A middle-class white guy navigates the decline of the American Empire and industrial civilization.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Escape from the Shadow Realm

In the words of the Grateful Dead and Soul II Soul, what a long, strange trip it's been back to life, back to reality. I finally seem to be coming out of a soul coma. For the last few years, I've been plagued by a sense of unreality, a feeling that the world and its inhabitants are unreal or (more often) that some inter-dimensional haze separates me from everything (and everyone) else. The effect is mainly emotional, but I'm most aware of its visual component. It slightly blurs my vision, softening all edges.

Apparently, this is a symptom of Depersonalization Disorder. I discovered this quite by accident when I looked up Adam Duritz of Counting Crows on Wikipedia. On an episode of the hit podcast Jordan, Jesse, Go! one of the hosts (Jordan) said Mr. Duritz's dreadlocks were fake, so I decided to conduct some independent research. I was unable to confirm that claim, but I did learn that he experiences the aforementioned disorder, which is marked by a feeling that the world isn’t real.

Usually, I would be relieved to learn that my condition has a name and afflicts others too. But that revelation increased my anxiety. For some reason, I wanted to keep this malady to myself. I wanted it to remain personal, unique and nameless. I didn't want to label it with a clinical diagnosis. My bouts of depression often provoke this reaction: “Must sadness always be pathologized? Can't I just be bummed out? Isn't there enough pain and suffering in the world to justify being down in the dumps?”

I've been out of phase with Reality since the fall of 2010, but it feels like I’m almost all the way back. I keep bursting through fuzzy membranes of distortion that were cutting me off from the Real World. It's like I'm traveling through dimensions, getting closer to my home dimension, but never quite there. I'm striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping that the next leap will be the leap home. (Sorry, I had to.) The goalposts keep moving. The closer I get to Reality, the more I notice the sensations that are still missing. I didn’t even notice my sense of smell had diminished until it returned in full force a week ago.

This case of Depersonalization Disorder must be a result of repressing emotional pain. I think my mind has tried to escape reality to avoid the stress and misery of my situation. My closest friends stopped calling me back, and I failed to find any new friends with whom I connected emotionally. The only jobs I could get were of the soul-crushing corporate variety. My cousin, with whom I’d been living, moved back home to Chicago, and I didn’t want to live with strangers anymore. Therefore, I moved in with my parents for what was supposed to be one winter, but which just passed five years. My relationship with them was still broken from adolescence and fraught with tension and anger. By pretty much any measure, I should’ve been despondent. Internally, I conformed to that expectation, but I was unable to process my grief.

In the absence of constructive action to extricate myself from this predicament, my brain took me out of my rut and whisked me away to the Shadow Realm. The world became a ghost town and the people tumbleweeds. I could still see and hear them, but their actions didn’t have much positive effect on me. However, even benign comments and deeds were enough to trigger my anxiety. When nothing anyone is saying or doing makes you feel better and often makes you feel worse, I guess turning everyone into a wraith is a logical defense mechanism. It comes in especially handy when your friends disappear, because the transition from ghost to empty air is less jarring than that from corporeal being to nothing.

This parallel universe was safe, but it was also boring and lonely. Nothing was worth doing, because I was numb. Since everyone was a shade, physical contact felt illusory and emotional connection vanished completely. I wasn’t willing to open up to the only people who were emotionally available to me at the time. I lost the ability to connect with new people. I was too afraid to open up to them, feeling like I’d been emotionally abandoned by my family and all my closest friends.

This isn’t the first time I’ve withdrawn from the world. It’s a habit I developed as a child. I would routinely plunge into the abyss of TV rather than attempt human contact. My parents had to force me to go outside and play with the other kids. Socialization has always offered me greater rewards than television, but it also offers greater risks, foremost among these, rejection. Being a sensitive boy, I was an easy target for verbal abuse as the new kid in elementary school and then as any kid in middle school. By the time I got to high school, I’d already had my fill of rejection.

That pain has driven me to flee the company of people many times. I often wish I could live alone and keep the world at arm's length to avoid being hurt anymore. If it were up to me, I would live Jorge Luis Borges's "life of the mind." I would lose myself in fantasy, TV, movies, music and books. For about half of my two years in Chicago, right after college, I realized that dream. Discovering that all my bachelor’s degree entitled me to was a seemingly infinite string of temp jobs left me bitter. I wanted nothing more to do with a society that had convinced me a college degree was the Key to the Kingdom and then, once I got one, still denied me a stable, white-collar job. I retreated into my apartment and spent my days watching TV and playing video games.

But the peace of solitude quickly curdled into paranoid isolation. Each day became a repetition of eating too much, watching too much TV and staying up too late. I was lonely, depressed and obese. This is what happens whenever I spend too much time alone. Physical symptoms crop up that are severe enough to convince me I need to overcome my fear of rejection and re-engage with people. Ultimately, my body is the one that keeps pulling me back into the World.

There’s always been a tension between my desire to be in the middle of Life, amidst teeming Humanity with all its joys and troubles, and my desire to be free of those obligations, indulging in solitude and serenity. I assume most people have to deal with that tension and strike a balance between the stress of engagement and the loneliness of isolation. I’m usually overwhelmed by the stress and easily hurt by my family and friends’ perceived rejection or abandonment. If you’re grateful for my continued participation in Life’s Grand Pageant, you can thank my unconscious. If it were up to my conscious mind, I would’ve checked out a long time ago.

I think this desire for escape is fueled by our Lonely Society. I doubt it would be so easy to slip into the Shadow Realm if I were part of a true community, like in the Olden Days. Those personal connections are what keep me rooted in Reality. Having supportive family and friends gives me a feeling of self-worth that convinces me living in the Real World is worth the pain and struggle. On my own, I’m liable to lose touch with Reality and fly off into a void of despair at the apparent futility and cruelty of Life. The love of my family and friends (eventually) convinces me to stick around by renewing my faith in Humanity and giving me hope for the Future.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Waiting for the Waterworks

My emotional recovery proceeds apace. (I had to look up "apace." It means "quickly," which is good, because I really wanted to use that sentence.)Yesterday, it went faster than I could handle. I was having dinner with my parents, and I was consistently amused by their conversation, which hasn't happened since I was about 12. It felt good to let in the joy without putting up the usual barricades against my folks.

Unfortunately, after I went downstairs to watch TV alone, I had an anxiety attack. It felt like a burst of uncontrollable energy. It didn't last long, but the anxious energy lingered in my chest, so I took a Lorazepam. I've only used 3 of those sedatives since I got the prescription in May, and they're mild anyway. I turned off the TV and meditated briefly on the floor. That seemed to help more than the Lorazepam.

I went upstairs and told Mom and Dad about it. They were helpful. I said I must've gotten too much energy from our dinner conversation. It's also kinda scary to feel like you've finally fixed your relationship with your parents after 24 years. The last time we had a strong relationship I was 12. I don't know what a healthy adult relationship with my parents looks like. I don't know what the repercussions will be. They should be good, but they're still unknown.

Maybe the main reason I'm afraid is that I'm making myself completely vulnerable to my parents again after 24 years. I still feel like they've let me down in the past. But, after re-examining our history with an empathetic mind, I think their mistakes were the result of good intentions or common human flaws. Still, though, that's a long period of distrust to overcome.

But I'd be willing to bet the primary cause of this distress is my inability to cry. That was the other emotional bridge that broke down when I hit puberty (and started middle school). I think if I could cry, esp. in front of my parents, that would go a long way toward healing me. A lot of pain has built up in the last 24 years. I'm not saying I haven't released any of it, but I'm guessing some of that old pain is still causing me problems, still waiting to be liberated.

It would also be nice to be able to process emotions healthfully. In elementary school, I cried often. My stone face didn't take over until I got to middle school. Fully opening up to my parents could re-open the waterworks. It means changing back into someone I haven't been since I was 12. Change is scary, as is being emotionally vulnerable. I'll have to proceed cautiously.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Taming the Doomer

After a difficult summer, I've achieved some sense of emotional security and stability. But still the Doomer insists that I'm surrounded by fools. I walked through the Augsburg campus today and saw a large circle of college-aged kids. (I'm guessing they were college-aged, because nowadays college kids look like high school kids to me, high school kids look like middle school kids and so on, although infants still don't look like fetuses, thank God.) The Doomer just wanted to point at them and shout, "You're all doomed! DOOMED!"

I've come to accept the Doomer as an aspect of my personality, an incorrigible child of the Dark Side who must be kept in his corner. He acts out every now and then, and that's when he needs a timeout. This taming of my Doomer has been instrumental in my emotional recovery. I've had to learn to look on the bright side and not wallow in pessimism. It has helped me recognize the subjectivity of my perspective and realize that happy people aren't oblivious; they just have a different, arguably better perspective.

In my solitary wandering, I've often seen happy people and thought them stupid. My mind would ask, "How can you be happy in this vale of tears?" I usually diagnose this reaction, correctly, as envy. I'm lonely and resent their apparently happy, friend-filled lives. But the persistence with which I've discredited happiness as ignorance imprinted that equation on my psyche. I came to distrust happiness in others and myself as a symptom of naivete or willful blindness.

In order to climb out of a hole of anxiety and depression, I had to re-program my brain to accept happiness as a legitimate response to the world, even with all its injustice, pain and suffering. The things that had previously supported my sense of self-worth (living in a hip neighborhood, working a job that paid the bills, hanging out with friends with whom I felt strong emotional bonds) were lost.

I was forced to expand my emotional aperture to accept support from sources I'd been rejecting, most notably my parents. The friends I have now aren't as artistic or sensitive as my old friends, but I've learned to focus on their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. I've also tried to reciprocate their loyalty, no longer expecting the relationships to be one-way streets of encouragement. Once I pulled back the curtains to let in more light, the Doomer had fewer places to hide.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Li'l World

At least a year after my 2005 breakdown, the world began to appear small to me. The rooms of my apartment, the houses that I walked past, the skyscrapers that filed past the window of the buses and cars I rode in. They all suddenly looked small. For some reason, my visual perception of the size of the world had changed. It was as if the world had been warped and shrunken to fit inside my anxiety-addled brain.

It was a depressing development. Formerly, the world had intimidated and fascinated me with its size. I loved to gaze up at skyscrapers in Minneapolis, Chicago or New York and stare across the vast expanses of flat farmland while driving through the Midwest. I was usually nervous when in public, and being in the presence of a large feature, like Times Square, increased my nerves. At the same time, though, it excited me. 

But I could no longer lose myself in the world's labyrinth. I walked the city streets, but really I was only walking the streets of my own mind. There was no interaction to take me out of my head. The strangers passed wordlessly, reinforcing the sense that this world was just a figment of my imagination, an illusion meant to torment me with the unfulfilled promise of connection.

This shift in perception was later supplemented with increased confidence and a lack of interest in taking part in the world. Even though I had a new-found serenity, I had no desire to put it to use by making friends, dating or pursuing my artistic aspirations. I just wanted to keep watching TV in my apartment and hang out with my roommates. This seems to have been another symptom of depression, the sense that the outside world had nothing to offer me.

I recovered from the apathy, but that feeling of living in a diminished world still crops up on a regular basis. The key to fighting the depression seems to be engaging with people socially, especially strangers. It takes guts for me to venture outside my Minnesota comfort zone, but it's good for me and hopefully my sociability will "go viral," as the kids say.

I think it would be good for most Minnesotans to adopt this habit. Here are some ideas I came up with for a Minnesota PSA: "Friendliness: Pass It On!"  Or "You're an Adult. It's OK to Talk to Strangers Now." Or "Talking to Strangers: It's not just for at-risk youth anymore!" One of those should do the trick.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

That Deep-Down Body Thirst

I've been walking the streets of Uptown, Loring Park and Downtown all day, trying to perpetuate the illusion of constructive activity in lieu of employment. That kind of self-delusion can work up a powerful thirst in a man. And I don't mean no tap water thirst. This ain't no Brita water thirst neither. Nor is it the kind of thirst that can be quenched by your Vitamin Water or your Sobe or any of those high-classed, namby-pamby, pantywaist beverages. No, this is the kind of deep-down body thirst that can only be quenched by a man's sports drink, the kind of liquid ya need after you play pickup basketball for 106 straight hours in the blazing sun, or you run 12 marathons in a row, or you build the Hoover Dam.

How I do love Gatorade, with its electrolytes and complex carbohydrates and flavors not found in nature, like Orange, Grape, Lemon Lime, Fruit Punch, Strawberry Kiwi, Tropical Mango, Citrus Cooler, Cool Blue, Cool Glacier Blast, Frost Glacier Freeze, Frost Cascade Crash, Frost Riptide Rush and Cold Fusion Reactor.

It smacks of summer scorchers, walking down the sidewalk with the sweat drippin' off ya, stopping at the convenience store and reaching into the cooler for a cold, plastic bottle of watered-down, Kool-Aid-for-diabetics sweetness. I had a few more blocks til home, but it didn't matter with those electrolytes replenishing my dangerously-low supply of electrolytes.

It also makes me feel athletic. When you drink Gatorade, you're showing a firm commitment to hydration. You're telling the world, "I refuse to let the elements stand between me and my appointed task. Even if my appointed task is to pick up some cheddar and sour cream potato chips, French Onion dip and maybe a pint of Ben & Jerry's, I will dedicate myself to its successful completion as if I were picking up Brett Favre at the airport or repelling Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg or driving my wife to the hospital to give birth to our first child. My current errand may seem trivial, but I refuse to shirk my duty. I will be bringing the full, hydrating, electrolyte-replenishing force of Gatorade to bear on this endeavor. God help the thirst that dares stand in my way."

And if you even imply that Powerade is remotely similar to Gatorade, I will Greco-Roman wrestle you to within an inch of your life, pretty boy. This is not open to discussion. Either you pledge allegiance to Gatorade, or you get the hell outta my country. How do I know Gatorade has been chosen by Jesus as the All-American elixir of champions for the greatest nation on Earth? Because Michael Jordan drinks it, and Michael Jordan is our Greatest Living American.

End of story.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Imperial Legacy

The model of Germania, the planned capital of Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich, sits under a sheet in the basement of the Western imagination, waiting to be unveiled again. We think we've immunized ourselves against this evil. We watch hour after hour of TV shows about the Nazis. We might even read a book or two about them. How could we ever be as wicked as they? But even as we maintain this blithe naivete, our ignorance grows, as does our potential for evil.

Let's walk the streets of the unconscious and trace the outline of this city. Surely we'll find many blind alleys and dead ends haunted by monsters. How many virgins have been sacrificed to this Minotaur? The streets are paved with their bones. Their ghosts fill every silence with moaning, crying, wailing. They deliver warnings. Don't repeat their mistakes. Don't succumb to hubris. Remember: thou art mortal. You are just as capable of evil as anyone else. You are just as vulnerable to pride and arrogance, more so because of the power of your technology.

Why does Germania feel so familiar to me? This is the capital of my dreams, the wellspring whence my imagination sprang. The smooth walls of the edifices. The rigid geometry of the streets. It calls to me. But this is only a dream, a figment of madmen's fancy, the gleaming facade of our murderous heritage, the handsome face of evil, the impossibly perfect skin stretched over the bottomless pit of savagery.

Living in this city, you'd never know the horrors of its construction, the brutal enslavement of its builders, the cruel fate of its citizens. But this is our home. Our empire is also built on death, destruction and oppression. We are shielded from these truths by our sanitized environment. The pollution and exploitation necessary to maintain our lifestyle have been mostly outsourced to factories and sweatshops beyond our borders. The media politely refrain from troubling us with the true causes and costs of the conflicts fought by our military and our proxies. But all empires fall. Let's hope we leave more than a model of evil when we go.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Endless Punishment

How do you punish a mass murderer, a Master of War, an architect of genocide? How could we have brought balance to our moral universe for the millions executed on the orders of Hitler, Stalin or Mao? Shall we rain down on Kissinger the sum total of all U.S. aerial bombardment in the Pacific theater during World War II, as was done to Cambodia at his command? How much pain should we inflict on George W. Bush for the million-plus deaths caused by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?

The leaders of the guilty have few lives to sacrifice on the Scales of Justice, but there are millions of lives on the other end. The nooses of Nuremberg seem too humane for these crimes. They are too quick, too clean for the monsters who managed to keep the blood off of their hands. Shall we resurrect them to exact an execution for each life taken? Shall we pursue them through reincarnations, ensuring that each of their next million lives ends in misery?
This is why vengeance never ends. No punishment that fits the crime can be anything short of a new crime that reverses the roles of the victim and the criminal. I feel like a monster just for proposing these sentences and committing them to (digital) paper. But who of moral clarity and passionate temperament hasn’t entertained such thoughts?
When does justice become revenge? That could be measured by the level of emotion invested in the prosecution. But even justice requires emotion. Science has shown that emotion is needed in order to make the most basic decisions. Therefore, we must temper our passion with empathy and mercy. Each murder, be it state-sanctioned or not, is a wound that must be treated, not an offensive maneuver in a zero-sum game.