Gigantic Mess 

My life, as of late, has been a gigantic mess. But I am not sure if it is of my own making (probably yes) or if there have been circumstances beyond my control that have led to my shutting down more than usual (probably yes on that too).

First, the facts. In the middle of this past school term, a term which is now over, I stopped going. I stopped working on my assignments; I stopped attending classes; I just plain stopped everything. From of the perspective of my fellow students, it was like I was suddenly kidnapped or stricken with an exotic jungle disease that required my immediate medical quarantine. Yet, if either of those two things had actually happened, I would strangely feel better. I mean, at least then there would some kind of tangible cause I could understand, an explanation I could grasp, put on the shelf, and forget about so I could move on with my life. As it is, I have stopped and caught in a soup of inertia and confusion about how things ended up this way or what to do next.

My total stoppage is in its fourth(?) week. Has it been longer? I've lost a normal sense of time. Since my disappearance from school, I have spent most of my time online playing World of Warcraft, sleeping, watching television, listening to music and literary podcasts, sleeping, reading books, and thinking about sleeping. I have been going to bed anywhere between 3:00 and 7:00 am., and waking up anywhere from noon to about 4:00 pm. I have work to do, and yet, I don't do it. It piles up and my motivation remains shackled, depression has frozen my feet in place and reached its chilly tendrils toward my heart.

Those are the facts.

Here is the trouble: I think I can only figure out about 40% of why I stopped doing everything. About that 40%, I will attempt to sketch out some kind of account.

One, I was overwhelmed with school work. There was much more than I had expected. A class that had been worth two credits in the schedule had a work load of at least six credits. The unexpected amount of work combined with my usual, and admittedly unrealistic, expectations to do classwork that far exceeded normal expectations. I don't want to be just a good art student. I want to be the best art student. Silly, considering the amount of work I am willing to invest in my various projects to achieve that goal.

Still, when I do work on a project, I want the instructors to exclaim that my work is really, really good--among the best that they have ever seen--and, yes, a part of me even wants my fellow students to be jealous. And, in the past, especially when I was an English undergraduate (and very probably much to my detriment) that had often been the case. I won prizes for my work, had instructors tell me that I should be going to a better college, and I often would feel the bewildered admiration of fellow students who wondered how I managed to pull it off. I may have been a big fish in a small pond, but at least I was the big fish. The praise was engine that kept me going more than I thought.

After a lot of reflection, and some therapy, I am fairly sure that I enjoy praise twice as much as a normal person should. And, conversely, I hate criticism twice as much. Professionals call this sort of thing "mood reactivity," a long step beyond the normal reaction of feeling good when someone compliments you or feeling discomforted when someone is mean to you. It is like being very easily sunburned. Just an hour under a harsh sun can leave you with a sting you feel for days.

Of course, negative critiques are nothing extraordinary in the context of an art class. Art critiques are part of the skeletal system of a creative education, and by necessity, a few of them will be negative. How else would one learn if not by trying and failing? Yet, I wasn't the perfectionist I wanted to be, and it upset me.

Example of sorts. I worked really hard on a postcard advertising an upcoming college play: Brighton Beach Memoirs. The director wanted the postcard to emphasize baseball, a wrong-headed emphasis in my opinion, but then again, "the client" always gets what they want, at least according to the instructor. I thought the proper emphasis should have been on the working class environment, the historical context of a looming war, and/or the emotional struggle of a young boy "coming of age." After hearing the director describe the play in class, it was clear to me that, to her, males were an amalgam of rough and tumble stereotypes, snips and snails and puppydog tails, a confederation of sexist clowns, and, largely, a mystery. But hey, baseball! Okay. I get it.

So, in the spirit of trying to exceed expectations, I did my research. I read the play, and I read aboutthe play. I researched poster design in the 30's, and looked at several "time-appropriate" typefaces. I found photographs of the very baseball players mentioned in the play in an old baseball magazine from the 40's. And, pursuing my industrious course, I made several sketches in different directions, got feedback from the instructor about which of them worked better than the others, carefully did several final drawings, combined all the elements in Photoshop, inked it and, finally, colored it. Perhaps even more importantly, while staying faithful to the director's original intentions for the card, I had managed to tweak it enough to pull in the broader interpretations I thought she missed.

So, when it came time for the presentation to the "client," the director of the play, I explained my work, my thought processes, my goals, my effort, to which she responded: "it looks too high school". Not that the particular imagery I chose was wrong for her vision of the play. Not that the colors wouldn't match the stage production goals she had. Not that the work communicated the wrong tone. But, that it was "high school." Meaning, to her, it was "unprofessional." The seeds of professional design I was trying to plant with my student work was not yielding any fruit. Hell, according to her, I wasn't even in the right garden. I was devastated. I asked my art instructor, "was it true?" Does my postcard look "high school?" I spent well over twenty hours on it, way more than the six or seven the other students had devoted. I had even watched a fellow classmate cobble a quick postcard together in the class previous to the presentation in about an hour. No, I was assured by the art instructor. With a minor comment or two about how to improve, she declared it overall a fine work.

So, okay, the play director was wrong about the postcard. I can admit that. A normal person would brush off the negative comment as "just her opinion," or "plain wrong." Or they might just chalk it up to some weird anomaly that happens in everyday life, like a full moon or something, right? But, the remark cut me. It hurt. I tried to hide my obvious disappointment when it was made, but I didn't do a good job. Some of the more sensitive and observant students offered their reassurances when class was over, to the tune of "I thought it was really good," with the corresponding verses of "I like the color," and "did you draw it yourself?" And, instead of making me feel better about my hard work, I only felt worse. Their nice comments were only emphasizing my inability to hide my disappointment and distress. When the mask of pleasant sociability falls, when the thin veneer of self-image that one so carefully builds has burnt away, and one stands exposed with naked and nausea inducing emotions, embarrassment shines as brightly as the sun. And every stranger's added syllable makes it shine even brighter.

So, the problem summed up, as I see it: I fully recognize that my mood has been much more dependent on my various interactions with people than it really should be. I should be able to provide my own support when it comes to needed an emotional boost, and I should be able to brush off criticisms that are uneccessary, or gently take them when true and offered in a friendly manner. But, I can't for some reason. Consciously, I recognize the ideal way to react, but emotionally, an arrow pierces the exterior and wounds my heart in a way that I never seem to be able to expect. I am the fool dancing on a ship's railing in the midst of a typhoon and is stupidly surprised when he inevitably falls off.

So, that's one thing I've been grappling with: schoolwork and attendant irrational mood reactivity.

Second, I am finding out that my depression is less like the flu and more like diabetes, meaning that it isn't something that you catch and get rid of, but it is a lifetime condition that will affect daily choices you make for the rest of your life. I still have my perspective, and I can parrot the countless medication advertisements on television by (ugh!) saying that a person can live their life with a chronic condition and "still have a normal and healthy life for many years to come." But, what the commercials don't communicate is how it feels to realize that, for the rest of your life, you will be struggling with something that you'd rather be rid of.

It is as if your shadow is grabbing you by the shoulders and pressing your towards the ground with the intent of burying you in a dark and earthy hole. You must exert the strength to push against him, and you can't ever have the luxury of forgetting he is there, because if you do, you're suddenly in that hole and he's carelessly tossing dirt on you. At which point, you have to exert even more effort to get out. It's exhausting mentally. I hate it.

The third part of that 40% I mentioned earlier, might be the fact that I am in between counselors. At the same time I was struggling with school, I was in the process of finishing up my sessions with the counselor I have had for the past three years. While I am still not sure how much this has affected me, I am beginning to think that it is affecting more than I think. I have been trying to find a new one, and by the grace of god, I will find out if I have one this next week.

In the mean time, I will try not to think too much more about all of this. At times I feel like I am lost in a dark and labyrinthine cave being stalked by a two starving coyotes. Yes, I know I could fight them off, and yes, I know that if I keep at it, eventually I will make it out of the cave, but not before I get bitten a lot, bump my head on the cave ceiling, and curse the darkness to the point of absurd futility, bitter about being lost. Maybe the key is to just stop and rest for a bit, maybe get some sleep, and fight the coyotes when my strength is up again.

16 December 2008


Foreward: The following is a dream that I had last night. For the heck of it, I decided that I would try and write it more creatively than a typical dream report. As far as a personal background, which might provide some context to the dream (although I am not sure how yet), these past few weeks for me have been truly terrible. And this is not the "terrible" of a daily complaint, but the "terrible" of ruined college career and straitened circumstances of ongoing poverty. I have suffered some emotional setbacks which have stopped my school progress for this term, and I am not sure how to fix it. Now, the dream:

Confusion. Things stop working like they usually should. I am drive around aimlessly in my used station wagon trying to figure out what the hell is happening to everybody. There is the electric and unplaceable oddity one feels after a major national crisis, like a terrorist attack or declaration of war. But outwardly, other than a few more people walking out on the street, people who appear perfectly normal, not too much is different.

I am not sure what happened. Perhaps a meteor hit the east coast, or there was a biological experiment gone wrong. I remember that this is how it happens in the movies. But, now that it is actually happening in real life, I don't have no idea how it started, and I am pretty sure that I will never know. There isn't anything on the radio. In fact, all of the stations on radio are silent. I can't tune anything in. This is my first and biggest indicator that something is really wrong: the media, constantly present, has shut down.

My first impulse is to find and meet up with my family, but I can't find them. They aren't at home. I'm very worried and am desperately looking around. Driving around the suburban neighborhood, I pull out my cell phone and try to call them. The voice on the other end says, "I'm sorry. This phonecall will cost 12,450 dollars the first minute and 3,000 dollars for every additional minute." While it seems clear that society has very definitely fallen apart, I inwardly debate the cost of the call while staring blankly distressed at the phone. If the world is truly crumbling, it won't matter how much debt I incur now because no-one will ever be able to collect. Unfortunately, I'm so poor, I can't take the chance. I think, "Yet another indignity of being poor: having been beaten into submission by the exorbitant costs of things."

I have somehow found my way to the local hospital, three stories with the red brick facade. Stopping in the lot, I get out of the car and walk through the hospital corridors looking for someone normal to talk to. Someone leaps out of nearby examination room very angry and looking to bite someone, possibly me. I quickly back away and find another corridor to search, where I see an angry person biting someone else. This appears to be the only indication that someone has become a zombie: they are angry and upset. They want to bite. In another corridor, I come across zombie blocking my way, menacingly. But, oddly, I smile and give a little wave. It seems to work! The zombie stands up straighter, smiles and waves back and moves off to search for another potential victim. I discover that if I smile and act very pleasant, my zombie attackers become mollified and walk away.

Eventually, I find the E.R., where there is a nurse who, while having been bitten, is not yet a zombie. She is trying to treat other people who are not yet zombies. She explains that the zombie infection is spreading very fast and that my best bet is to leave and get out of town. Deciding that this is good advice, I go for the exit in the room beyond. There is a plate glass window between rooms so I can look back and still see the nurse treating people. Suddenly, I see that there are about eight zombies with her, circling around her as if to attack. I must be horrified, because an expression of shock and pain escapes onto my face. The zombies, surprised at my inadvertent expression, lunge at the window. I hit the fire alarm to cause momentary confusion, and turn for the exit. As I am rushing out, I see a baseball bat that someone has left by the door. I grab it and quickly get back in my car to speed away.

I am driving out onto the coast. Society has indeed fallen apart, and I have still not found my family. There aren't many zombies out here as it is too remote for them to find or survive for very long. I come across a giant coastal home that the rich people own, but are now abandoned. I decide to take residency here. I can see the lights of the nearby town in the distance from the back sliding glass doors.

- - - - - - -

I have now become an older man, perhaps about sixty. I found another normal person to be with, a woman, who has essentially become my wife. We are still avoiding zombies. It is late at night, and I am trying to shut off every light that is on so the zombies will not see that someone lives here. But, because of the odd shape of the house, with large cathedral ceilings in tall and narrow rooms, I sometimes have to use a ladder to shut them off. I have my bat nearby to fend off any potential attackers, and there are a couple more bats in the upstairs bedroom. I am trying my best to take care of my wife and reassure her that everything is all right. As I shut off the last light, the lights near the porch, I look out towards the lights burning in the nearby zombie city and worry if they will ever eventually find us.

01 December 2008