One of Tolstoy’s most famous quips is the opening line in Anna Karenina. Mostly because it’s a good opening for talking about unhappy people. But I’m a contrarian, so I’ll just skip that formalism and say this is a navel-gazing post about unhappy people, particularly me when I’m unhappy.
I understand my depressive issues much better now than two or three years ago. They aren’t gone or always under control, but I do understand them much better. My most recent understanding is from several conversations with a friend here.
I’ve usually thought of my depressive episodes as something that was sorta beyond my control. Just a mood that would strike and that I had to roll with. There are techniques to mitigate it, to dampen it, to put it on hold, but nothing to make it stop before it started or to make it go away once it had. And most importantly, I tended to deny that I had any real agency in kick-starting the process and keeping it going.
But now I think I’m more of a participant in how my depressive episodes, at least the minor ones, start and play out. It’s not that they’re fully outside my control, it’s that when I’m upset I abuse emotions like an alcoholic abuses alcohol or any addict abuses their addiction of choice. I’ll binge on them, wallow in self-pity, tax my friends’ patience, and occasionally use my bad mood as an excuse for doing things I know I shouldn’t do and (or so I tell myself) wouldn’t otherwise do. Eventually I’ll reach emotional equilibrium again (i.e. sober up) and then feel bad about whatever havoc I caused while I was busy being upset and try to move on with my life.
This slightly different viewpoint suggests a few things. The first is it helps me realize and accept that getting into an emotional spiral is unproductive. It takes up time, increases the chances I’ll frustrate or hurt someone I care about, and probably will decrease the quality of whatever academic work I do manage to focus on. The second is that once I’ve given into certain negative emotions, it’s largely damage-control from there on out. Stopping myself before I get started is much more important than finding ways to come out of it once it’s started. At least to help me not get into tizzies over small stuff. Bigger issues, of the sort that have historically led to successive waves of depression over several weeks or months, I’m still unsure about. Those are usually caused/worsened by external issues that make me overly sensitive, issues that I usually can’t easily resolve or ignore. In those situations I do need coping skills that work over longer periods of time, and can help me deal if (when?) I fall off the bandwagon.
All of the above is important enough for me to realize. But my friend also had a few other comforting words of wisdom. They essentially boiled down to: Like anything else that could have a sin tax associated with it, use negative emotions responsibly. She didn’t tell me that I should only feel sad or depressed when there was a good reason to, or that I should never sit around feeling sorry for myself. She readily acknowledged that being an emotional tempest in a teapot for awhile can be quite satisfying, in it’s own way. And since she’s had her own issues with emotions over the years, I knew it wasn’t she wasn’t just being patronizing; it was the voice of empathy and understanding I was hearing.
In ways this last part was the most important part for me to hear. I’ve been told before that, to varying extents depending on the circumstances, negative emotions are a choice. But I’ve usually been told that by all-too-emotionally-balanced people. And, like life-long teetotalers lecturing Robert Downey Jr., it just wasn’t particularly convincing. If I didn’t believe they had an inkling what the emotions were doing for me or why I might want or need to feel them, then everything they said was suspect.
So now I have a vaguely different perspective, and a vague notion that it should help change things. I guess only time will tell how much this view really helps.