Conversation: Choice & Feeling

On April 6, 2011 at 12:31 a.m., I posted the first draft of what will eventually become the fifth story in the “Making and Empathy” chapter in the book “Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Making.” surrounding my experience in the metal shop. This is an edited version of the conversation that followed, regrouped and rearranged for clarity and relevance. Click here for the previous installment, which talks about empathy and mastery.


an-lon: (Smiles) Happens to me all the time when drawing and editing, squinting at it and wondering what’s wrong, and 90% of the time, whatever’s wrong is completely orthogonal to all the directions I was previously searching.

slim: The feeling of hindsight obviousness intrigues me quite a bit. I remember being dumbfounded when my friend shared her story of how she overcame her bipolar disorder. She said she finally realized that she had the power to choose not to be depressed. She told me that it was so obvious in hindsight, that she couldn’t understand why she didn’t realize it before. But the reason I was dumb-founded was that I wasn’t depressed, yet I had never realized that, either. I can choose how to feel? That was a completely novel thought.

Since then, I’ve heard many people say things like “we always have a choice.” But I think it’s imprecise to say that we always “have” a choice. I’m sure it took them a lot of struggles to come to that realization. So what they mean is that we have to become knowledgeable of the choice. Or more precisely, we have to “develop” and “make” a choice that wasn’t available to us previously. That can take quite a bit of effort. It’s not just a matter of “snapping out of it.” Once you’re able to just snap out of it, you’ve already learned it.

an-lon: Ironically, Slim, you knew me during a period when I was genuinely depressed. When I attended the International School of Beijing (isb), I was really alone and struggling. Beijing was my first time living in a big city and I experienced culture shock and extreme loneliness.

I was functional — for where I was at the time, I was pretty convinced I’d just get yelled at if I admitted I needed help —but I remember sleeping 10 hours a day because I just didn’t want to wake up, and making a deal with myself that I’d allow myself to contemplate suicide if college wasn’t better. Don’t get me wrong ,  I wasn’t actively suicidal. It was just my way of mentally kicking the can down the street. I truly have no idea what it was like for your friend.

I think there are links between add and depression, but I don’t think I was ever truly chemically predisposed to depression in the way a bipolar person is. In my case, I was depressed first because I was trapped in a small town — before Beijing — then thrown into a big city — Beijing — with no coping skills.

College and D.C. introduced me to the world, and I was fine after that. But I do know from those high school years exactly what depression is. I had plenty of roller coaster ups and downs in my twenties, but nothing like depression. Nothing like that soul-sucking lethargy of my teens.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same of the past few years. The allergies are a long story, but basically a year into my stay in L.A., I started experiencing mysterious symptoms:  a sore throat that wouldn’t go away for two months and just overall lack of energy. It took many trips to various doctors to figure out what was going on. I’d do something that would help for a while, then get flattened by some new mystery ailments.

The infuriating thing was, that was never anything huge — I’d just be sick, and tired all the time because when you’re not breathing well, you’re not sleeping well, and when you’re not sleeping well, you’re not living well. After a while, this changed my identity, from an energetic, enthusiastic person to one who carefully rationed her energy.

This also made me realize that perhaps that enormous physical energy was all that had held depression at bay all through those 18 years between high school and l.a. I kept the demons at bay by constantly chasing after new pursuits, which was great, but what I didn’t know was that if you take away the physical energy, the scaffolding that remains is a house of cards.

Thing is, during the healthy decade of my twenties, I’d taught myself to push through fatigue, frustration, and fear. Athletics are a good example of this ; you learn to recognize when to push through pain and when to rest. You know the Nike slogan “Just do it”? Well… yeah. Just do it. And with computers, I’m sure I don’t need to explain how stubbornness pays off. Damn. I pushed hard in my twenties, but I scored a lot of victories, too.

The allergies-and-depression cycle of recent years is a bit hard to explain because I really can’t just blame the allergies. There was a breakup, job angst, and moving to a new apartment. But I’ve coped with all of the above before, and there were good things going on in my life, too. It was all incredibly frustrating because while I definitely recognized the symptoms of depression from that extended period in high school, I could not figure out why it was happening again and why I couldn’t just snap out of it.

As with that period in high school, I never stopped fighting. I never stopped going out and doing what I wanted to do. But I did cut back . There was always this triage of what I had energy for and what my priorities were. In my twenties, I just did it all. These past few years, I hit a point where I couldn’t — I had to make choices.

I’m still convinced that the only reason I snapped out of that depressive period — I can’t truly call it depression, but I felt like I was always close to the edge and could never quite get any distance from it — was that I finally got the allergies under control. Exercise and nutrition are a big part of it, but so were allergy shots and an immune system booster vaccine.

No silver bullets, but basically I feel like myself again after having had to walk through sludge the past three years. I’ve kind of forgotten how to run, but at least I know it’s possible again. (Smiles) I spent three years trying to choose not to be depressed, but the fog refused to lift until I finally got my physical health back.

Did I do it all wrong? Would therapy or medication have gotten me over it sooner? I just don’t know. And I perhaps never will. I’ve been playing these past six months entirely by ear. I do feel safe in the assumption that as long as I have my physical health, my mental health is also safe. But
I no longer take it for granted. And I also realize that the madcap coping mechanism of my twenties — constantly sprinting — literally, when it came to ultimate frisbee, probably wouldn’t have lasted forever anyway.

One thing that tends to not work is trying to will yourself into being more organized/disciplined/attentive. That tends to be a recipe for failure, with all the voices in your head yelling at you for being such a lazy slob and a waste of space. What does work is finding clever ways to set things up such that it’s a downhill slide instead of uphill battle — in essence, coming up with a system that makes the good behavior easy instead of difficult. It’s like the judo trick of using the other person’s momentum for a throw, rather than trying to absorb the force of their blow directly

slim: Indeed. I also think the kind of support structure or environment you’re talking about is essential. Although, I would rather use words like “encouraged,” “supported,” or “amplified” to describe the qualities afforded by such an environment over “easy.” I think there is a significant difference between something being easy vs feeling at ease when you’re in relation to something.