How to Get Through a Wretched, Wretched Day

This Monday, the 21st, was one of the roughest days of my life. I had a brutal weekend during which I struggled to get out of bed and brush my teeth, and come Monday, I wasn’t feeling much better. In fact, I was feeling mentally and physically shot.

I had the shakes for some reason, my back ached from staying in bed for three days (note to self — bed rest is the worst possible thing for middle-aged aches and pains), and I was thoroughly derealized and depersonalized. Emotionally, things were as bad as they could be. On the cognitive front, I had the attention span of a five-year-old boy who hasn’t taken his Ritalin, and even the most commonplace thoughts were arriving and leaving at an annoying drip-drip-drip pace.

Oddly, I had been briefly — very briefly — hypomanic on Friday, calling folks on the phone and chatting away in a manner that at least I found most amusing. Or perhaps I was simply acting normally and the contrast was so stark that I felt hypomanic. In any case, a brief spell of hypomania makes depression that much more difficult to weather because you really feel — or, at least, I really feel — that destiny intended you to live in this heightened state, and that you’ve been robbed for the last year or so since you last tasted it.

So, yeah, I was struggling. Going to work and staying there was was quite simply one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. This is sad in itself, because going to work is such a simple, basic act, and a part of me thinks “Good Lord, is this the sum total of my aspirations and abilities? Laboring mightily to see through a few trivial tasks at a job that is, let’s face it, largely administrative?” The answer, it would seem, is a humbling yes.

Right about now you’re probably asking yourself, “Wow, Dr. RandR, how did you accomplish this amazing feat of endurance?” Well, I’m glad you asked, because I’m about to give you some Pretty Darn Good Guidelines for Soldiering Through What Seems to Be an Impossible Task. Hang tight, here we go.

1. I’ve said this before, but it does bear repeating: No big goals. Break everything down into the tiniest imaginable steps, and work your way through one by one, refusing to think about the overwhelming whole. So in addition my master to do list, which, as usual, I populated with all sorts of ambitious projects that I had neither the intention nor the ability to carry out, I prepared a step-by-step list for each task that I absolutely had to accomplish, and I crept through my duties bit by bit in turn.

2. It helped that we had an urgent data delivery, and that none of my coworkers seemed inclined to help to get it out. I mean, if I were carted away to the looney bin before their very eyes, or they had proof positive that I was lying in a coma following a tragic car crash, I imagine someone would have stepped up to the plate. But as long as I was hovering around like a rain cloud, or at least likely to show up, everyone made it clear through their actions that they were too busy to help — and some were — or that they simply didn’t want to. So I was able to carry on in a martyred fashion about how if I’m not there to do things, they simply don’t get done.

A side note: a funny feature of my job — some would say a kafkaesque one — is that I have as little power as it’s possible for a creature with a pulse buried in a large, bureaucratic organization to have, and yet screwing up my main function by missing a data delivery actually carries severe penalties, both for me and for the organization as a whole. For the company, it can mean substantial fines and, in the long run, fewer widget contracts. I actually benefit from the sense of importance this gives me. If my job were entirely futile and pointless — I’ll refrain from pointing out specific functions at work, but trust me, they exist — I really wouldn’t be able to carry on at times. So I’m grateful for the bit of importance that I do have.

3. I’m not in the habit of speaking in an encouraging way to myself, but, boy, did I lay it on thick this week. At least one station in my head remained firmly tuned to the positive thinking channel: “It’s OK. You can do it. You’re going to be fine. You can do this. Just a little more. It’s really going to be OK.” It reminds me of the way I coached my car when the transmission suddenly stopped working the other day. A lot of, “Come on, baby! Just a little further! Let’s get through this one intersection, shall we?”

4. I flatly refused to think ahead to the future, or to ask any of the Big Questions. I’d been asking the Big Questions all weekend — “What am I doing on this planet? Why is there so much suffering in the world, and specifically in my skull?” — and — surprise, surprise! — I hadn’t managed to dredge up any persuasive answers, so come Monday I summoned all of my considerable powers of denial and refused to engage in any cheap existential philosophy. No big questions, just small tasks. No future; just the paper and pen, phone and computer before me.

5. I told myself again and again how proud I would feel if I managed to get through the day. I thought, “Heck, if I can sit upright and look busy for eight hours while feeling like this, then I can conquer the world!” And you know, I do feel proud. I’ve encounted a few stretches in my life where all I could do was slog through with very little hope, encouragement or pride, and I do pretty much manage to tough it out.

Taken together, these strategies did work. I doubt that they could work for months or even days on end, but luckily I did feel a bit better on Tuesday, so I didn’t have to test their efficacy over the long haul. I mean, I think I will eventually have to ask at least a couple of modest questions and discover some sort of purpose to drive me, but Monday was not the day for that, and I wisely refrained. As so often happens with depression, things did get a bit easier, and it was no longer such a superhuman struggle, say, to brush my teeth.

One consequence of my lost weekend is that I’ve had to skip Christmas. The window for buying and sending gifts and cards has closed, and I’m left reassuring myself that I will give everyone on my list random gifts throughout the year when they least expect it. Certainly not on their birthdays, since I always miss those. Perhaps in July, when the holidays seem so far away, and look alluring and not simply stressful.

One thing I did decide on Wednesday, my last day of work before the blessed, blessed holiday shutdown, is that I need a Grandiose Plan for this blog, and by extension for the rest of my life. Here’s the idea I’ve been toying with: what if I become the ideal mental patient? After all, I don’t follow a lot of my own advice. My diet isn’t horrible, but it certainly doesn’t meet FDA guidelines. The only exercise that I’ve been getting has been climbing the stairs at work and trudging back and forth to remote corners of our absurdly huge building. I’ve been slugging away at the coffee, which all the experts agree worsens mood disorders over the long run. I’ve stopped praying and attending church. And so on.

So I’ve been thinking: what if I really clean up my act? I don’t have to run a marathon, but I could revitalize my yoga practice and get the recommended minimum 20 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week. I could eat more fruits and vegetables, behave as if I haven’t childishly withdrawn my faith from God, and so forth. Obviously, I couldn’t do this all at once. If I did, I would probably be assumed into heaven body and soul like the Virgin Mary, and that would have unfortunate consequences at work and for this blog. (I’m guessing that they don’t have internet connections or cell phones in the afterlife. No TV, either.)

Even so, I’m almost ready to concoct a grand scheme for self improvement just as an experiment. Would I actually get measurably better? Or is it true that mine is a hopeless case and there’s no point in buying spinach just to see it wilt in my refrigerator? The benefit of this approach is that it’s purely experimental. I don’t have to believe that it will work in order to do it. That helps, since I’ve been having a bit of a belief problem for the last several months.

It would also make for good reading — better reading than relentless whining about my sad lot, which others already do much more eloquently on other blogs (well, their lots, not mine). It would prove amusing for others, if not for me. And it might just work. All of the science and clinical evidence suggests that I would improve to some degree. Perhaps the clincher is this: it may be a matter of life and death. I’m genuinely not sure that I can go on like this, so I don’t have much to lose.

So, yes, a hopeful, ambitious, apparently unquenchable corner of my soul has been urging me to concoct and at least try to carry out a Grand Scheme. Watch this space for further developments. Or for more relentless whining. Or, most likely, for both.

Love to all.


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