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
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