November 4, 2012
Earlier this fall, I went through a very bad period. I couldn’t find joy in my husband or my three-year old son, nor in my work. My despair at not having published the book I’d been writing for six years pressed down on me at all hours of the day. I couldn’t get pregnant, either—it had been fifteen months since we’d started trying—and this failure felt like another step on the ladder down into the depths of self-loathing.
Though I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life, I’ve never been much of a depressive, so any period of melancholy lasting more than a week is notable. I’d been depressed all fall. More than that, the anxiety was deafening. My life was busy, in some ways productively so: I was writing, teaching, volunteering, trying to make a baby. But I was also just busy-minded. The monkey mind, as the Buddhists call it, would not leave me alone.
I had only one major crying jag, but it was a doozy. A friend shared the news that an article she’d written had attracted not one but two literary agents. She had signed a contract and was working on a book proposal. On another day, in another month, in another world, I’d have been gracefully happy for her. I would have. But on the day I told my husband about the wonderful, covetous thing that had happened to my friend, I broke down. I am a failure, I wailed. I will not succeed. This was my truth that night: I did not work hard enough and I was a failure and I would not succeed. I could barely catch my breath; I covered my face with my hands, embarrassed to look out, and howled.
That was in October.
My obsession with success had been growing for months, and it was worrying me a bit. It definitely worried Marc, who comes from a family of artists and has been known to cheerfully remind me that it’s the process, not the product, that matters. But I come from overachievers. Ivy League-or-almost-educated, president-of-the-company, head-of-the-department, top-lawyer-in America–style overachievers. As the struggling writer/adjunct lecturer/part-time parent of the bunch, I am arguably one of the least “successful,” but at least, I tend to remind myself when this gets me down, I am attractive, smart, fortunate, and in a happy marriage. It is not lost on me that success means different things to different people, that to some people my life is utterly “a success.” So why doesn’t it always feel like enough?
Thankfully, this brief period, this blip—four or five weeks of feeling especially grim—has passed. A few weeks out, I feel much calmer, more settled. But I haven’t quite gotten back to where I was before. With hindsight, I can see that what happened around my 39th birthday, when I entered the depressed state I’ll call “Shirley”—what the hell—was a magnification of a state I’ve been in my entire life: anxious, unsettled, and self-critical. I have always been lucky to also have a veneer, a joyful, funny, creative, and passionate self; the two sort of temper one another. But Shirley did not give in to that passion, or to creativity or to love. That night on the couch, losing my mind, I could not rescue myself. Marc could not rescue me.
And this fact makes me think that maybe I’m in trouble.
Because while I know Shirley will always abate—like she did—I also witnessed her tenacity, her grip on me. In other words, those negative, horrible feelings will come back. And they might come back more strongly the next time, and the time after that, and the time after that. And I might find myself, at 40, or 45, or 50, bereft of joy, passion, and creativity, a woman who has spent her life unsatisfied.
So I’ve decided to try a little experiment.
I’m calling it an experiment in trying to live life more mindfully. What that means, I don’t exactly know (yet). I’m not talking about happiness. On the most basic level I do just want to be happy, whatever that really means. But more than that, I want to get through a day without cursing at the guy who stops for a yellow light when we’re five minutes late for preschool. Without saying something to a friend/colleague/acquaintance and worrying it sounded “weird” for an hour afterwards. Without feeling a steady sense of failure, guilt, or laziness. Without going to bed exhausted, waking up exhausted, and starting all over again.
I want to stop living just to get through the day.
I want to stop living like something better is coming down the road.
I want to become Buddhist.