On Sunday*, I woke up feeling perfectly okay. After six weeks of weening off emergency doses of psychotropic medication, the previous night was my second of un-medicated sleep, and it was a success. I had managed the recommended six hours and I was woken by a gentle tug into consciousness, rather than by a jolt of panic. It was a particularly hot Sunday morning. I went through the motions of my rigid post-breakdown routine – showering, teeth-brushing, dressing, vitamin-taking, breakfast-eating, dish-washing. And then I found myself on the couch, a few hours to kill before I was due to meet a friend at the beach, with the same question glaring at me as had been every day for the previous forty-two days:
“What on earth are you doing with your life?”
And then it began to creep in, the ‘A’ word. I could feel the muscles in my jaw and shoulders begin to tighten, and my breathing becoming shallower. But I wasn’t going to be a sitting duck and wait for anxiety to take hold, so I took the pre-emptive step of a brisk coastal walk. As I made my way across the cliff-tops that hug Clovelly Beach towards the cemetery that looks out across the bay, a reflective mood took a firm hold of me, and existential questions began to pour forth in rhythm with the waves crashing against the rocks. A common theme of my post-breakdown ruminations has been ‘the difference I’ve made in the world’, or lack thereof. All my lofty youthful ideals have risen to the surface and at times I’ve become wracked with a certain guilt conerning the life I’ve lead as an adult and the decisions that I’ve made – my degree, my jobs, my relationships – which all seem motivated purely by self-interest. And I appear to myself as a leach – off my parents, off society, off the planet – never having given anything ‘back’.
As this line of thinking once again took hold during my Sunday constitutional, I came to view my most recent major life decision – to leave a consuming corporate job and devote myself to writing works of fiction – to be equally self-centred and leach-like. Was I really making this ‘sacrifice’ to bequeath to the world some literary vessel of enlightenment, some depository of human feeling and thought in which others could find their own condition reflected and feel the same sense of camaraderie through the page that I had felt with the works that have provided me with profound consolation over the years? Not likely. At best, my recently embraced artistic aspirations were a manufactured alibi for procrastinating my entrance into the hard slog of ‘grown-up’ life by another few years. At worst they were the products of delusions of grandeur, and a reflection of my own vanity and pathetically enduring yearning for validation. I found myself reverting to the dismissive attitude held by my younger self towards millennial self-designated artists who employ a ‘service to humanity’ argument to disguise career masturbation. This was the same self that chose to study law and then become, briefly, a corporate lawyer. I went on to question whether even bona fide, revered artists have actually done anything ‘good’ for society or whether they have only served to provide the members of the idle, navel-gazing elite of their era with a sophisticated means of frittering away their time while making themselves feel clever and enlightened. I thought over Nietzsche’s proclamation, “the misery of men living a life of toil has to be increased to make the production of the world of art possible for a small number of Olympian men” and became filled with a sense of moral indignation towards art and artists, and especially towards wannabe artists, and especially towards myself. And so I came back to the conviction that I held prior to resigning from my job – that it was only proper for an adult to have a serious, self-denying vocation, such as the law.
In conjunction with my dismissal of artistry as being vain and silly, and elevation of lawyering as being upstanding and respectable, my guilt-laden meditations turned to one of their lifelong favourite topics, the impact of humanity on the environment. I’ve been a bleeding-heart greenie since I was a child. As a ten year old, I was obsessed with the video clip to Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” (I was also just generally obsessed with Michael Jackson – I not only owned copies of all his albums, but had two compilations of his video clips on VHS). I took lessons in early primary school on electricity and water usage very much to heart, and began to feel not just personally guilty for all the water and electricity I had been unwittingly wasting, but also guilty on behalf of the entire human species for its collective ransacking of the planet. Yet somehow I did not feel so terrible when I learned about how cruel humans could be to each other. I did feel sorry for the starving millions in Africa, but I had a sense that if they would have had the good fortune to be born in the developed world, they would have been assholes like me and everyone I knew, both to the planet and to those less fortunate them, so why feel sorry for them?
Perhaps this feeling that all people were assholes stemmed from some childhood trauma, or was some sort of extension of a loathing of myself (i.e. all humans are bad, which is why I am bad). Or perhaps my lack of guilt for the injustices dealt by man unto man was due to my inability to directly equate the day-to-day activities of my little life with the suffering of the poor and disenfranchised populations of the developed world (whereas as an adult after reading the Communist Manifesto, I most certainly became capable of making myself feel guilty for my complicity in the globalised system of mass-exploitation that depends on Bangladeshi slave labour for me to be able to buy $5 ankle-socks from H&M). And while over the years I’ve come to like humans considerably more than I once did, and care more about ‘human causes’, I still see the sense in my original perception of humanity’s crimes against the environment exceeding those against itself because of the utter blamelessness of the victim in the former case, not to mention that crimes against the environment are also crimes against not just present but also future humanity. Thus when I get into one of my self-berating, life re-evaluating moods, it is still the defence of the environment that rises to the top of my ‘guilt list’ of stifled, unrealised personal ideals. So my take-away points from my long existential walk were (1) I need to put aside my literary aspirations, ‘get real’ and go back to being a lawyer, and (2) I need to stop just feeling guilty about my purely self-serving existence and conveniently avoiding my own ideals, and actively devote the rest of my life to something I really actually care about, that being the environment.
Hence, by the time I got home, I had made the decision to become an environmental lawyer. And so I opened my computer and started looking for job vacancies for environmental lawyers. There were hardly any. I then reflected on the fact that I hadn’t studied environmental law, nor did I have any government or NGO work experience, nor had I ever interned or volunteered at any environmental organisation, so I wouldn’t stand a particularly strong chance against the thousands of law graduates whose entire CVs glimmered with altruism because they didn’t only just decide yesterday not to be corporate scumbags.
So I looked into further study. A Master of Environmental Law seemed appropriate. I looked at the degree web-page, scanned the course outline, read the subject descriptions and bios of lecturers, glanced at the timetables and degree cost (eye-watering) and started to look through the ‘free sections’ of the prescribed materials on Google Books. Spun-out and exhausted by the information dump, I decided to put the idea on-hold. But the spiral that had been triggered by a lone thought emerging through a moment of stillness on a beige couch as sunrays streamed through tall north-facing windows onto my bare thighs was nowhere near out of steam. It wouldn’t be satisfied with “well there’s nothing we can do about it now, so let’s just relax for a bit, maybe watch TV and then just go to the beach”. There was still a computer on my lap, with a million pages of gloomy fodder just a ‘google search’ away for my ravenously anxious mind to feed on. So I found myself reading the Wikipedia page on the Paris Climate Agreement, then Guardian Articles on what the Trump presidency could do to the Agreement, then a Conversation.com article on the Doomsday Clock being moved to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, then various responses to a question posted on Quora as to whether the world was in-fact ending.
By midday, I was a nervous wreck, and almost couldn’t bring myself to meet my friend at the beach because of my ineluctable, crippling sense that the world’s firey end was imminent (and wouldn’t I have a better chance of surviving it inside a flat rather than on the beach? Especially, if the end of the world came in the form of a tidal wave like in Deep Impact?) I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t in my ‘right mind’, that my anxiety would soon dissipate, and the thoughts would drift away. I tried to think back to all the previous times I had unequivocally believed that the world was ending, and tried to comfort myself that each time the world had not in fact ended. Yet I was able to counter that logic with the fact that its having been preceded by a million false alarms will not negate the reality of the world’s actual ending when it does arrive, and that the final alarm preceding this ending will not be false, and that my present panic could in fact be a response to this not-false alarm, and so I would be a fool to just ignore it.
Whatever I did, I just couldn’t detach from my subjectivity, and I couldn’t accept my thoughts as just being thoughts. I was desperate to hold onto the belief in their being meaningful. The sense of immediate danger did somewhat subside when I managed to propel my body off the couch and towards the beach. But then when I got to the beach, and my brain was no longer distracted by telling one leg to put itself in front of the other and my lips to arrange one syllable in front of the other, the ruminations returned. My thoughts became more abstract, switching from ecology to more philosophical threats to my existence. My personal anxiety over my own purposeless life spread to a collective anxiety on behalf of all humanity for the general purposeless of our condition. I couldn’t stop myself googling “is human existence meaningless?” I nervously thumbed through synopses of relevant essays by Freude, Nietzsche and Camus as I lay on the sand under the shade of a protruding sandstone rock, my hungover friend napping on the towel beside me and some distance ahead, while children danced through the waves that lapped languidly onto the shore.
A day has now past. The world is still turning, and I feel reasonably confident of its continuing to do so for the foreseeable future. Though I do intend to make certain environmentally-considerate lifestyle changes, such as becoming a vegetarian, I no longer feel solely responsible for global warming. A Masters of Environmental Law is still on the cards, but I’d have to wait until July to enrol, so I’m just going to return to the ‘writing thing’ at least until then (I’ve retreated considerably from yesterday’s view of would-be artists as worthless leaches on society, and of me being the most worthless and leachy of leaches). Now that I have some distance, I can recognise the experience of my day at the beach as a stumble-and-fall into one of the wormholes that are a recurring feature of my ‘condition’. The hardest part of coming out of one of these wormholes is working out exactly what they meant and which is more real – yesterday’s terror or today’s ‘normality’. On the one hand, yesterday’s thoughts could be dismissed as the products of an unwell mind and some kind of hormonal imbalance that was tainting my perspective both on myself and the world. Let’s call this the practical perspective. On the other hand, yesterday could be viewed as an eruption of real and profound thoughts, which though still as true today, have been repackaged and tucked away into my unconscious to allow the recommencement of a meaningless sleepwalk through everyday life. Let’s call this the ‘philosophical’ perspective.
A play-by-play review seems to support the practical perspective. The spiral began with sensible, local thoughts, “I have no job. I’m living with my mother again. I’m getting older. I need to figure out what I’m doing with my life”, before extending out to the global, “human beings are fundamentally maligned and we are destroying the planet”, becoming progressively more panicked until they reached the point of “we’re all doomed! This is no time for dithering or rational long-term thinking. I have to do something now to save myself along with all humanity!”, corresponding with increasing physical symptoms of anxiety, which peaked and then subsided into a state of languid melancholia, “life is meaningless”. It could be construed that my initial, rational thoughts catalysed a hormonal reaction that brought on the physical, psychological effects of anxiety, but then my rational brain was not content with just ‘feeling anxious’ and tried to ‘solve’ this anxiety by dredging up corroborating negative thoughts and external material, the now ‘rationalised’, and self-rationalising feeling triggering a further hormonal reaction and so on and so forth. Perhaps I ended up whipping myself into such a frenzied spiral of anxious thought because of my brain’s inability to let feelings just be felt, its compulsion to intellectualise feelings acting as a way to depersonalise them by giving them meaning, shape and an existence of their own. Maybe my over-thinking tendencies are really a defence mechanism against hitherto unacknowledged over-feeling tendencies.
That explanation would helpfully put a line under Sunday and allow me to move on with my life. But I just can’t quite dismiss the thoughts that arose so easily. They all felt so lucid, so epiphanic at the time, especially when I was able to see my own dark conjectures on the nature of human existence seemingly reflected in the far more comprehensively and intelligently articulated visions of other, greater men (Nietzsche, Camus et al). And I still feel my thoughts must have come from somewhere, perhaps lurking in the dark and cobwebby recesses of my mind, waiting for a door to be accidentally knocked open by a lost and panicking little boy running through its hallways. I don’t quite accept that the origin of an anxiety spiral in ‘real world’ conditions entirely negates the ‘truth’ of its philosophical destinations. The fact that despite having different physical triggers (stress, sleep deprivation, idleness) and emotional catalysts, (loneliness, rejection, uncertainty), these spirals seem to race towards similar revelations could suggest that the epiphanies are merely facilitated by, rather than created by, the psychological events.
So a more philosophically appealing, albeit admittedly more dangerous, conception of a manic-depressive spiral emerges, one which sees the eruptions as being caused by the over-compartmentalising of the workings of the ‘truth-seeking’ mind by the micromanaging, pragmatic ‘functional’ mind. Perhaps the burning existential concerns that are recurring features of my ‘breakdowns’ are always there in the background, but are compartmentalised effectively enough so I can march on through life consciously unaware of them, while they unconsciously churn away, waiting for a moment of hesitation in which to pour through and make themselves heard. Perhaps I compartmentalise too effectively. Such an interpretation might be helpful in dealing with the identity crisis that seems to ensue whenever I stumble into a wormhole and find myself stuck at the bottom. It always seems that when I’m ‘up’, I exist as someone who is driven, confident, effective but cold and self-interested, whereas when I’m down, I become sensitive, principled and caring, but paralysed by caring way too much about absolutely everything to bring myself to act on anything. When I’m down, the ineffective idealist feels very much like my ‘true self’, but when I’m up, the effective pragmatist feels truer. Neither version seems particularly desirable – what’s the point of having principles if you cannot act on them, and what’s the point of carrying out any action if you have no principles?
If I don’t want to accept the practical explanation that a ‘true self’ is a romantic fiction and that my seeming two personalities are but manifestations of extreme variations in my brain’s chemical properties, a ‘compartmentalisation’ theory provides a nice alternative – that my mode of dealing with troublesome thoughts, difficult-to-process memories and inconvenient realisations by sealing them up tightly in their own compartments in my mind is what causes them to find expression in such devastating eruptions. Perhaps the ‘hypomania’ side of my bipolar is really a safeguard that keeps my life airtight enough to avoid compressed compartments slipping open. Then when these full-throttle states of existence are broken by one of life’s unavoidable vicissitudes, the dark messes that have been festering in these compartments fall out all at once, and at a time when my mind is incapable of processing them in any sort of healthy way. So maybe real thoughts are indeed at the heart of my ‘terrible awakenings’, thoughts that are worth exuming from the layers of distortion created by the psychic violence that brought them to light.
But perhaps I’m again just trying to intellectualise my way out of acknowledging that my ‘profound, heightened mental states’ are mere products of imbalanced hormones or misfiring neurons or faulty wiring or an evolutionary aberration – and mean nothing at all. When I put forward to my psychologist my strategy of unpacking and ‘processing’ all the dark thoughts that fell out on Sunday in a more controlled, methodical way, she asked me why I thought it could be beneficial to do so. I responded that I thought unpacking them would be a good pre-emptive step against them once again attempting to unpack me. She didn’t seem to agree, suggesting that I need not ever let my emotional states provoke my ‘monkey mind’ into weaving itself into such elaborate dark thought patterns if I learned to relate to my thoughts and emotions more mindfully. So we differed as to whether unpacking the compartments was even necessary. Presuming it wasn’t, she questioned whether there could ever be a time when it would be ‘useful’ for me to unpack the Pandorra’s boxes inside of me. Perhaps a bit haughtily, I replied it would be useful for when I want to write novels and sound profound and interesting – useful for making meaning out of my misery. She responded that it would be all well and good if I could do that without merely perpetuating the misery and allowing it to take debilitating hold of me once again. Making this mistake is what caused my most recent breakdown – I isolated myself from my friends and family and indeed the entire developed world to withdraw for a sustained period into the crevasses of my mind in an attempt to return to ground some time later with something artful (instead, somewhat predictably, falling right into the abyss and requiring a degree of rescuing).
So I took the psychologist’s point but began to ponder whether perhaps there could be a time and a place for being philosophical and a time and a place for being practical with respect to my ‘condition’. That perhaps it was okay to release the frantic monkey mind for the purpose of artistic inspiration, but the rest of the time when I’m trying to be a fully functional human being, it’s imperative to put it back in its cage. But the notion of ‘entertaining my crazy’, rather than focussing solely on conquering it, does frighten me. I look at literary and intellectual figures who I admire, those whose perspectives on the world, as imprinted on the works of art they have left humanity for perpetuity, seem to resonate with my own, those whose temperaments (or if you take a more scientific perspective, psychiatric disorders) also bare some degree of resemblance to my own, and I consider how the worlds of their minds affected their ‘real’ lives, and I feel a sense of foreboding. I find the suicide note left by Virginia Woolf particularly haunting. David Foster Wallace offers a more contemporary example. I’m most likely (sorry, definitely) nowhere near as intelligent a thinker or talented a writer as either of them, so do I really want to attempt to ‘mine the darkness’ as they were able to do so effectively, when in all likelihood the results of my pallid efforts will be of no service to anyone because what I write won’t be any good or nobody will care enough to read it, but the consequences for me (and to those close to me) might be just as dire as they were for Woolf or Foster Wallace, except in my case it would have all been in vain? There doesn’t seem to be much point in having a meaningful existence without having an existence. But that would be a very practical way of looking at things.
*the first draft of this post was written on Monday, 6 February. The maximum temperature recorded on the previous day, Sunday, 5 February, in Sydney was 38.6 degrees.