Tag Archives: depression

Reader E.V. sends along an interview with Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, author of The Catholic Guide to Depression. I haven’t read the book yet, but this is the second time it’s been recommended to me, and the interview is full of gems of good sense.

On overspiritualizing the problem:

I think most therapists have had the experience of Christian patients who prematurely ‘spiritualized’ what were actually more psychologically or biologically rooted problems. Perhaps this was done with the encouragement of a priest or spiritual director who was not adequately informed about the nature and causes of mental illnesses like depression.

That was me as a teen and twenty-something: so convinced of the high-falutin spiritual nature of my depression that the thought of a cure seemed tantamount to a rejection of the Cross itself. A word of caution in there, too: a priest can be as holy a man as you like, but that doesn’t mean he always knows what he is talking about.

On distinguishing depression from the “dark night” experienced by some of the saints:

With the dark night of the spirit there is an acute awareness of one’s own unworthiness before God, of one’s personal defects and moral imperfections, and of the great abyss between oneself and God. However, a person in this state does not experience morbid thoughts of excessive guilt, self-loathing, feelings of utter worthlessness, or suicidal thoughts – all of which are commonly experienced during a depressive episode.

That’s an important distinction. Being deeply aware of your own unworthiness is one thing; being obsessed with your own imperfections is another. I’ve experienced the latter any number of times, but the former is something that I’ve only glimpsed, and that in my best moments. The difference between them is as clear as the difference between breathing mountain air and trying to breathe water.

Kheriaty doesn’t consider depression totall outside the realm of the spiritual, either, though:

We must also be convinced that whatever we suffer in life — whether from depression or any other affliction — is something that is allowed by God. Suffering is a mystery, and Christianity’s answer to suffering is mysterious — because the answer is Jesus Christ on the cross. Our faith does not promise a life without suffering; quite the contrary. We should not expect that prayer, or Scripture reading, or the sacraments, will magically cure all mental disorders or alleviate all suffering. What Christian faith offers us is the hope and the strength to endure whatever crosses God allows in our life. As psychiatrist Victor Frankl put it, those who have a why to live can bear with almost any how. Frankl knew something about suffering, having been a prisoner in Auschwitz.

And some positive recommendations, with a caveat:

…prayer, religious faith, participation in a religious community, and other spiritual practices like cultivating gratitude and other virtues can reduce the risk of depression and help in recovery. This does not mean that religious faith inoculates a person against depression, nor does it mean that depression is due to a lack of faith. But it does suggest that faith may have an important role in a person’s healing.

The whole interview is very down-to-earth and very human, but with something luminous and wholesome behind it. Read the whole thing here.

So I went on a little depression-bender the other night. “Bender”, hah, it’s fun to call it that, like it’s something I did because I’m wild and unpredictable and because consequences shmonsequences! A bender is something that is, at least in theory, enjoyable in the moment, but you pay for it later.

My depression-bender wasn’t like that. I did pay for it later — my depression-benders do sometimes come with actual literal hangovers, which isn’t fair at all — but it wasn’t much fun at the time, either. It sucked, like depression always does. It was worse than I remembered, like depression always is.

Maybe it’s a good thing to get depressed once in a while — like in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep:

“I sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found a setting for despair.” Her dark, pert face showed satisfaction, as if she had achieved something of worth. “So I put it on my schedule for twice a month; I think that’s a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything, about staying here on Earth after everybody who’s smart has emigrated, don’t you think?”

“But a mood like that,” Rick said, “you’re apt to stay in it, not dial your way out. Despair like that, about total reality, is self-perpetuating.”

“I program an automatic resetting for three hours later,” his wife said sleekly. “A 481. Awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future; new hope that –”

“I know 481,” he interrupted. He had dialed out the combination many times; he relied on it greatly.

Golly, I love that book. Seriously, though, I don’t put a “six-hour self-accusatory depression” on my schedule on purpose, like Iran Deckard does, and I wouldn’t if I could. I love the world and I love loving the world and I hate depression more than anything else I can think of at the moment.

But it does give you some perspective. People who’ve never been seriously depressed can look at a depressed person and say, out loud or (hopefully) not, “Oh, I remember last time I felt like that. I just needed to think more positively.” They can say that and truly not understand that they deserve to be beaten to death with a shovel.

I mean, gently corrected.

And I understand that, because all it took me was a couple of years on a decently even keel, and I forgot how powerless depression makes you feel: how it doesn’t feel like a feeling at all, but as if the atmosphere of the entire planet has turned dark and noxious, and the only possible escape is Deep Space. So how little would I understand if I had never been there at all?

So, depression sucks, but it’s a good reminder, the same way it’s a good reminder when your plumbing is busted and your basement floods and your house smells like a third world country for a day or two. Because, ha ha, third world countries: not everybody gets to not be one.

Last Thursday was my two-month no-Prozac anniversary, by the way. Can you tell I’m feeling the difference? On Prozac, I didn’t have to worry about triggers: I automatically, or with a miniscule effort, processed them like a healthy person would. Sent a text and got ignored? My buddy must’ve been busy. Told a joke and nobody laughed? It wasn’t that funny. Left the kwoon for the day and nobody said goodbye? They were paying attention to Sifu, like they should be.

Typical depressive reactions to the above situations: (1) everybody hates me, (2) everybody hates me, and (3) everybody hates, me. Respectively.

I’ve spent years unlearning that kind of extreme, irrational response. That unlearning has largely been a success. Still, what I have is essentially A Condition: I have to be careful with myself, the way a diabetic person has to be careful about what he eats. Prozac made that caution much less necessary.

What I’ve found, though, is that depression’s got momentum. Apply enough pressure over a long enough period of time, and it’ll turn around; anyway, mine does. I just have to remember in the meantime not to fall for any of the quick fixes — the binge eating, the porn sessions, the self-isolation, any of the stuff that promises quick relief (and sometimes delivers it) but makes everything worse after.

So, what are the pressure points — where’s the steering wheel on that Big Fuckin’ Depression Zamboni? Here are three obvious ones:

  • Am I eating right? Welllll…all right, I’ve been alternating between coffee-for-two-meals-a-day and snarfing down my roommates’ nearly-expired leftovers.
  • Am I exercising? Uh oh, it’s been a week since I went to Kung Fu, hasn’t it? Oh crap, it’s been nearly two weeks.
  • Am I praying every day? Not unless you count grumbling vaguely skyward and a cursory Hail Mary or two around bedtime.

So I do those things and a few others, and wait. The waiting is important, because I know two things from experience:

  • I didn’t get this way in twenty minutes, so fixing it isn’t going to take twenty minutes, either.
  • If I keep applying pressure to those pressure points, eventually things do change.

Oh, and coffee helps.

Note: Occasionally, as below, I lift a post from an email to a reader. I never do this without the reader’s explicit permission. Thank you for writing, B., and for being willing to share this.

Dear B.,

I know what you mean about depression. I think we always expect suffering to be different from the way it actually is, whether that suffering is interior (like depression) or exterior (like betrayal, or physical disease, or somebody’s death). When we’re inside it, it’s no longer obvious that it’s a Trial, or a Test, or a Purging, or whatever: it’s just something that hurts, and all of our usual defenses seem to be gone.

There was a point during one of my darkest times — a time when I went through an intense 9-month depression — when I had what I think is a very important realization: that if God is allowing me to pass through something, then I don’t have to understand it in order for his purpose to be accomplished by it.

To be clearer: I used to feel like I always had to be looking for the “meaning” behind my depression, or looking really hard to see what “lesson” God was trying to teach me through it. And I felt like, if I didn’t find that “lesson”, then the depression would be wasted and I wouldn’t learn anything.

But I don’t think that’s how it works. If I was capable of understanding what the lesson was trying to teach me, then I wouldn’t need the lesson at all. And if God allowed me to go through the pain, but didn’t allow me to see what I was supposed to be getting out of it, it’s because he knew that the pain itself would be a kind of teacher for me.

The crucial thing in all of this is to maintain contact with God in whatever ways you can. This means being faithful to daily prayer, weekly Mass, and confession as often as you can (within reason). This way, we keep the lines open, even if we don’t understand why, and even if we no longer feel that we’re “doing it right” or “getting something out of it” or any of that stuff. The important thing is to stay the course. My spiritual director has frequently told me that some of the time, or maybe most of the time, the only thing God asks of us is that we keep showing up — even when our heart isn’t in it.

Peace & prayers,
Joey

Dear Readers,

I’m just writing to say hi. I hope you’re well. Sorry it’s been a while. I don’t have any grand themes to expound upon, so maybe writing this post like a letter makes the most sense.

I just got back from an extended weekend trip with my Kung Fu school, who I keep referring to as my “Kung Fu family”, because that is how I keep feeling about them. You know that Decemberists song, I think it’s off Picaresque: “Here in our hovel / We fused like a family”? I kept thinking of that, although the beach house we rented was no hovel. We trained hard all three days, and when we weren’t training, we were cooking, eating, playing video games, or soaking in the hot tub. We even jumped in the ocean, which even in Virginia was the worst February idea ever.

So that’s why I didn’t write to you last week.

I’m on the bus now to visit a good friend and fellow blogger in Maryland. My social life seems to be feast-or-fast; either I’m on the go several weekends in a row, or I’m up in my room, plugged in and sealed off, watching Netflix while other people do exciting things.

I haven’t been on a bus in a long time. It makes me think of earlier days: I used to enjoy thinking of myself as a rootless vagabond, and would jaunt off every summer I could, to visit people around the country. Once I spent two days on an Amtrak, heading for Dallas. I chatted with a metal musician who was in mid-detox and haunted by visions of demons — I gave him a miraculous medal to wear — and drank bad, expensive beer with a lawyer named Cain.

It’s harder to pretend I’m a vagabond now, what with the cell phone and kindle and laptop and all; and, whether because I’m more closed in on myself now or just because I’m older and a little less romantic, I’m keeping to myself. Besides, I have writing to do.

You ask me how come I’m not so lonesome and desperate anymore, and why depression isn’t such a big part of my life, barely a part at all. I wish I had a simple answer for you. Father T always used to tell me that there was no magic pill, no moment when you suddenly Find Yourself. You never find yourself, he insisted: you build yourself. Molecule by molecule, like stalactites.

Never give up, I guess. Find somebody to talk to, and keep talking as long as they’ll let you. Find your fears and confront them, but take it slow and be merciful to yourself.

Pray, pray, pray. Go to the Blessed Sacrament over and over; soak in His rays like you’re sunbathing, and never stop. The nice thing about being in front of the Blessed Sacrament: there’s no wrong way to do it. There are better ways and worse ways, but spending time at the feet of Jesus is never going to hurt you.

Find yourself a good therapist, and meanwhile fire the bad ones quickly, because they’re assholes and they don’t deserve your money or your time or your secrets. Consider getting some good meds. Write to me if I can help.

Okey doke, I think we’re approaching Hartford.

Peace and prayers,
Joey

I heard a nice idea from my sister: every time something happens that you’re really thankful for, you write it on a piece of paper and put it in a jar. Then, at the end of the year, you read the pieces of paper, to remember all the good things.

I think I missed some big ones — I guess I forgot to keep putting stuff in the jar — and some of the things are on a whole nother level than others (like apparently I was really excited about my new car), but here are my 2013 scraps, not in chronological order but just in the order that I happened to take them out of the jar. They are only slightly expurgated.

  • I got a Jetta.

It feels a little silly that this is the top of the list, but it is a cool car, and it’s bright red besides.

  • I told [x] I was attracted to him. He still wanted to be friends.

This was a first for me. As with so, so many other things, it was much less of a big deal in real life than it had been in my mind. Months later, the attraction isn’t really an issue, and we’re still friends. So.

  • [x] visited me, and we talked more deeply than we’ve ever talked before.

[x] and I have been friends for sixteen years. Somehow we had never rolled up our sleeves and compared scars before.

  • I came out publicly, and received a tremendous outpouring of love and support.

Yayuh. I’m not sorry that I waited so long, because my right time was my right time. But it’s awfully nice out here in the breeze and sunshine.

  • I am attracted to women, and some more than others.

Still true, but nothing to really write home about.

  • I started the SEAL workout with Ryan Gooseling.

Highly recommended.

  • I got my green sash.

Our school goes: white, yellow, green, purple, blue, brown, black. I currently stand at purple-with-a-blue-stripe, or “purple-and-a-half”, but that’s not nearly as close to black as it sounds. Long road ahead of me, and I plan to see it through.

  • I entered the Wu Dao tournament — my first. Placed first in forms, second in sparring.

To be fair, there were only two other guys in my sparring division.

  • [x] was going to leave but decided to stay.

[x] is a coworker who became an unexpectedly big part of my life. If he had quit, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but still, phew!

  • I sat and talked with [x] and [x] about porn and masturbation and homosexuality for hours. Till 2 in the morning. They understood it all.

More scar-sharing, and it’s always cool when straight guys have scars in the same spots as me.

  • After I had quit smoking for a week, everybody at the kwoon clapped for me.

Now I’m at seven months and counting. Dare I say that the hard part is over?

  • I became friends with Ryan Gooseling.

Unexpected blessings are the best kind.

  • I went contact-improv dancing with [x].

Okay, okay, it was fun, but it did have more flailing than I am comfortable with, and I still don’t like hipsters.

2013 saw, oddly, an apparent ending to the kind of misery that I used to think was a permanent fixture in my life. I’m sure the Black Dog will pay me a visit or two in the future, but depression is no longer a defining characteristic in my life.

Can I just say: holy shit, you guys, for somebody who was depressed pretty much every day for about fifteen years, that’s kind of a big deal. Do you even know how good it feels to go whole weeks or even months without wanting to die? Did you even know that could happen? It’s neat!

In 2014, I plan to discover what kind of adventures are possible when your primary goal is no longer just to keep the agony down to a dull roar. I’m excited.

1 – Long Dark Tea Time

It’s been a long time since I was depressed, and that’s amazing. The odd thing is how not-sad is not exactly the same as happy. When I was habitually miserable, I always figured that being free from the constant oppressive darkness was all I could ever ask for. Turns out, nope, my appetite for bliss is infinite, just like CSL said (somewhere [probably]), so I am probably just getting started.

Truth be told, I am feeling a little empty. Unfortunately, it’s not the Dark Night of the Soul. That is when you are so so so wonderful that God has decided that the only way to make you MORE wonderful is to withdraw the sense of His presence for a while so that your inner wonderfulness can grow. Anyway that’s what the saints say.

I wouldn’t know, because the reason I feel empty is that I am selfish and vain and I don’t pray enough and I’d rather look at my triceps in the mirror than pour out the love of Christ on my fellow wounded immortals. So I assume.

2 – Baby’s Black Balloon

Speaking of emptiness, Zen Pencils has done a curiously affecting illustration of a C. S. Lewis quotation that I had forgotten I ever read:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.

But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.

The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

3 – The Perils Of Being Awesome

That bit about the hobbies and luxuries stung a little, because I had just been congratulating myself on having this chastity thing pretty well down — I mean, not that the old habits of solitary vice1 don’t occasionally reassert themselves, just that I’m not lonely and brokenhearted and stuck wandering the echoing hallways of solitude, wondering how to fill all that TIME; which is what, in my early days as a consciously gay Catholic, I assumed I’d be doing around now.

Because why? Because I do fill my time, with the things I always go on about: tattoos (I’ve got an appointment in two weeks) and Kung Fu (ranking coming up this December!) and motorcycles (there’s got to be one more perfect day before the snow comes) and writing (which I pretend I do a lot more of than I do) and working out (see biceps, above).

Which, ruh roh, none of those things are bad and in fact all of them are good, but they do sort of smack of a rich single guy spending his time entertaining himself. That’s not chastity. The point is not to distract yourself from the fact that you aren’t settling down with a mate. The point is to spend yourself on something, lap strength, steal joy, laugh, cheer.2

4 – Cheer Whom, Though?

Not that the two are mutually exclusive. Whatever we do, even if it’s something for ourselves, there are always opportunities to pour ourselves out.

I walked into Kung Fu on Wednesday feeling like I had somehow forgotten how to be in touch with human beings, so Oh well I better resign myself to just sort of drifting until I remember where my heart is.

Then I remembered that, during that year of now done darkness,3 when the Kwoon became the closest thing I had to an inviolably safe place, somehow the classes when I was most gregarious and most able to pour out love were those classes when I started out feeling the most depleted.

I don’t know what that means. Is it that, when I’m empty, I’m more easily filled by love, which, let’s be ontologically honest, never originates from me in the first place anyway? Regardless, it worked. Step inside the magical door with a quick prayer to my Dad to look out for me, and pretty soon I am scattering brightness.

Or that’s how it feels. Maybe I am just scattering annoyingness. I’ll never know, will I?

5 – The Achieve Of; The Mastery Of the Thing4

What makes me not terribly worried that my hobbies are somehow slowly turning me into a self-absorbed emotional miser is the knowledge that when you do things that are awesome and that you love doing, you can’t help glowing, and the glow can’t help lighting up other people. It’s like capitalism! Except it works.5

Which must be why this video makes me happy beyond all reason.

I don’t care that it’s a commercial, or that Enya is lazy music for gooey people, or that there wasn’t any real danger, or that after all he’s just an actor. Maybe it’s that JCVD has passed from goofy sincerity, through postmodern irony, and has come out on the other side as sincere again. I dunno. The video inspires me because it’s beautiful, so there you go. My heart in hiding stirred for a split.

6 – Gweenbrick

I have been waiting to tell you officially about Gweenbrick ever since I mentioned him. I wanted to make a whole post about him. But if I wait till I do that, I’ll wait a long time.

Anyway, I can’t decide which his posts are more: hilarious, symphonic, Zen, or Hambledonian.6 I wish I could write like this man, and I am proud of knowing about him before the whole entire internet descends on him with shouts of adulation. Get in on the ground floor of loving Gweenbrick. Today’s post is called Slow Yoga With Denene.

7 – Clap Your Tiny Hands For Joy

As long as we are talking about beauty, thanks to Simo7 for posting this. Oh my gosh. Go out and give thanks. Happy Friday.

1 I <3 euphemisms.
2 Hopkins, obvi.
3 Hopkins again. Same poem.
4 The Windhover, this time, which was clearly written about JCVD, whatever else it may have been written about.
5 It is fun to be snarky about capitalism from the comfort of my coffee shop. I do believe that it’s probably the worst possible system, except for all the others.
6 Cf. Douglas Adams’ The Meaning of Liff, in which he defines Hambledon as “The sound of a single-engined aircraft flying by, heard whilst lying in a summer field in England, which somehow concentrates the silence and sense of space and timelessness and leaves one with a profound feeling of something or other.” That’s Gweenbrick.
7 That’s “teacher’s wife” for you nonkungfuers.

1—It’s my writing day, and that’s a good day, but frankly, I’m in a lot of pain. These road bumps come and go, and I know better than to try reinterpreting my whole life in the light of how I happen to feel today, but today I happen to feel really awful. It’s like those days when you lie in bed shaking with the flu and you just think, “Gosh, I’d like this to over, but it keeps going instead.” Just waiting for the upswing, and in the meantime finding comfort where I can.

2—On the bright side, Pope Francis has released a new encyclical today: Lumen Fidei, the light of faith. You can get it on the Vatican’s website, of course. I’m working my way through it now.

3—I’m super psyched for Matt Jones’ coming out post today. He’s one of the best gay Christian writers I know on the interwebz, and a great human being besides. If you haven’t already read his stuff (as “Jordan”) on Gay Subtlety, there’s a lot of wisdom and entertainment (wisdertainment?) there too.

4—This and other events have me rethinking my own stance towards anonymity. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if I followed suit before too long — partly it’s just a matter of bowing to the inevitable, since my voice is already out there on the net, and soon my face very likely will be too (more on that as that story develops), so maybe my name won’t be that big of a step. But I wanna have some fanfare! I want a party! And also I just want to bide my time and make sure I’m doing it right.

5—Today I needed Confession, like bad, and I actually left my writing spot at the coffee shop in the middle of the day to hunt down the priest after the 12:15 Mass at the Cathedral. Turns out this is the one day he couldn’t make it. That didn’t help my day any. It’s like, you know the Lord isn’t actually telling you “I don’t want to see you” or “I don’t forgive you,” but it’s hard not to feel that way anyway. Catholic Guilt, I know.

6—On the plus side, on my way back to the coffee shop, as I’m processing this and reminding myself of everything I really do know about the Lord, how he’s actually not mean and would actually not rather see me burst into tears in traffic, if it could be avoided, I see this bumper sticker: “Esfuérzate y sé valiente”, be strong and courageous; which is not only relevant but contains a little personal nod, because for me (thanks to my stay in Peru), Spanish is the language of the Lord and of the heart.

Then I look up the full verse and just kind of go, Huh. Well.

7—I’m not nearly as big into Signs as I used to be, but whenever I see something like that, I think of that bit in Lewis’ The Silver Chair:

“Don’t you mind him,” said Puddleglum. “There are no accidents. Our guide is Aslan; and he was there when the giant King caused the letters to be cut, and he knew already all things that would come of them; including this.”

I know that doesn’t do a great job of explaining this moment, but if you’ve read the book you’ll get it, and if you haven’t, you should!

On my 17th visit to my therapist, marking nearly a year with her, she asks me, What do you think has changed?

I could truthfully answer:

No longer frantic and empty
Like a cat
Tied to a stick
That’s driven into
Frozen winter sh★t1

But I don’t listen to Radiohead very often anymore, and that’s part of the point. The question doesn’t really have to do with the ways in which I feel differently, but with what I’ve been doing differently. So I answer that I live my life now as if living my life were a skill, something that has to be learned and practiced consciously.

Because it is. It would be absurd to imagine that playing the piano, or doing Kung Fu, or coding in PHP, was supposed to be automatic. It would be ridiculous to tell yourself that, because you weren’t born knowing differential calculus, there must be something wrong with you.

But that’s exactly what I’m sometimes tempted to tell myself about living life and being happy, even though living life — a balancing act between action and passivity, relationship and independence, grieving and celebrating, surviving and enjoying, all requiring billions of on-the-fly adjustments and split-second decisions and, probably most importantly, failure after failure — is exponentially more complicated than any of those other things.

It’s true that some people do seem to have a natural talent for living, the way some people have a natural talent for dancing: while we’re mouthing a frantic onetwothreeonetwothree and focusing on not stepping on our partner’s feet, they’re the ones grooving along like they were on living rails, whirling off into arabesques and syncopations without seeming to think about anything at all.

Maybe it’s because they worked very, very hard for very, very long. Or maybe it’s because they were born with rhythm. Or maybe they grew up listening to Bach and Strauss and Glenn Miller and the Beach Boys, so it all seeped into their blood. Or maybe they are on some damn good rhythm-enhancing drugs.

But I can’t know those things. All I can know is what I do and how well it works, or doesn’t, for me. So I make a point of things like:

  • Planning out my Sunday morning so I don’t get to Sunday night without talking to at least one or two people that I love
  • Switching the radio if I’m feeling raw and something too melancholy comes on
  • Calling a friend before I start feeling abandoned and lonesome
  • Working out on a regular schedule, whether I want to or not

And so on. I do this stuff because I’ve found out that nothing else does the trick, and with the knowledge that I have friends who can spend seven hours by themselves watching The X-Files, fall asleep on the courch eating fried pork rinds, sleep for ten hours, and wake up not feeling substantially worse about themselves; whereas if I did those things, it’d take a week of recovery before I could stop feeling like crying.

That’s just how it is. I dunno if it’ll always be that way, and I’m certain that it’s better than it used to be. Some of these things do become second nature. You build momentum and it carries you; when you’re moving along at a good clip, you keep doing what you’re doing; when you come to a screeching halt, you look at how you got there, and you start methodically doing the opposite.

1 It’s from Fitter, Happier, off OK Computer, which yeah, is the best album of its decade, but definitely isn’t suitable for one’s daily bread.

The other day, because I’m not used to dealing with life without tobacco (12 days so far, whee!) and because I ran out of my meds accidentally that morning (I’ve got some more now) and because sometimes things are just a lot to take, I found myself sitting in my cubicle and looking at my screen through a blur of tears.

Sometimes an attack like that can be dodged by refocusing, but this wasn’t that kind. It was a real will-sapper. I felt like limp lettuce. Limp lettuce that was suddenly very sad for no reason.

I dragged myself out of my chair and pulled my friend and coworker M. outside with me for a non-smoking break — we are quitting together — and proceeded to burst into tears in front of him. There wasn’t anything he could do, because the attack wasn’t because of anything in particular. But, strange to tell, it helped immensely. I think I know why.

At one point I would have dealt with an episode like this by heading to the bathroom, locking the door, and collapsing in a corner for a while. I’d fantasize about turning to this or that person for help, but talk myself out of it for various reasons: that it wouldn’t do any good, or that they’ve got their own problems, or that I didn’t want to feed my own self-pity. Then I’d clean myself up, check my eyes for redness as if I’d been smoking dope, and get back to work.

But it’s a very lonely feeling to be desperately sad and to have nobody know about it. It’s one more way to reinforce the idea that you are irrevocably different, and that your problems are somehow invalid, not allowable.

Doing it all in front of somebody, on the other hand, is a very different experience. It’s a question of being seen; and this, all by itself, helps makes you feel like a part of the human race after all, instead of someone invisibly locked in a bathroom somewhere, having his private problems that nobody knows about and nobody can solve.

It gives you the chance to see that your friends can see you at your worst and take it in their stride, without being surprised (because they will have been there, too) or weirded out (because being sad isn’t weird). It also honors the friend — says to him, See, I trust you enough to fall apart in front of you. It gives him a chance to say all the fairly meaningless but surprisingly helpful things that can be said in such a situation: talk to me, hang in there, I’m here for you.

Remember, it’s a mitzvah to let somebody else do a mitzvah for you.

Here are four axioms for your consideration.

1. Misery is not necessarily an indication that you are not doing the will of God.

Sometimes we suffer because we are doing the wrong thing and going in the wrong direction. On the other hand, sometimes suffering is a sign that the devil is displeased and wants to make you hurt: a good thing. Or sometimes suffering is a sign that God is pleased and wants to make you even more alive: a good thing.

2. Misery is not necessarily an indication that you are doing the will of God.

On the other hand, sometimes we suffer because we have done stupid, bad things, and stupid, bad things always end up hurting us. So sometimes you have to just take your punishment and say, Yup, I deserve this. Sometimes it isn’t even a punishment, but just a natural consequence of the stupid, bad thing you’ve done. If you drink fifteen beers and are hung over the next morning, it’s not because God is punishing you or testing you and it’s not a Dark Night Of the Soul. It’s because you are an idiot.

3. Contentment is not necessarily an indication that you are doing the will of God.

Lots of people are content. Saints, I suppose, are perfectly content at least some of the time. Sinners who have gotten very good at ignoring their consciences, I suppose, are perfectly content at least some of the time. Maybe you are content because everything really is going all right. On the other hand, maybe you are content because you have been lulled to sleep, when you should be wakeful.

4. Contentment is not necessarily an indication that you are not doing the will of God.

Skip this one if it makes no sense to you. If, however, you are the sort of person who starts to worry when he starts to feel good — because you’re not quite sure what to do with yourself when you don’t have some terrible agony to offer up — maybe just try being content with being content. Enjoy it while it lasts; maybe the Lord’s giving you a break. You probably need it!

To sum up: feeling are a pretty unreliable way to tell how well you’re doing.

If not feelings, what then?

Prayer, I suppose, charity, a steadfast heart. Love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself, and you won’t have to worry about any of this. Or, as Padre Pio said: Pray, hope, and don’t worry.

And it doesn’t hurt to remember: “the will of God” might not be the kind of thing you think it is.