Escaping the time loop

Recently had a conversation about how when the days feel like they’re on repeat and it gets too heavy, one of the ways to break that cycle is to help someone else.

That feeling of every day having the same pattern has been especially strong for the last year. It can suck you in. Convince you your perception of the flow of time and the monotony is the reality. That you’re in a constant holding pattern, waiting to land and move on.

But I’m not a passive observer of my own life. It’s possible to step up and land the plane myself.

It wasn’t until I said it out loud that I saw something that works for me:

Stop and ask the question, ‘Where can I do some good today?’

Then follow through. That’s it. Now, instead of this being just another day like all the ones before it, you have a marker.

“Today was the day I helped this person do this thing.”

And I know I’m not the only one who feels like this. I see plenty of other people stepping up and stepping in.

I hope it helps them mark the time, too.

Tomorrow could be better.

It’s not much, but that’s the idea that sustains me.

Developing coping mechanisms for depression (and actually seeking treatment) before the world went into a state of isolation and fear is something that’s helping me keep perspective.

No matter what today throws at me, or how disappointed and weary and angry I might feel at the end of the day, I made it to the end.

Tomorrow could be better. I don’t know yet. I have to get there to find out.

Because no matter how hard I think about the things I could’ve done differently in the past to make this a better day, that’s a fruitless exercise.

There’s a name for a mental habit connected to depression: rumination. It’s all about focusing on the past, mulling it over, trying to solve it like a problem.

There’s a passage in The Mindful Way through Depression about it:

When we ruminate, we become fruitlessly preoccupied with the fact that we are unhappy and with the causes, meanings, and consequences of our unhappiness. Research has repeatedly shown that if we have tended to react to our sad or depressed moods in these ways in the past, then we are likely to find the same strategy volunteering to “help” again and again when our mood starts to slide. And it will have the same effect: we’ll get stuck in the very mood from which we are trying to escape…

Rumination invariably backfires. It merely compounds our misery. It’s a heroic attempt to solve a problem that it is just not capable of solving.

Dissecting the day doesn’t make it any better. And analyzing how you would make different choices about today doesn’t necessarily apply to tomorrow, since every day might feel the same (especially now, when so many people are isolating themselves and their families away from the rest of their communities), but it won’t work. No two days are the exact same.

Today is already written. There’s no erasing it or tearing out that page. I can’t make tomorrow simply a more polished revision of today.

So I need to turn to the next blank sheet and start again. Start over.

Because tomorrow could be better.

The Next Right Thing

Part of what got me to finally write down some of my larger thoughts on Frozen was the release of Frozen 2. While I’ve only seen the new film once, and I haven’t processed it enough for a deep dive, it still hit me hard enough in the theater that I need to work out how part of it fits in with some other ideas I’m digesting.

There’s the moment in the sequel when Anna sings “The Next Right Thing,” and I was astounded that so much of what I had felt from my own depression (and still feel) was echoed in a kids movie:

I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath
This next step
This next choice is one that I can make
So I’ll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing

I’ve written before about being kind to your future self, but lately I’ve needed to go further than that. I’ve needed to elevate some of these habits toward the notion of ritualized behavior.

In Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, she makes a great point about the power of personal ritual:

I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, may sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it—makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.

If you make something a habit, you’re saying that it needs to be done, and it has meaning. If you have something to do that has meaning, then you are giving yourself a purpose. If I wasn’t here, this wouldn’t get done. If I’m here, this needs to get done.

Sometimes it’s incredibly small for me.

  • Setting the timer on the coffee pot before I go to bed to tell myself to wake up when the coffee is fresh. I don’t want to waste the coffee, and I don’t want to miss the opportunity to drink it.
  • Making overnight oatmeal and leaving it in the fridge so that I tell myself that it matters that I take care of my body and not just eat something in the morning, but eat something that’s good for it.
  • Checking off boxes in a habit tracker I keep in a notebook, so that I can look back and see that I’m keeping up to the commitments I make to myself.

With that last one, I’m building off ideas from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. One of the hardest things to gauge when depression asserts itself is if the thing I’m doing in the moment is worth it; if I’m making any progress toward something that matters to me.

Some days I don’t get much time for bigger projects. I might wind up only being able to carve 15-20 minutes out of a particularly busy day to get any writing done. But treating it as a necessary habit grounds me in the idea that those 15-20 minutes still have value.

In Clear’s book, he talks about incremental progress as being similar to making a small shift in the direction of travel:

The impact created by a change in your habits is similar to the effect of shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet—but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.

It’s about that idea of playing the long game: If I work a little bit every day, no matter what, it will eventually matter a great deal. And it’s a reminder that if I want to see the dividends, I need to show up not just today, but tomorrow. And the next day.

But it’s also about another point that Clear makes in his book: Habits aren’t just about outcomes, they’re about identity.

I can turn my actions toward ones that support the person I want to be, or I can sit here, mired in the depressive inertia.

It can feel like swimming against the current. It can feel like the effort isn’t carrying me forward.

But that’s only the present moment. That’s not the long game.

You push against the current every day, and you can strengthen your body against it. You push against that current enough and you learn how to keep swimming.

I am not just working to keep moving, even when it’s hard, but to embrace momentum itself as a goal.

Plans are useful to help determine what needs to be done next. Goals are helpful in clarifying direction. Constructing a sense of identity helps give these actions motivation and purpose.

But measuring the distance between now and completion only creates frustration unless there’s momentum.

Which brings me back to the message of Anna’s song. Sometimes the fog is too thick to see through, and that next step is all you can see.

But you can see that next step, and you can take it.

Current Mental Conditions vs. The Mental Forecast

It was a Saturday morning, and my daughter had been awake for forty-five minutes. By that point she had already peppered me with questions about what family birthdays are in which month, fourteen pieces of Star Wars minutiae, and three requests to look at her baby pictures. That’s when Dena texted from upstairs that our son was awake and needed his diaper changed.

Somewhere between closing the snaps on his pajamas and heading back downstairs to start toasting bagels, I looked over my to-do list. That’s when I had The Thought:

“It’s 8 a.m., and the productive part of my day was over an hour ago.”

A few months ago, this thought would’ve locked me in for (to paraphrase the words of The West Wing’s Charlie Young) a “low self-image day.” That to-do list would’ve been set aside, and lethargy would have taken over.

But not this day. This day I thought about the difference between the current mental conditions and the mental forecast.

Even if you hyper-schedule your day, you still don’t know exactly how you’re going to feel a few hours from now, or if the reality of your day is going to match your plan. Unless, that is, you decide that your interpretation of your current mental state and the outside forces acting on it are a prediction of what’s to come, and you live out your self-fulfilling prophecy.

At any given point, our mood is a snapshot of the current conditions. It’s useless, at best, to assume that how you feel now is how you will feel in the future.

Like any good forecast, you need to look at other conditions that hold influence over you.

Because unlike the weather, you have options to head off a storm front moving in inside your head. You need to be able to take that moment to step back and clearly see what you’re looking at when you look at your mental state.

This isn’t just for people with depression. Every person makes predictions about what might happen in the future, but the only information we have is what we can see and hear in the present. Any person might make a bad prediction. While my depression doesn’t create a unique problem in that sense, it does make it harder to differentiate between the current conditions and the forecast.

But I’m learning.

I ate my bagel. Had some coffee. Washed some dishes. Gave my son a bath. Wrote the first draft of this post, and got a lot of other boxes checked off in my to-do list.

And a big part of why the day didn’t stop at 8 a.m. was because I’m learning to be a better emotional meteorologist.

How am I not myself?

Ever since I started using streaming music services, I’ve wondered about how much of my listening choices have been shaped by the service. Am I really listening to what I want to, or have I been going with the algorithm’s flow, listening to minor variations on what it knows of my past preferences?

Then again, I was never really picking songs out of nowhere.

There was my father’s record collection in the basement, where his taste shaped mine. There were recommendations from friends. There were the songs on the radio, selected by tastemakers and marketers. There was what was available to me in local stores, or who I might see perform on the tv shows I watched (which were determined by the people who booked talent for those shows, and the network executives that decided what shows to produce).

Other people already shaped my taste, but I could exert control by saying yes or no to their suggestions.

The same goes for films that I watch and re-watch. Sure, Netflix may try to suggest what it thinks I would like to see next, but I have final say. Like with music, when it comes to film, I never made choices in a complete void. I was influenced by everything from professors in school, my friends, the “Best Of” list books I pored over, the programmers at Turner Classic Movies… And so on.

What I was exposed to created a rubric for me to interpret my reactions and opinions, but in the end I would get to say yes or no.

And I’m thinking about this more when I question why it took me so long to make the leap and try antidepressants.

While growing up, people would talk to me about the way my brain seemed to operate differently than other people’s. That it was unique in a positive way.

During one long night in high school, working on a homecoming float, a friend took me aside and told me that I shouldn’t ever take drugs, because “They’ll just make you like everyone else.” It was a pretty odd PSA moment, but it stuck with me.

For a long time, I consciously connected the idea of drugs that alter your mood or perceptions as changing something essential about you. Maybe it had to do with the way I identified as a creative person, and there were so many creative people who were heralded for making beautiful art out of their pain. Creative people who talked openly about their disdain for the idea of doing anything to alter their relationship between their mind and their work.

And there were direct testimonials from people whose work I respected, like when reading David Lynch’s comments on drugs (in general) from Catching the Big Fish:

We all want expanded consciousness and bliss. It’s a natural, human desire. And a lot of people look for it in drugs. But the problem is that the body, the physiology, takes a hard hit on drugs. Drugs injure the nervous system, so that they just make it harder to get those experiences on your own.

The messages about how drugs (of all types) work sunk in. That altering your chemistry altered something essential about you. I had a fear of becoming somebody else. Dulled. Losing my edge.

And I lied to myself that it was worth all the suffering so long as I could hold on to those occasional moments and fight through it to think up something beautiful or original.

But at some point I had to ask the question out of I Heart Huckabees: How am I not myself?

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If other people, other stories, other choices, other influences touch my life every day, but I’m still somehow essentially me, why should medication be any different?

It was a risk I was finally willing to take, because of two things:

  1. Acknowledging that the version of myself that I became without some kind of intervention had become someone incapable of properly doing the things I care about, or being helpful to the people I care about.
  2. Acknowledging that nothing is permanent, and that if one intervention doesn’t work or has negative side effects, there are other methods to try.

And I feel different. I feel more resilient. More able to grasp moments of happiness.

But am I myself?

When am I not?

To say that medication makes me no longer myself is to suggest that a person has little to no free will, that we’re just chemical processes dancing with our reactions to our environment. If changing the internal chemistry of my body makes me a fundamentally different individual, then so would taking a vitamin C supplement or an aspirin.

A person has to be more than their chemistry, their DNA, their “programming.” Otherwise, there would be little difference at all between a human and an algorithm.

There’s no difference between what’s inside a bedroom with the lights on or off. It’s just that when you turn the lights on, the shadows stop looking like monsters.