Mind Over Matter


Behind our skin we’re fragile, flawed, maybe even disturbed. We can’t necessarily be labeled with a diagnosis from the DSM-IV, but an increasing number of us are afflicted by something in the realm of depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. We withdraw from people and work. Or we become convinced that life only has tragedies in store for us. For many, including me, anxiety is the mental state of choice. Contentedness was nice, I guess, but there is too much at stake now that death seems to be standing by, checking his watch. “You search for threats to your stability,” Daniel Smith writes in his recent memoir of anxiety, Monkey Mind, “and, because this is life, you find them.” It’s a vicious cycle that leads one’s mind to be “as cramped and airless as a broom closet,” he says.

Sometimes there is no tangible reason for such symptoms, at least that we can figure (but of course personal traumas or tragedies tend to activate anxiety). We are told that our conditions are chemical, and we have no reason to believe that they aren’t. The doctors may only spend ten minutes talking to us before they give us a prescription, but they seem to know better than we do.

“The part of my mind that was supposed to rationalize a pragmatic approach to problems,” writes Stephanie LaCava in An Extraordinary Theory of Objects, her forthcoming memoir of depression and a peripatetic upbringing, “was led by an automatic calibration of negativity. It was a chemical sadness, a slowly growing depression.” An “automatic calibration of negativity”: an astute way to describe something that seems out of our control. It’s a physical reaction. It requires nothing necessarily terrible or real to activate itself, but the ill mind – often a highly imaginative mind – can find a reason in the absence of reason.

At the age of 11, LaCava moved with her family from New England to a town outside Paris. She found herself alienated from her classmates, though many of them were also ex-pats – probably as confused, lost and unsettled as she was. She clung to objects familiar and foreign (hence the title of the book): a whale’s tooth given to her by her father; a skeleton key found on the grounds of her new home; beetles of all kinds, real and artifical. In lieu of socializing with her classmates, she would analyze her fellow students from afar, classifying each of them as a Greek god, inspired by a book she loved to read, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.

When she suffered a quite public breakdown during a school trip, LaCava’s classmates only ostracized her more, “taunting” her at school “with their laughter and stares.” Even before this, she had preferred only a couple of male friends, or else solitude, whittling down her experiences to a few manageable things, a classic trait of depression, anxiety and PTSD victims alike (and proof that it is sometimes hard to definitively say what a person with such symptoms is suffering from). At home, she spent hours in the shower, a kind of muted hiding place, the steam and sound of the water simplifying things further.

“I didn’t like seeing my naked body in the light,” she writes. “It was all boyish and ugly. The magazines and models were only fantasy, another diversion. I’d never get there, to that place where I would feel beautiful and loved and fine, or even pretty and just okay. I was left to think and remember, think and remember – until it drove me mad and into the shower. Always into the shower, avoiding the mirror.”

Violent images flash into our brain unannounced, the byproduct of a fading tragedy, or perhaps of a drug, or just our imagination. LaCava was always convinced as an adolescent that her father, often away on business, would somehow die. We turn to bad habits: to self-harm, violence toward others, or substances, to flatline our mood, muffle the anxiety. As Daniel Smith writes, his mother, from whom he apparently inherited his anxiety disorder, had nerves “so exquisitely sensitive to stimuli that in order to dull them she would sneak shots of vodka before walking to school in the morning.”

One method of calming is, perversely, to catalog our flaws – in the mirror, as LaCava could not help doing, or perhaps on paper, as David Foster Wallace did in a note included in Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s new biography of the writer:

Feet too thin and narrow and toes oddly shaped, ankles too thin, calves not muscular enough; thighs squinch out repulsively when you sit down; pecker too small or if not to small in terms of shortness too small in terms of circumference.

Never mind that everybody’s “thighs squinch out repulsively” when they sit down. This is pointless behavior but it seems like easy work, easier than thinking constructively, easier than doing. Maybe it even explains something, clears up some confusion in our heads. We worry about arbitrary traits like height and nose shape. Things we long to change, things we have no control over. These aren’t just fixations of the adolescent mind; millions of adults still have them, or acquired them as adults from who knows where. We think if we can just “know” how flawed we are, if we can quantify it all, then we can finally get on with life. But for the busy, anxious mind, no amount of calculation truly satisfies. Only the act of calculating comes close.

Who comes for us, if not writers and other artists, who seem to suffer from these often proximate conditions disproportionately more than the rest of the population? The television depicts the depressed (a blanket term if there ever was one) person as sitting, sallow-looking, on the edge of a bed, unable to face the day (CYMBALTA®), the voiceover actress’s gently crackling voice telling us that “Cymbalta can help.” Or worse: as a tin wind-up doll (PRISTIQ®), because in the eyes of pharmaceutical companies, a fully functioning human being is apparently no more than exemplary mechanics. Doctors shove these pills at us, but no one really knows how they work. They do work for many. They irrevocably alter others. They drive some to violence or suicide. Is the pill making us better or worse? Or is it keeping us just the same? Should we add another pill? Should we go off both? Let’s play with our brains until we get it right, or right enough for now.

Each of us deserves a different answer, one catered specifically to our brain, our life circumstances, but so often what we get is a choice between a handful of standard options. Does it solve anything for us to read about others’ experiences with mental illness? Maybe not, but it should be part of the prescription, a solution that for Daniel Smith’s mother included a very long list of things: “medication, targeted psychotherapy, vigorous exercise, the support of [Smith’s] father and friends, and various meditative, yogic, and muscle-relaxation techniques.” (At the top of that list, not included there, was that she herself became a therapist, starting by helping those with phobias face their fears using the technique of “flooding” – sustained, forced exposure to the source of the phobia, also known as exposure therapy).

Books like these are useful not so we can rubberneck at someone else’s troubles, but because we long to feel our abnormal is normal. It’s a big reason why readers clamor for writers like David Foster Wallace, who was always searching for what was under the surface of our existence: the sinister, the awkward, the obscene, the painful. He was not shy about being honest or making us uncomfortable (and therefore, maybe, comfortable). His critics argue that he made it too difficult for readers to access what was a pretty clear understanding of humanity borne partly of his struggle with mental illness. Perhaps his writing strove too hard, as Susan Sontag once said of art generally, to “be independent of the intelligence.”

But once you got there, his observations seemed to hold up a mirror to our own inner struggles. Writing truths (“messy truths,” as the novelist Justin Torres recently said) goes a long way toward getting the reader to “feel” something, to quote Wallace, and specifically: less alone, less different, less damaged, less strange.

Further Reading:

Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety by Daniel Smith
Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max
An Extraordinary Theory of Objects by Stephanie LaCava