In the Blog
14 Days of Nihilistic Thinking
Illustration by Erin McPhee
_Author’s note: In writing this piece, I am not dictating or suggesting how anyone should handle their own grief, emotions or illness. Nor is this any sort of commentary on coping with depression or any other health issue. I’m talking about myself, not anyone else. _
September 2015 was rough for me. I saw a lot of doctors and went for a lot of tests. Every procedure yielded another diagnosis or piece of troubling information. At one point I joked that I felt as though I were going trick-or-treating to the doctors’ offices, and they were handing me trick after trick. I was grateful that they were taking things seriously and getting answers; I was disheartened that there were so many answers to find.
One afternoon in early October, I opened my mailbox to find the results of yet another test. As my eyes skimmed the various values reported on the page, I found myself reeling. It wasn’t good. In fact, it was worse than I’d anticipated. And it threw an entirely new wrench into a machine that was already a mess.
I called my Mom. And then I coped with it the only way I could: I completely shut down. After nearly a solid year of extremely poor health, getting diagnosed with two serious chronic illnesses, being in a constant state of defeat and seeing my finances and professional life crumble to dust, I couldn’t handle anything else. I’d tried. Really, I had. I’d tried to be pragmatic and keep going. At that moment, however, I was done. And no, I don’t mean that I was “done” in any sort of suicidal way; I mean that my spirit simply said, “sorry, I’ve been overloaded. I’m going to power down for a little while.”
I plunged into a state of serious existential nihilism. In Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, I probably would have been planted firmly in the “denial” or “depression” section. For the most part, unless I had a doctor’s appointment or another errand to run, I stayed in my apartment. I got up to feed the cats, feed myself, take some meds and wash up, and then went right back to sleep. The cats knew something was up and let me rest. One of them stayed protectively curled around my head as I slept; the other was on his best behavior and didn’t try to burn down the house or anything (you may laugh, but he’s turned on gas stoves in the past).
One morning when I had yet another blood test early in the day, I decided to go to my beloved local theme park to clear my head. I couldn’t do everything at the park, and I had to strictly monitor myself for exhaustion and take a lot of breaks, but it was worth it because it was one of the only places I could go to unwind and stop worrying about everything. I’d been registered for their system to help the disabled and I’d grown accustomed to two constants: 99.9% of the employees would be lovely and kind, but the other guests would stare at me. When I was seated next to anyone else on a ride, I’d see them tense up as they glanced nervously at my germ mask. I’d cheerfully say, “don’t worry, I am not contagious,” and they’d relax.
A child’s voice drifted over to me as I walked past a family in a store. “Dad. She looks weird.”
You don’t say.
I went home and curled up next to the cats again.
Darth Vader, of all people, helped me figure things out. I have been a Star Wars fan since I could walk and talk, and along with Luke and the droids, Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker has always been a favourite. He had to depend on a life support system due to his extensive injuries and walk around in an uncomfortable, heavy cocoon of armour. He had pain, fear, anger and significant grief. Yep, all those things that are considered to be aspects of the Dark Side in the Star Wars world. In Revenge of the Sith, before his mask was lowered to his face, he was clearly afraid. When his mask was removed in Return of the Jedi, it revealed someone who had suffered. Darth Vader didn’t hide his challenges. He really couldn’t. He held them, used them as fuel, and did the best he could to survive. He was a tragic villain who did truly horrible things at times, but point being, he kept going. And even when he was Anakin, and faced that “A Jedi shall not know love” edict, he’d basically thumbed his nose at the Jedi Council for telling him how he was supposed to feel about anything.
As I curled up on my bed with the cats, I thought of that in the context of my own situation: nobody could tell me how I was supposed to feel about being sick. Attempting to be sunshine and rainbows 24/7 was not helping me in any way, shape or form. Refusing my own anger and fear was actively hurting me. And I wasn’t just angry, I was livid. I was furious. I hated being ill and I hated that it had taken so much from me.
An interesting thing happened: after I’d allowed myself to grieve in my own way for several days, let all the anger and anguish I’d been carrying run free and given my body and mind a rest by cutting off most of the world, I was able to return to it. When I finally found that I was ready to go out and be social again, I felt much stronger and much less defeated. It was a complete sea change. I hadn’t needed platitudes. I hadn’t needed to push anything away. I’d just needed to let those emotions run their course in a non-harmful way instead of putting them in a box or pretending that they didn’t exist. Getting angry had given me the adrenaline to keep going. I’m not even going to remotely suggest that this would work for anyone else. I’m just describing my own experience.
This is not a solution that is often heard in North America. Author Tim Lawrence recently wrote an absolutely brilliant article that points out that Western society, as a whole, is uncomfortable with grief, pain, anger and anguish. When someone’s hurting, other people will offer unsolicited advice, change the subject, or tell their friend or family member to shake it off and keep going. They don’t want to have to look at it, hear it or deal with it. Ever wonder why the phrase “tear up” is more en vogue now than the verb “cry?” Is it because nobody wants to admit that they’ve cried? There’s an old Twilight Zone episode, set in a dystopian future, where people immediately drink a beverage called Instant Smile the moment they start to stress over anything. Sometimes I feel that’s a good metaphor of how our society deals with any emotions we consider to be negative.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s co-author, David Kessler, writes: “Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal.” Society seems to forget this.
If we never acknowledge anger, grief, unhappiness or pain, but instead just try to block them out, how do we learn to handle them constructively, or at all? And if we constantly throw a blanket of manufactured, forced happiness over anything that isn’t sunny and bright, do those simmering emotions eventually burn through anyway? I can’t answer those questions for anyone but myself.
I still believe very strongly in the power of possible thinking. That’s not necessarily always being positive; it’s believing that things can improve or change and fully appreciating good moments. Yes, I actually do count my blessings. I’m striving for happiness. However, I have also resolved that I won’t train my brain to ignore half the spectrum of human emotions. I will feel whatever emotions I need to feel at any particular moment. If that’s joy, great, but if I feel like crying, I’ll cry. If I am angry or afraid, I will own that. If something’s happening that is horrible, I will freely acknowledge that it’s horrible. And if I need to grieve, I damned well will. Emotions aren’t destinations. They’re checkpoints.
I’m still very ill. I’m still facing a parade of doctor’s visits and tests. I’m still concerned about finances. That’s my reality. I accept that. Simultaneously, I’m living my life to the fullest. That, perhaps, is a choice. It’s not one that is mutually exclusive with anger or pain, however. I’m using all of my emotions to fuel me and keep me going, including the so-called “negative” ones.