A Pain in the Brain

The mental pain that I experience during and following a panic attack is always the same. There’s a sense of anguish, a physical reaction that’s not far removed from the reaction to physical pain. It’s frightening to know that thoughts can sear as effectively as any fiery brand.

What I believe is happening is a clashing of philosophies. Throughout my life, I’ve attempted to juggle two diametrical modes of thought. I’ve considered describing them as “conservative” and “liberal,” but I think a more accurate terminology is “Shore” and “Ocean.” They are armies at constant odds, columns of artillery continually shelling each other, but there’s never any attrition. One side or the other merely retreats and regroups, and then makes another charge with full force. The only possible casualty in this conflict is myself.

I charted some of this out. Perhaps I’m naive to think that I can make sense of it, but if there’s anything I can make sense of in this world, I’d like to think that it’s my own mind. There are many rivers of thought and possibility flowing through both sides, so I’ve had to filter and condense many of them. Here’s how I broke them down:

The “Shore,” or “Western” nation, fights on the side of culture. It is masculine, hierarchical, goal-oriented, and irrevocably sold on the immortality of the human empire. The motto of the Shore-dweller is “Suck it up, Nancy!” On the shore, you put your head down, you accept your position as it’s assigned from birth, and you collect things (artificial ones) to soothe yourself. The mark of success on the Shore is the accomplishment, or the creation, or the purchase of something “valuable,” as determined by the Shore’s inhabitants. By the Shore’s standards, if you labor long on a work that only has value to yourself, you die a failure, a sad little person who is soon forgotten.

Sounds pretty horrible, doesn’t it? Yet, this is the mode that many people not only accept, but embrace. It thrives, not because it is the truth, but because it only needs money to keep it going. The more money that is pumped into it, the bigger and more intrusive it gets. It analyzes us, seduces us, and makes us feel secure. The Message is so pervasive, at all phases of our lives, that it becomes familiar, and therefore comfortable.

Recent events prove that this mode is outdated and dying. Once-sacred institutions are undergoing entropic failures, but more importantly than that, we are aware of these failures. We know that our idols are false, and yet we continue to erect new ones, because we don’t know how else things can work.

We’re scared to leave the Shore.

The “Ocean,” or “Eastern” nation, fights for the individual. It doesn’t believe in boundaries or categorization. It doesn’t believe in grinding and burning one’s life away in a box for a machine. It seeks opportunity and fights for it, usually at great material risk. Money is a minor concern to those on Ocean; meaning is what matters to them. Any activity that doesn’t reap fulfillment or personal satisfaction is wasteful and pointless. Instead of seeking to collect, the Ocean seeks to prune. It asks, “What can I do without? Where can I simplify, reduce my encumbrance? What shall I release, and what shall I nurture?” The Ocean does not trust in artificial structures built to corral large groups. It takes pride in refusal.

Most profoundly, the Ocean-dweller accepts the possibility that there is no “real” answer, no promise to be kept at the end of life. It clings to nothing, and fluctuates at all times. It knows that humanity and all its creations are finite, and that life is a cycle of birth and destruction. It does not need the opinions of culture as they relate to “lasting” or “enduring” value. The “why” of the universe may never be revealed, so the Ocean-dweller simply hunts for occupation and joy wherever it might occur.

This mode of thought sounds pleasant and idealistic, even heavenly, but the rub is that it demands immense, unshakeable courage. The Shore-dweller dismisses the Ocean-dweller as a loser, a looney, a whack-job…unless he or she makes a lot of money.

The root of my anxiety lies in the conflict between these two ideologies. I’m sure that a philosophy major would tell me that I’m not making any revelations here. I’m sure that I’m just inadvertently repeating the positions of Nietzsche or Heidegger or Plato or some such person. Still, while I’m sure that studying the works of these gentlemen would improve my articulation, I also think that I’d do better to develop my own ideas, basing them on my own personal experience.

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Eleventh Hour Desperation

Day Eleven, Depression and Friends: All these things that I’ve been talking about, these things that made this year so lousy, they fucking sucked. They disrupted, ruined, or flat out ended lives. I was very fortunate, however, in that none of them directly affected me. I was insulated, viewing them comfortably through the filter of a computer screen. I’m just a little fellow, in a wide world, after all. Sadly, knowing this doesn’t make my problems feel any smaller.

Just a few months ago, my life was very different from what it is now. I had a full-time job and my own apartment. I was doing pretty well. I had lived that way for four years before the relapse. When the depression struck me, it struck hard. I lost my will to work, and worse, my will to do anything. I lost all interest in life. It didn’t help that it seemed like my peers were doing great, building families and buying houses.

Getting degrees.

Depression and panic attacks first visited upon me when I moved to USC in 1997. They immobilized me and made it impossible for me to leave my dorm, let alone succeed in class. I had to withdraw, and give up a substantial scholarship.

I’ve since developed an indelible fear of college that’s left me scrabbling for dead-end jobs, and I had trouble keeping those. As for a social life, forget it; I had no foundation, no sense of who I was, and I shrank from the friendly faces that approached me. I finally thought I had a sturdy handle on things in 2008, when I got a fine job that I got pretty damned good at. The company was well-run, successful even in the dark days of the recession, and my supervisors treated me like a prince. Before long, I had enough money to finally get out of my parents’ house again, and live on a modest budget. I started going to parties, making pals, dating girls. Life was looking up, and I was grateful.

But I overreached. Lost sight of the sunny spot I was in. I became afraid of looking lazy, or unambitious, and I requested more responsibility. I got it, and it turned out to be a heavier weight than I could bear. I became tense, and then stressed, and then miserable. I stopped socializing. I stopped drawing. I stopped doing anything, really. As soon as I got home, I fell into bed. The days smeared into a dreary, gray blur of work, sleep, work, and sleep. I requested my old job back, only to find that it wasn’t available, at least not in full-time. There was nothing for it. I had to leave.

I found another job, but it paid less than my old job did, and my budget was crunched. I found yet another job, and it paid more than my old job did, but by then the panic attacks were in full swing, and I couldn’t bring myself to go there.

I was in a spot. I had already been living hand-to-mouth before the depression hit. Now I was too crippled to bring anything home. I burned through what little money I had saved. I had to give up the apartment and move back in with my folks. For the third time. Not long before, life looked like a shining skyline of upward mobility and romance. Now it was a bleak flatland of counseling and disability claims.

Turned out I wasn’t the only one in the house having a hard time. My father was fighting a long, tiresome battle against his former employers and insurance companies for workman’s compensation. He needed back surgery for years, and it looked like it was finally going to happen. My mother knew that he’d need help once the operation was through, so she struggled with the idea of retiring. She’d been at her job for over twenty years, and it paid a tidy sum that she was loth to give up. Still, she decided to take the plunge for the sake of my dad and I.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was ailing terribly. She was suffering with congestive heart failure, a condition that made it a challenge for her to simply walk across a room. It was clear she was going to need open-heart surgery. At eighty years old. As this was in the wake of Joan Rivers’s death, my whole family was on edge.

This year has felt like the final act of a very long movie, where everything is at stake, the tension is at its height, and long-running threads converge and, for better or for worse, resolve.

I thought about resolving them for good many, many times.

My saving grace was recognizing that I had support. I’ve known for years that I could count on my parents, for they are good people who help others in need. However, I also know that they are still just people, and can only give so much before they break, and my guilt often overwhelms me. What I only recently discovered, when I was so deep in the jungles of despair that I thought I’d never get out, was that my parents weren’t the only ones looking out for me. Someone, or something I can’t explain, was waiting for me to call out to it, too.

From the Journal

Dear God, Angels, Spirits, or Whoever’s Out There,

My brother, father, mother, and grandmother are all suffering right now. My sister-in-law and close friends are having personal crises too. We need your help. I feel that a massive shift is happening, something that will change us all, and I am frightened and nervous.

I just have to trust that things will be okay, possibly even better than they were before things went wrong. I just have to trust in you. I know you’ve answered prayers of mine, and prayers of my Dad’s, and I’m grateful for that.

I hate to say it, but we need your help more than ever right now. We are all in scary places, waiting on answers or results that are slow in coming. Please help us to find ways to douse that fear hanging over our family. We miss the peace and stability we once enjoyed.

Of course, I understand that we’re are only now confronting the conclusions of events set in motion long ago: I with my depression, Mom with her retirement, Dad with his bad back. Getting through them will be challenging, but somehow, I know it’ll be worth it in the end. It just has to be.

With Hope,

Daniel