This year has been so rife with changes, it’s knocked the wind out of me multiple times. Although my mind is not the only place changes have occurred, I did think some of it is worth documenting. It would be fun to look back on what I’m writing sometime in the future and see how much these too may change.
For a good portion of the past few years, my definition of intimacy would probably have been linked primarily to depth or seriousness. Things like tragedy, triumph, anxiety and breakdowns, love and broken hearts, abuse and mental health, familial and romantic relationships are kind of serious issues. It’s highly unlikely that one would have a long, in-depth conversation about suffering their third miscarriage to the random stranger sitting next to them on the troski. These are matters to be shared with people you have intimate relationships with. Smaller, more insignificant issues are easier to share with anyone.
Before this year, I might have considered myself intimate with most of my friends because they are people I could easily communicate with about my serious struggles. Because anxiety, depression and physical ill health have played such a heavy role in my life for the past 8 years, it felt for a while like there was hardly any more to my life than these. Whenever I needed to talk to my “intimate” friends, it was because of almost objectively serious matters.
This year, however, with the help of therapy and psychiatric medication, I have been able to make significant progress with my mental health. With this has come an expansion of the range of my thoughts. I am no longer only occupied solely by melancholic things or constantly on the verge of harming myself. I have enough mental freedom to occupy myself with less serious things—like TV shows, jokes, memes, trends, and the like. As the scope of my thoughts and feelings have been expanding beyond the narrow focus caused by depression, I’ve begun to feel lonelier, because now I feel like there is only one person I am truly intimate with. Not multiple. Just one.
What changed, you wonder? How has my improvement in mental health affected my definition of intimacy? Like this: I now value the shallow “unserious” stuff as much as the deep “serious” stuff in life. That means that as much as I might want somebody to talk to when my brain goes into panic mode for no reason, I also want to be able to scream to somebody about how stupid a certain character in a TV series I’m engrossed in is being. Who can I talk to frequently about frivolous things that won’t think too much about how to engage me in response? Whose time can I waste with a voice note telling them how a random man I didn’t know from Adam had a conversation with me in French, in the heart of Anglophone Accra? Who will DM me memes so I can laugh with them about something they found funny, which has next to nothing to do with me?
In my opinion, I have ignored for too long a good half of what intimacy is. Intimacy now looks like a wonderful combination of the frivolous and the serious. I also feel like everyone has known this for a long time except for me, because I’ve been too deep in ill health to recognize it. So, now, I’m in a season of trying to slowly reorganize my friendships so they can finally look the way I presume healthy, two-sided, intimate relationships should look.
Accurate portrayal of complexity.
I’ve spent a lot of time being angry that certain issues aren’t expressed or spoken of to the full extent of their complexity. Among such issues are suicidality, mental illness, teen angst, financial stress, and the incredible struggle of balancing all aspects of an individual’s life at once. When I read Tweets, watch series/movies, read blog posts and even books about some of these issues, I often feel like they treat most matters in too shallow a manner. I fear that this fuels a culture of misunderstanding and misinformation, which in turn throws a wrench in the works of building of empathy.
When I’m mad, it’s usually because I wanted the writers/creators to have gotten every detail about any complex matter exactly right. Why have I stopped being so mad? Mostly because I’ve realized how impossible that is to achieve. And also because the lack of heaviness can be immensely beneficial for easy consumption.
From my own experience, I know how much words can fail. How much stories can fall short. How performance can fly over anyone’s head, including the head of the performer. I know that no matter how long I talk or which words or language I use, nobody can understand my experiences to the extent that I do—because they haven’t lived them. So if I literally, legitimately cannot express myself to the fullness of my own complexity, what business do I have demanding that others do same for experiences that aren’t even their own? And this is without even considering how much individuals, their experiences and the ways they react to such experiences differ.
Some issues are truly beyond words. I don’t believe anyone alive can ever really understand the mind of a person who died by suicide. Those who died by suicide also aren’t around to tell us. But here’s the catch: even if they did come back to tell us, we wouldn’t get it. Not fully. Depending on who we are, we can have varying degrees of comprehension or empathy—but it will never be one hundred percent, because words never capture the entirety of experiences, and experiences are non-transferable things. For better or worse.
Regarding my second reason for having let go of my anger: well, life is complex enough as it is, without demanding that every expression or work of art carry the full extent of its gravity. Simply put, our lives are heavy enough on their own; sometimes, we need reprieve from the complexity.
The usefulness of neuroticism.
I wrote more extensively on this topic recently, in a blog post called #DearSpiderKid: My Dilemma as A Neurotic Christian. Since interested persons can check that out, I won’t spend too long talking about this point. I just want to say that finding use in neuroticism has really helped me make headway in not hating myself as much as I used to because of how my personality is set up. Instead of seeing my default tendencies as obstacles, I’ve started viewing them more as opportunities to practice mastery of self and dependence on the Holy Spirit.
Suicide as a decision.
This one is difficult to express. The way I think about suicide has changed, in the context of mental illness. I’ve generally considered the decision to take one’s own life as a logical decision of a healthy mind, regardless of whether the suicidal person has been diagnosed with a mental illness. There’s a paradox in the previous sentence, and recognizing that is the reason I’ve changed my mind.
A mentally ill mind is, by definition, not healthy. When a mentally ill person is suicidal, it is very possible that this is a symptom of illness. In other words, I think suicidality can be a symptom of depression in a similar way as a fever can be a symptom of malaria. So when mental illness in particular makes a person suicidal, then suicide isn’t the person’s real choice; it’s how an illness chooses to manifest itself within the person’s brain. Thoughts, chemicals, neurons. Mental counterparts of physical sensations, organs, bacteria. All can be affected by levels of health.
The change in my mind has also resulted in a change in my language. Recently, I watched a video featuring a woman who had lost her husband, a pastor, to mental illness. She made a really good point about why she prefers to say her husband “died by suicide” rather than “killed himself” or “committed suicide”. The latter two imply that suicide was that person’s decision. But her argument was that he didn’t kill himself; mental illness killed him. We don’t say that people committed organ failure or cardiac arrested themselves to death. When your ill body kills you, you didn’t kill yourself. Similarly, when your ill mind kills you, you didn’t kill yourself.
All this I have said in the specific context of mental illness. If a person without a mental illness kills themselves, then that’s what they did, or chose to do. I’m not psychic to know who has committed suicide and who died by suicide. Yet I no longer consider all suicide to be strictly the former type.
Working with the minimum amount of resources (when there are more at your disposal)
Until recently, I was very into the idea of punishing myself while trying to work. I did this by attempting to maximize my discomfort through minimizing the use of available resources. I refused to request equipment that would better serve my physical needs, struggled on Ghanaian networks’ 3G when there were places with free wi-fi available to me, and stuck to environments that were not quite beneficial to my mental health because it was monetarily cheaper. (Or so it seemed in the immediate context.) Always operating through the philosophy that if I can do things with the bare minimum, I should. I won’t go into the toxic views of self that led me here; instead, I want to focus on objective.
The philosophy described above works only if the objective is to conserve as many resources as possible. This comes at the expense of other factors like time, mental stability, physical health and quality of the work. When using minimal resources is the most important thing, all other factors come secondary. The cheapest way is seldom the most efficient, in my experience. And as for the self-inflicted suffering this philosophy causes, I don’t think I can find any reasonable justification.
I have changed my mind about using that philosophy not only because I have decided to shed toxic self-image, but also because my objective has now officially changed to producing the best possible work I can. Now that my objective is making good work, it comes at the expense of other things, like money and resources. And since I’ve noticed I can’t make good work when I’m unhealthy, my physical and mental needs take foreground as well. But, thanks to my shifted objectives, these seem like reasonable burdens to bear in order to achieve my goals. (Within reason, of course; the new philosophy applies when there are resources within my means at my disposal.) When producing good work is the most important thing, all other factors come secondary.
Value being directly dependent on usefulness/functionality.
In my worst depression phases, I have considered myself and my life as lacking any worth in the world—but probably not for the reasons you’d initially assumed.
In the past, I have measured value specifically according to usefulness. What am I doing, what am I contributing to the world around me, etc.? Value, to me, was completely dependent on performance. But guess who doesn’t perform at all? The depressed version of myself.
When I’m lying in bed all day, all week, unable to rouse myself to do schoolwork, or even to write or talk to the people who are important to me, I am not doing life. I am not performing. I am not achieving. Therefore, I am useless, and furthermore, without value.
But, now that I’ve changed my mind, only the first part of the above sentence is true. When I am not putting myself to any use, I am certainly useless in that particular moment. Usefulness waxes and wanes and is dependent on so many factors both within and outside of our control: your mental health; your discipline; what your society demands of you; your physical ability; chances of random misfortune befalling you; whether your potential to contribute is accepted or rejected by another human or system; how much sleep you got last night. The list goes on. The point is that usefulness in this world is too flimsy and wavering a thing to base one’s value upon.
I’ve changed my mind on this topic because I’ve finally chosen to accept a view that is consistent with my Christian theology. According to those, human value is a fixed and inherent thing, independent of worldly circumstances and/or what usefulness we possess. Human value is dependent on one thing alone: who created humans. If all human people are image-bearers of the Almighty God, then there is absolutely nothing that can take our value away. Whether you’re quadriplegic, an able-bodied Olympic athlete, surviving on a catheter, haven’t had a disease for a decade, bipolar, Albert Einstein, or brain-dead, you are no less valuable than any other human of different worldly circumstances. I am valuable simply because my Creator deemed me so. I am just as valuable when depressed as when not; when in bed as when active. No worldly circumstance can affect that.
Wasting time on “frivolous” things.
Once upon a time, I wondered why people invested so much time and energy into things that I didn’t consider to be essential to survival. Things I might have considered essential include taking care of one’s family, doing one’s job well, being a good student, working on one’s aspiration. Things I considered not essential could include: being a fanatic of any sport which one does not play, being a die-hard fan of any TV show, engaging in every bloody argument on Twitter, spending hours on end on any videogame. These days, the things I once thought of as not essential, I now consider crucial and might actually encourage a person to pursue these “frivolous” things.
Why did I change my mind? Because I feel I’ve come to a deeper understanding of how stupid, crazy, bloody, effing hard life is. Sometimes, these “frivolous” things we engage in are legitimately the only things that spark our desire to live—that keep us just inches away from the edge of the cliff. I suppose you could say that I now understand why unimportant things are so important. Where one can find respite from this tragedy called life, where one can find a reason to remain when there are so many reasons to leave, one might as well hold on to that straw. (Within reason, I suppose… I suppose.)
Focus & Scatterbrain.
Not too long ago, I was raging against myself because of my attention span. Why are some people able to sit at desks from 9 to 5 and do consistent work, whereas I can get bored after 20 minutes, and working on one thing beyond 1 hour at a time is nearly impossible? I was convinced my lack of focus proved there was something defective in me… Until I decided to embrace my scatterbrain instead.
I changed the kinds of questions I asked myself. Instead of asking “How can I work all day on a project I get bored of after half an hour?” I ask, instead, “What is my boredom trying to tell my brain?” And the answer to the latter question is, “Switch tasks.”
I know that my scatterbrain and bursts of focus can certainly be assets if I know how to use them right. It’s funny because I used to get so upset that I was not permitted to spend “enough time” on anything in college enough to really appreciate it, because of how fast-paced my system is. But my conception of “enough time” came in large blocks of uninterrupted dedication to one task—and now I know from experience during time away from college, that if I got that, I wouldn’t be able to do anything much with it anyway, because of the way my brain works. My brain doesn’t need huge blocks of time to complete tasks. It needs scattered pockets of substantial time. And I have many of those.
Now that I’m learning to work with myself through task-switching (which maximizes my productivity if done in reasonable limits—for example, half an hour before switching is good; two minutes switching between tasks is dumb), I’ve changed my mind about my scatterbrain being a weakness. It might be just the kind of brain I need to survive in a fast-paced environment that likes to pull people in multiple directions at once.