal of physical effort, and not an actual cleaning product, much to her dismay). She learned from this, and it reinforced for her that with enough effort, you can succeed at almost anything. Indeed, her life and career has been largely successful, guided by this and other lessons learned from her youth.

I, on the other hand, was largely raised to believe that I was a success naturally, whether or not I put effort into something or not. I was praised as highly intelligent, as though somehow intelligence was in itself a success, and effort was rarely, if ever, rewarded. For that matter, many of the things I attempted as a child needed little effort, and through intellectualism I was often able to accomplish many great deeds. When I encountered something that I actually struggled with, I would more often than not simply give up, and was allowed to – moving on to something easier to achieve.

Just as much as my wife’s childhood led to her adult outlook on life, I’m sure my own influenced my current state of being, even to the extent of my mental disorders and never-ending depression. That doesn’t mean it’s any easier to break out of, any more than you could convince a life-long Christian that there is no god. But it also leads to conflicts – often between my wife and myself – around the ability to do things, given one’s state of mind.

For example, we had a minor argument the other night around doing the dishes. We had already eaten dinner, and all that was left was to clean up the kitchen. Something that, physically, I am perfectly capably of doing. However, I have been struggling over the past month with a very, very severe depression, and the honest truth is that there are many times when I simply cannot do something.

I said as much to my wife on the night in question, and her response, born partly out of frustration that the house is perpetually a mess and partly, I’m sure, out of frustration that I was behaving in what she saw as a lazy and unproductive manner, was: ”You can if you choose to.”

This is where the conflict sets in, both from our views on the world, our lived experiences, and probably our upbringing. To me, in a state of chronic depression, there is no choice in the matter. I might as well have no arms or legs; the task of washing up after dinner is absolutely impossible. To her, it’s all a question of mental will: if you want to do something enough, you’ll do it.

I mistakenly made a poor, in-the-moment analogy of a physical, chronic illness: I said that by that measure, you could cure yourself of cancer if you chose to. Poor taste, poor analogy, it didn’t go over well, and we kind of got into a minor shouting match.

In hindsight, there are better analogies I can think of; the reason I chose the one I did is simply because people so very often assume that mental illnesses are somehow less than physical ones, or that they shouldn’t stop you from performing in the way that a physical disease might. Instead, I think a better comparison would be trying to lift a boulder: you can ’want’ to all you like, you can ’choose’ to lift it, but if the boulder weighs three tons, you’re not going to be budging it.

It’s so terribly difficult to describe what it’s like to be depressed to the point of incapacitation to someone who’s never experienced it. It feels impossible to convey the weight of emptiness that takes hold of every waking thought, and the way in which it makes even the simplest of tasks insurmountable. When I say I ’can’t’ do the dishes, I don’t mean I’m choosing not to; I mean I literally can’t do it.

Lately, there’ve been a lot of things I can’t do. I realize this must be making me extremely difficult to live with, and the mess I leave behind me, unable to clean up, only makes it worse. For what it’s worth, I do try to minimize my impact, only using dishes when absolutely necessary, and mostly just lying in bed to avoid disrupting the rest of the house. But I can’t live without creating some kind of path, whether it be hair in the shower or dishes in the sink, and I feel awful and guilty for it, but it doesn’t change my ability – or inability – to do anything about it. (By the same token, I am often unable to go to work.)

I appreciate the efforts that the world is taking to liken mental illness to physical illness, inasmuch as trying to get people to take mental disorders seriously. They are just as incapacitating as physical illnesses, and oftentimes just as, if not more, difficult to overcome. But perhaps a better likening might actually be to compare a mental illness to a physical incapability. If you are missing an arm, or weigh 100 pounds, there are certain things you may simply not be able to do – at least not without help. Humans are, of course, adept at overcoming adversity, but there are some things that are impossible to overcome on one’s own, and a mental illness is one of those things.

So when I say I can’t do something, please don’t assume I’m taking an easy path, or being lazy, or simply ’choosing’ not to put in effort. I choose the word ’can’t’ very deliberately; it means what it means.

One day I’ll gain the strength to lift the boulder; for now, I am weak.

I’ve Lost All Sense of Curiosity

As my depression worsens daily into something just short of crippling, I find myself falling back hard into old patterns, habits and comforts, in a vain effort to stop myself from collapsing into bed and simply not getting up again. I rewatch old episodes of South Park and Futurama endlessly, fail to create anything meaningful – either in writing or in music – and more or less just barely scrape through each day without ever discovering or experiencing anything new.

The hard part about this is that, when I really think about it, I don’t want to experience anything new. It all just … bores me. It isn’t interesting, doesn’t feel worth it, and I find little to no joy in anything I’m not already intimately familiar with. At first I thought perhaps this was just the depression talking, but when I think longer about it, I realize that I’ve been this way for years.

There was a time when I looked forward to new things – really looked forward to them. New albums from my favorite artists, new books from my favorite authors, new movies and TV shows to watch and experience. I remember being really excited to see new episodes of Dexter back when it was first airing, and buying up Stephen King books the day they were released.

Then, I slowly started waiting to experience new things. I waited to listen to the new Nightwish album for a good long time, although I finally got around to it. I delayed and delayed watching Game of Thrones until social media all but ruined it (well, the show writers kind of did it first).

And eventually, I just sort of … stopped experiencing anything new altogether. I haven’t listened to Iron Maiden’s new album, despite it getting great reviews. I haven’t watched Black Widow or any new movie in ages. I haven’t read a book in years. And the worst part is, I really just don’t want to.

When I try, I fail. I watched one episode of Game of Thrones, and just wasn’t invested. I watched the first episode of Amazon’s new show Invincible, and it was really good – but I just don’t care to watch more. I’ve tried and failed to read a dozen or more books.

And when I really break it down, I feel like it comes down to a total lack of curiosity. I just don’t care about things. I don’t care about the world, or the things in it, or the things that are meant to entertain me and take my mind off the things that would otherwise consume me.

I just exist, basically.

I exist, and I’m completely uncurious about anything and everything in the world around me. Nothing piques my interest; nothing seems worth doing or experiencing. And despite the fact that I can barely make it through each day at the moment, I think this has been building for years, or even decades, to the point where now my whole life seems like a meaningless husk, something devoid of any joy or interest.

This scares me, really, because for a long time the only thing that really kept me going, kept me motivated – even in the darkest of times when all I could think about was some kind of escape, I always stayed the course for the idea that, if I died today, I might miss experiencing something truly wonderful that was yet to come. But if there’s nothing that excites me at all anymore – if I just don’t care about anything new, no matter who or what creates it – then what is going to keep me alive? What’s even the point?

My depression is rapidly worsening, and the one thing that usually keeps me afloat is gone. What will happen if the day comes – and I fear it will – when I can’t get out of bed? What will happen when I can’t bear to breathe another breath? What will happen when death becomes more appealing than life?

I once read somewhere that people who ideate about suicide don’t necessarily want to die; they just want their life as it is to be over. The concept encourages positivity, and the belief in change. But what if you don’t believe in that change at all? What if the idea of something new, something different, is as equally abhorrent as what you’re stuck with at the moment? What if death seems appropriate, not because you don’t want to live, but because there’s nothing left to live for?

I realize I’m navigating down a dark path here, and this feeling of dismal, bleak numbness may too pass, but at the moment all I really want to do is curl up and go to sleep. Preferably for a very, very long time.

Endless Summer Doldrums

I’ve never really been too fond of summer; heat, sun and beach days were never really my thing. I’m much more partial to the shorter, colder days of autumn and winter, where you can sit inside by the fire and stare out into the wind and rain, the falling leaves, and dark snow showers of the late winter months.

Since moving to New Jersey, however, summer has taken on a whole new level of nastiness, with humidity regularly in the 80%-90% range. If there’s one thing I hate more than excessive heat, it’s excessive humidity. Put the two together and I’m just downright miserable. I need it cold and dry.

The worst part is that when the weather feels stifling, so does life. I feel like the summer is dragging on, week after week and month after month of dull, humid unpleasantness, going nowhere fast. I haven’t been creative in months. I haven’t even written a blog post in months. On my days off, I find myself pottering around the house, bored and depressed, trying to think of things to do and realizing I don’t want to do any of them.

I can’t say that this is necessarily summer’s fault, exactly; I know I’ve felt like this at all times of the year. But there’s something about summer that just makes it worse. This dull, aching lethargy is intolerable, a kind of depression that isn’t quite depressed; a kind of misery that isn’t quite recognizable. It’s just an endless boredom, a lack of desire, a kind of … null that fills the void day after day. And when you find yourself drenched in sweat just sitting still, you start to wonder what the point of it all is.

When I get like this, I’m tempted to just go to sleep. I mean after all, if I’m going to waste the day away, I might as well get some rest out of it. Nothing’s worse than sitting on the couch, staring into space, mind agonizingly treading over meaningless gibberish at a mile an hour. But when I wake up, I feel even worse; tired, disconcerted, and wishing I’d done something productive with my time.

What even is ‘productive’? What does it mean? Life is so full of endless, repetitive and meaningless tasks that you could spend every waking moment busy, and still get nothing done. Is cooking dinner productive? Cleaning the kitchen? Watering the plants? All of these are things that need to be done, but are they productive? This kind of mental quagmire is something I find myself in frequently; regardless of whether I spend all day doing nothing or doing something, I still feel like I’ve accomplished nothing at the end of the day. The only things that really make me feel worthwhile are creative endeavors, and in this mindless funk, those become impossible.

These doldrums are endless, and the summer makes it worse. I see no end in sight to either. I can’t wait for fall, and I can’t wait to feel more like doing stuff. But even when the shorter, colder days come about, I worry, because autumn is usually when my outright depression worsens, and I can’t bring myself to even get out of bed.

Life is endless, too. Day after day of the same, going nowhere and getting nothing done, living each day just to see the next. I start to wonder what the point of it all is. I don’t exactly feel that I’d be better off dead, but I can’t quite see the point of living, either. What’s it all about? What’s it for? Who am I entertaining?

And even as I write this, I’m overcome with the desire to just sigh, forget it all, and go back to bed.

A sigh.

It sums up life better than anything, really. Just one big sigh.

And I won’t; or if I do, I won’t forever. As much as I’d like to.

Everything passes in time. The darkness passes … but then, so does the light. Like a zebra, I’m left to wonder if life is depression with bouts of happiness, or happiness with bouts of depression. Sometimes I think it only matters how it ends; only then can you really figure it all out. If I die depressed, then that’s really what life was for me. If I die happy, then … you get the point.

I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to live. I’m just stuck, somewhere in the middle of existing.

And the summer just won’t end.