Fight Club was a good film. Is a good film, even. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it, but it still is. There’s something about books by Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club is based on a novel of his by the same name), they’re raw and violent and ugly and they never fail to impress me. For me, Chuck Palahniuk is the 21st century Philip K. Dick. They’re a traffic accident; you might not want to look, but they are such a strong reminder of the brevity of our lives that you can’t help it. All that brain tissue and blood and intestines out there for all to see: a person looks so beautifully organised on the outside, but on the inside it’s just a big mess.
Or, possibly, I’m just talking about myself.
If you’ve just come into my life, you’ve arrived at a strange time. You might want to back off entirely and just walk away; I won’t be insulted at all. Personally, if I only met myself now, I would get the hell out of Dodge — too much drama going on. I’m not sure where I am at the moment; if my hunch is good for anything, I’m at the latter stretch of a very long transitional period after which I have no idea where I will end up. That sound too dramatic? Then let me put it this way:
I’m probably batshit insane.
I’ve been hesitant to write about this before for various reasons — because I don’t want to seem crazy or narcissist or like I seek attention — but, with some intensive archaelogical diggery around my belly button and my reasons for blogging in the first place, this is probably the best option. I might end up looking like an idiot, but at least that’s nothing new. If I manage to alienate friends or acquittances, well, with all that is going on in my head, it’s bound to happen sooner or later. So here we are. What follows is a brief history of Laura, some pseudoscientific psychoanalysis, leaps of imagination and big dose of forced narcissism. Run while you still can!
I’ve suffered from depression probably for as long as I can remember, and at least since adolescence. There are no big traumatic events in my life; although there was alcoholism in my family I have never been physically or mentally abused that I can remember, and the worst my early life has left me with is a deep fear of rejection due to long periods spent in a hospital. (I had a kidney problem as a baby, and I was also hospitalised for a skin condition. Nothing dramatic.)
I’ve been seeing my very good therapist for about a year now, and I’m eating antidepressant medication. The latter probably saved my life; the former probably will. Someone said that psychotherapy seems like a concept that is a bit aged, but I strongly argue against that. I think it’s a typically Western idea to treat the symptoms rather than the cause, and that’s how I see the medication vs. therapy issue. Reaching the understanding, thanks to my therapist, that ‘the suffering does not happen for no reason‘ was, in lack of a better word, a moment of a small enlightenment. While the medication may correct a chemical imbalance, the therapy works to correct the learned reactions and bad habits like self-loathing and self-blame. It’s been a long road to get to the point where I am today, but I’m not saying what works for me would work for everyone.
Having said that, I’m nowhere near done: I’m still very much hurt, I’m still in many ways incapable of returning to normal schedule, and I’m still trying to forgive myself for it.
It took me almost 30 years to realise that I’m a sensitive person; overly sensitive, even. I don’t know where I learned that it was a bad thing to care too much or to show one’s feelings, and that vulnerability is a bad thing… Except that it’s obvious to everyone who has been in social interaction with any larger group of people: vulnerabilities get taken advantage of, kind people get trampled on and sensitive people get abused. I put a lot of effort into not being the kind of person who cares for everyone else. I learned to hide my feelings to the extent that I seemed to feel nothing very much at all, except when I felt bad, and I found that I can hide anything and everything from everyone… Even myself.
It took a half-stranger to tell me that I am an empathic person who feels all emotions very strongly, before I realised it for a fact.
It took a year in a positive, encouraging, almost entirely critique-free environment after that to make me feel secure enough to show any of this sensitivity in something as silly as dressing up in a skirt.
It took two years of crawling in the bottom mud and a year of intense therapy to realise that maybe, just maybe, I can actually live with being the kind of person I am. In fact, it’s entirely possible that my life depends on being able to live as the kind of person I am.
The next step is to find out who it is I would be if out of self-defence I didn’t grow up to be something other than what I’m supposed to be. Whoever that is.
What the books have to say
True to my ever inquisitive spirit, I turn to books and science to look for hints on which way to go next. Lucky for me, the field of psychology offers several opportunities to theorise about the link between sensitivity and depression. The concept of “Highly Sensitive Person”, or HSP, caught my attention as it describes high sensitivity as a positive attribute rather than something that needs to be corrected.
“[HSP] comprise about a fifth of the population, may process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems.This is a specific trait with key consequences that in the past has often been confused with innate shyness, social anxiety problems, inhibitedness, or even social phobia and innate fearfulness, introversion, and so on.”
“HSP students work differently from others. They pick up on the subtle things, learning better this way than when overaroused. […] HSPs can be great employees—good with details, thoughtful and loyal, but they do tend to work best when conditions are quiet and calm. Because HSPs perform less well when being watched, they may be overlooked for a promotion. HSPs tend to socialize less with others, often preferring to process experiences quietly by themselves.” (Wikipedia: HSP)
The Wikipedia article linked above in turn links to Kazimierz Dubrowski’s theory of Positive Disintegration, which, despite the rather formulaic presentation, struck a chord with me in many ways. The theory itself can be hard reading, but the basic premise is that during personality development of a person, a psychological stress and anxiety is necessary for growth. The idea isn’t new per se — “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” is a universally accepted idiom that has been touched upon in psychological research before.
Dubrowski’s theory states that people come in five different levels and the majority of world comprises of people on levels one and two: on level one the person’s motivation is instinctive and driven by selfishness; on level two the person is also motivated by external factors, i.e. the expectations and teachings of the society around him. The aforementioned psychological stress begins on level three and continues on to level four (intention being the main difference between the two). Dubrowski talks about vertical conflict — where the person finds there are “lower” and “higher” ideals — in which the person finds the norms of the society unacceptable, inappropriate or questionable:
In Level IV the person takes full control of his or her development. The involuntary spontaneous development of Level III is replaced by a deliberate, conscious and self-directed review of life from the multilevel perspective. This level marks the real emergence of the third factor, described by Dąbrowski as an autonomous factor “of conscious choice (valuation) by which one affirms or rejects certain qualities in oneself and in one’s environment”. The person consciously reviews his or her existing belief system and tries to replace lower, automatic views and reactions with carefully thought out, examined and chosen ideals. These new values will increasingly be reflected in the person’s behavior. Behavior becomes less reactive, less automatic and more deliberate as behavioral choices fall under the influence of the person’s higher, chosen ideals.
The person on level five is supposedly a harmonious individual who is making consciously evaluated decisions and acts upon them regardless of the expectations of the society, often striving to improve the lives of other people.The concept reminds me of the buddhist boddhisattva ideal where an enlightened person puts off buddhahood in order to help others reach enlightenment.
A third theory I stumbled across, from a book I only read about (Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults), seems to talk about a similar cause and reaction and labels is ‘existential depression’:
“Because gifted children are able to consider the possibilities of how things might be, they tend to be idealists. However, they are simultaneously able to see that the world is falling short of how it might be. Because they are intense, gifted children feel keenly the disappointment and frustration which occurs when ideals are not reached. Similarly, these youngsters quickly spot the inconsistencies, arbitrariness and absurdities in society and in the behaviors of those around them. Traditions are questioned or challenged.”
“The reaction of gifted youngsters (again with intensity) to these frustrations is often one of anger. But they quickly discover that their anger is futile, for it is really directed at “fate” or at other matters which they are not able to control. Anger that is powerless evolves quickly into depression.
“In such depression, gifted children typically try to find some sense of meaning, some anchor point which they can grasp to pull themselves out of the mire of “unfairness.” Often, though, the more they try to pull themselves out, the more they become acutely aware that their life is finite and brief, that they are alone and are only one very small organism in a quite large world, and that there is a frightening freedom regarding how one chooses to live one’s life. It is at this point that they question life’s meaning and ask, “Is this all there is to life? Is there not ultimate meaning? Does life only have meaning if I give it meaning? I am a small, insignificant organism who is alone in an absurd, arbitrary and capricious world where my life can have little impact, and then I die. Is this all there is?”” (via)
I’m not especially gifted, but otherwise the description is spot on. Kay Redfield Jamison, in Touched with Fire (a book about manic depression in creative people), spoke about the perception of reality:
Recent research has shown that observations and beliefs produced during mildly depressed states are actually closer to “reality” than are normal mood states, underscoring the pervasiveness of denial in everyday life and giving credence to T. S. Eliot’s view that “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” […] “In these flashing revelations of grief’s wonderful fire,” wrote Melville, “we see all things as they are; and though, when the electric element is gone, the shadows once more descend, and the false outlines of objects again return; yet not with their former power to deceive.” Depression forces a view on reality, usually neither sought nor welcome, that looks out onto the fleeting nature of life, its decaying core, the finality of death, and the finite role played by man in the history of the universe.
It’s not exactly earth shattering to imply that creativity and depression are somehow linked, and this is exactly what all of the above theories have in common. ‘Giftedness’ and creativity seem to go hand in hand with an unusual or nonstandard view of reality; I still wonder if it was the egg or the chicken that came first.
And then for the application of the theory…
Something I recently read somewhere* echoed what my therapist told me. It went something like this: “Pain and suffering is the universe telling you to let go; the purpose of pain is not to cause more suffering but to create change.”
*I use Stumbleupon a lot, so the source can be hard to trace back.
I managed very early on to close myself off and separate myself from the rest of the world to the point that I didn’t feel I truly belonged anywhere; I still don’t. This is in no way meant to belittle the important relationships in my life, but rather to point to a place in me that is missing. Despite the material I posted, I don’t think I’m “gifted” — whatever that means. What I found in the above theories was the fact that it’s possible I’m not just imagining everything: that all those times I cried as a teenager and wondered what was wrong with me that made me so different from everyone else, I wasn’t just being a dramatic teenager (although I admit that it might also have been the case). It’s imaginable that I am more sensitive and notice more and react more strongly than most of the people I know. Maybe I can’t decide what I’m interested in because I’m really interested in everything, rather than because I have attention deficit disorder. Maybe it’s possible that my disappointment in reality stems from genuine insight, rather than a childish wish for a magic unicorn kingdom.
In other words, I suppose, all these theories and studies give me hope: some time in the future I may be able to feel like a normal person, or at least to be able to live like one; that it’s a matter of learning to live with the kind of person I am, rather than try to cram myself into a mold that does not fit. Maybe one day my sister can stop pushing me to grow up. Ha!
Here’s another funny one: everyone wants to be unique; I’m no different.
(Well, OK, if your idea of funny is two contradictory sentences in, like, a really ironic way. What.)
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that despite all my big talk about not caring what anyone else thinks is made under the assumption of underlying similarity to everyone else — that basically everyone is the same, and we all really want the same things. What worries me is that the implication from the theories I’ve posted (especially that of Dubrowski) would be not only that I am different but also that I think different. That it would be theoretically possible I will never find a nook where I can be myself and be accepted and understood. And yet…
Yes, it’s true. I even argue with myself. It’s no wonder I’m stuck with my relationship with the rest of the world.
Be kind: I’m going on a limb to write about these things. I’m worried that I will come off narcissist or weird or stupid or something. I’m writing these highly personal posts in public for several reasons; one of them is an attempt to organise my thoughts into a digestable form.
Be honest: I’m putting this out in the world in hope for validation, or failing that, communication. Hello, world. Perhaps someone else is in the same situation and finds out that they’re not alone after all. Maybe I can even consolidate understanding between different kinds of people, even if that is a highly idealistic thing to aim for.