F Is For “Fuck It”

The ultimate metamorph, the “fuck it” feeling can be good or bad, destructive or liberating. It can be the moment of casting aside recovery efforts and popping a pill, or the moment of turning away from a useless argument to direct your efforts to more important things.

Recklessness. Apathy. Liberation. Anger. Dismissal. Rejection. Exasperation. Spontaneity. It can mean any of them. And any of its meanings could be playing out in a healthful or unhealthful way.

“Fuck it” is not appropriate when faced with politics…but it’s appropriate when looking at the hundredth headline about the same thing when what you really need is sleep.

“Fuck it” is not appropriate when faced with a difficult relationship…but it is when the same specific argument has happened a hundred times and you have to start looking for a solution that doesn’t involve convincing the other person you’re right.

“Fuck it” isn’t useful when it comes to your health…but it is when you hear the same outdated lecture from your doctor for the hundredth time after they’ve forgotten your logical response to it for the hundredth time.

“Fuck it” isn’t good as a general approach to parenting…but it makes a lot of sense when your kid’s finally dressed for preschool, except they insist on wearing their rain boots on a sunny day, and it was time to leave five minutes ago, and it’s just not worth it.

We need the “fuck it” feeling or it would be hard to let go of anything. Oh, there are more serene ways to let go–but they require a level of confidence and self-acceptance that few of us can sustain all the time. Whatever emotion comes with of “fuck it” helps shut up that voice telling us we can’t stop until it’s solved; until we win.

E Is For Elephant in the Room

You know the one. Someone brings up the topic of addiction, or mental illness, or meds…and suddenly the elephant is there, pointing its trunk right at you, and there’s an awkward pause in the conversation. Or maybe you’re watching a movie with friends, and the plot introduces something to do with the condition(s) you have, and you feel tension in the room as others wonder how you’re reacting and you wonder whether the fictional character is changing the way they see you. Or you’re at a support group meeting and someone’s sharing about the horrible things Person with Condition X has done to them and people who know you flick their eyes towards you and away and you’re there thinking, “Well, Person with X sounds to me like a total asshole who just happens to have Condition X.”

I’m only one of many who experience this kind of thing. An even more pervasive version is experienced by a Black woman I know who finds it incredibly frustrating to be the only person of color at a gathering because people see her as a “representative” and expect her to react to and weigh in on any remotely race-related topic. She can’t just be in the group as herself.

Sometimes the elephant is present when people know just a little about me and what I have. They’re curious to know more, but they’re uncomfortable about asking. Every decision point makes them unsure whether they will offend. Meanwhile, every misconception they’ve absorbed in their earlier life is coloring how they see me and their judgment of whether I’m a safe person to invite closer.

So when my book is polished a bit more, can I just carry it around and force every new acquaintance to read it? Unfortunately, I don’t think it works that way.

D Is For Despair

Sometimes despair looks like roses.

It did for me, one day in 2011, when I looked at the roses in my yard for what I thought would be the last time as I prepared to leave and carry out my plan for suicide. (Spoiler alert, I didn’t go through with it.)

Despair looks different on everyone. It can look like slumping on a couch, surrounded by paraphernalia of one’s substances of choice, staring into the distance. It can look like careening through one destructive relationship or hookup after another. It can look like sitting at a computer all night, whether working or gaming, not wanting to see the external world or another person’s face. It can look like a perfectly normal life and come through in nothing but occasional body language cues and microexpressions.

One person’s hallmarks of despair might not indicate despair on another person. They might just be in a fallow period, or a mentally hyperactive period, or be acting out a bit following a breakup.

How is despair different from depression, or grief? I think it’s different because it’s more than a set of phenomena like symptoms, emotions, or behaviors. Despair is any or all of those things grown into a worldview; a set of beliefs. Beliefs about what life is, what possibilities do and don’t exist, and the worth of one’s own self and experiences.

If emotions are weather, despair is geographical change. Sometimes it sets in abruptly, like an earthquake, but more often its effects are slow and insidious. And sometimes it lifts or alters abruptly, with a change in circumstances, but it can also recede as subtly as it came.

That’s what it was like for me. The return of hope was so quiet, so gradual, that it was a shock when I realized it was there.

C Is For Cannabis

Okay, first, for the record, cannabis is awesome. I am so glad it’s getting legalized more and more. I agree with those who argue that, as a recreational drug, it’s less harmful than alcohol. I’m glad dispensaries carry such a variety in so many forms. I have many friends who benefit from its medical use, whether it be smoking it for nausea or applying CBD oil to aching joints. My own daughter may start using it for her migraines. Cannabis needs to stay legal, get cheaper, and be the subject of research to plumb its possibilities.

But please stop pressuring me to use it. Tell me how well it’s worked for you, once or twice–sure. But let it go after that.

I know many strains won’t produce euphoria. I know all that, I swear. But this one woman keeps telling me I should smoke it for my anxiety, which implies a strain that does something…and for me, an anti-anxiety effect would create a constant temptation to overuse, because I’m an addict and I react in certain ways to things that produce short-term changes. I stay away from certain psych meds for the same reasons. I just can’t use an “off” switch in a responsible way.

It’s true that I belong to a recovery community that views cannabis with a lot of suspicion, so peer influence plays a role in my caution. If I should develop a condition where cannabis really is the only thing that will help, I’ll have to navigate complicated choices. But I am not there yet. Recovery is a lifelong task of risk/benefit analysis.

B Is For Brain

Does changing my brain mean changing who I am?

I believe in some type of consciousness that surpasses matter. But in everyday life my emotions, thinking ability, and creativity are profoundly influenced by the physical qualities of the lump of soggy goo that lives inside my skull. It requires fuel. It responds to its chemical environment. When I get sick, it loses function. When I took drugs, it responded to that. And when that lump of soggy goo developed bipolar disorder, it changed my life on so many levels I can’t imagine a hypothetical self without it now.

There’s a novel in which the protagonist, an old man, gets his brain transplanted into the body of a young, beautiful woman. He had his original brain and all its memories, but that brain was now bathed in a different chemical soup. The author chose to have the character, a heterosexual man in his old body, become bisexual with a strong preference towards men. The explanation given was twofold: a bond with the previous owner of the body, and the influence of female hormones.

Do I think that explanation is realistic? No, and I think some of the author’s attitudes about gender are quite dated, but it is food for thought. How much of our sexuality, for example, lies in the body, how much in the brain, and how much in a mysterious entity that is neither? Extrapolating, how much of my very identity lies in each?

I don’t mean to define myself by a diagnosis in a self-defeating manner, nor do I mean to discount the role of attitude and insight in my quality of life. I’m simply saying that understanding that I’m coping with a certain kind of brain can help me structure and create a life that suits it as well as possible. I know there’s a huge amount I can do to influence it–but I’m still starting with my individual lump of soggy goo.

A Is For Acceptance

I used to think acceptance was the coward’s way out. It would be wrong for me to accept my conditions or their limitations, because that would mean I was giving up instead of fighting, fighting all the time, fighting to create a “normal” life like all the inspirational stories out there tell us a disabled person is supposed to do.

The culture I live in glorifies fighting. When a person develops cancer, their process is framed as a battle. Their perceived job is to fight–and if the cancer proves to be terminal, the battle is lost. Death is framed as a failure. For millions like me, life with compromises is seen as a failure. Accepting that I cannot work full-time, or spend too long in certain environments, means stepping away from the meritocracy and accepting a role of someone who’s not in the race.

Settling into a regimen of care that doesn’t fix everything but has been sustainable for years is seen as a failure. I’m supposed to be trying things, constantly seeking alternative treatments, and spending my life in an endless search for a cure instead of living it.

Of course, there’s a balance needed between accepting and fighting. There are many battles to fight every day. If a heavy depression has kept me from washing my hair for days, accepting my greasy locks and itchy scalp isn’t the best choice. Better to fight the inertia, if I can, and drag myself to the shower. Ditto for hundreds of other arenas where I take on my demons to win the prize of some meaningful action.

But accepting myself, in general–accepting that I have the life I do–is key, no matter what it costs.