I have regularly scheduled video chats with a handful of friends. Also, irregularly scheduled chats with other friends. This is a new-ish thing in my life — only in the past five years — but I’m under the impression that it’s becoming more and more common for more and more people. (Kim does this too with three different groups of people.)

Anyhow, I had my monthly call with Mary this morning. (Name changed because I didn’t ask her permission to include what follows.) Our calls are funny/interesting because they nearly always seem to be therapy sessions for one or the other of us. Or both of us.

Mary and I share similar traits. We’re perfectionists. We procrastinate. We’re easily overwhelmed. We do excellent work when we do our work, but too much of the time we simply avoid what we have to do.

Earlier this year, I was the one needed support, and Mary was excellent at providing that. During our chats, I’d complain about my lack of motivation or my existential angst, and she’d offer practical suggestions and recommend books to read. Waking Up. The Untethered Soul. Lost Connections. The Body Keeps the Score.

Today, though, it was Mary’s turn to be in the pit of despair.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said at the start of our call. “I stay in bed all day scrolling TikTok. I don’t know why I do it. It’s boring! Yet I cannot stop myself. It’s beginning to affect my relationship.”

I offered advice, of course, but it was all stuff Mary has heard a million times before. One of the problems she and I have is that we know intellectually how to deal with this shit — yet we struggle to put the habits into practice. I said as much during our call today.

“Yeah, I do know what’s supposed to help,” Mary said. “Exercise. Socializing. Being in nature. Eating right. I know all of this. But you know what? Even when I do these things, I don’t get much relief. I’m still stuck in this funk.”

“Do you have anyone local you can talk with about this?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “But I think that’s part of the problem. I talk about this too much! It’s like I’m wallowing in it. And, of course, I’ve talked with therapists about my issues. I’ve probably seen a dozen therapists, and none of them has ever been able to help.”

“Do you think any of what you’re experiencing is existential dread?” I asked. “I know some people feel swamped by the state of modern life. For me, all of my experiences with death recently put me in a place where life seemed so meaningless. I kept wondering what is the point of it all? That’s what put me in a dark place last year: a meaningless universe. And using too much marijuana.”

“No, I don’t think that’s it for me,” said Mary. “I don’t know what it is. Part of it is that life is so relentless. I don’t have energy to deal with the constant onslaught. What’s the point of doing anything because there’s just going to be more stuff to do later.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. “I feel the same way. It’s like when you get to Inbox Zero, right? Yesterday, I managed to get my email inboxes empty. Let’s see how many messages I have now. There are ten on this account and twenty on the other one. What’s the point? I’m never going to catch up. And that’s how I feel about my to-do list.”

I held up one of my several to-do lists for Mary to see. “If I cross off three things today, more things will crop up to replace them. So, I end up not doing anything that isn’t urgent.”

“Exactly,” Mary said.

“See here? I have ‘sell motorcycle’ on my list. It’s been two years since we moved to Corvallis. I haven’t ridden my motorcycle in those two years. And I’ve known the entire time I need to sell it. But I don’t do it. It seems like so much work. It’s such a hassle. So, it just sits in the driveway, a constant reminder that I haven’t crossed it off my list.”

I told Mary about my recent exploration of taoism and zen buddhism. “I’m not into them for the spiritual stuff — if there is spiritual stuff. I’m in them for the mindset. I’ve found it really helpful. Instead of beating myself up for not getting things done, I just accept it. All the same, I sometimes wonder what would happen if I spent a month of focused energy to cross everything off my lists. Would I feel relief? Would the lists stay empty? Would I be able to keep up with new tasks so that the backlog never built up again? I suspect that I’d just come up with dozens of other things that needed to be done.”

We talked some about the past. Is this feeling of overwhelm a modern thing? Did American pioneers experience existential dread? Did they procrastinate? Did they struggle with mental health? Much has been made about how mental health issues are a modern phenomenon, but I’m skeptical. I think humans — and other animals — have always struggled with anxiety and depression. It’s just that nowadays we have a vocabulary to talk about these things.

“You and I are a fine mess,” I said to Mary near the end of our call. “Yet we keep muddling through. Life is both joyous and frustrating, isn’t it?”

“It is,” she said. “It is.”

I feel fortunate that my own mental health struggles have been minimal this year. This is largely because I’ve given myself permission to put myself first. But it’s also because I’ve become proactive. I’m taking Wellbutrin. I’m reading zen/taoist stuff daily, even if it’s just a couple of pages. I’m trying to reduce my use of alcohol and pot. And when I sense an episode coming on, I take action.

Over the past week, for instance, I’ve felt myself sliding into a funk. Yesterday was the first time since May that I truly felt blue. I got nothing done. But instead of beating myself up, I simply acknowledged that I felt shitty and let myself sit with it. By not wallowing in the funk, it didn’t spiral out of control. I feel better today.

But I’m going to continue to put into practice the things that I know have been proven to help me. I’m taking a break from mind-altering substances. I’m going to the gym. And as soon as I edit and publish this piece, I’ll grab the dog and we’ll take a two-hour walk. I’ve learned that few things feel better than allowing my beagle to lead me through town as she sniff sniff sniffs all of the amazing smells.

(p.s. Here’s something that pleases me. As I get back into the groove here at Foldedspace, I want to remember to write more. When the spirit moves me, I want to stop, write, and publish — without belaboring perfection. I’ve gotten out of the habit. After my call with Mary, I deliberately made thirty minutes to get this all out of my head. Yay!)

10 Replies to “A fine mess.”

  1. Kevin M says:

    What type of stuff are you reading related to Taoism or Zen Buddhism? I am interested but there is a lot out there so not sure where to start.

    • Hope it’s okay for others to chime in! I’ve studied Buddhism and Taoism for over a decade.

      A great place to start with Buddhism is anything by Pema Chödrön, especially Start Where You Are.

      For Taoism, I love the Tao Te Ching translation by Stephen Mitchell and The Workbook for Spiritual Development by Hua-Ching Ni.

      I’ve also learned a lot taking dharma courses on Insight Timer (where I also teach).

  2. Ah, I love this post. It’s an excellent reminder that I’m not alone. That, as humans, we’re really all in this together.

  3. Another JD says:

    It’s sort of funny (in a non-humorous way) that you posted this. It’s something I needed to read and, as you have said, is something we all go through from time to time. While I also know better I think it’s time I just tell myself that it’s OK to not be productive and just go with it for a day or two.

  4. Brittany says:

    This reminds me a bit of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). You might be interested in it if you haven’t heard of it before. It’s a type of mindfulness; recognizing feelings aren’t “good” or “bad”–just acknowledging them vs. trying to fight them or feeling guilty.

  5. Diogo says:

    Long time reader, first time commenting 🙂

    Have you’ve read “Four thousand weeks” by Oliver Burkeman? It touches on a lot of things you’ve wrote here. You can check his ideas like https://www.oliverburkeman.com/river

    It’s great see you blogging again!

  6. Jim says:

    Check out MMMs article on the Comfort Crisis.

  7. Thank you as always for your candor and vulnerability. It’s a trying time, especially with the decisions we’ll need to make in the next few months about how to handle the next wave of illness. Very sensitive people are feeling what’s coming.

    It sounds like your friend is experiencing symptoms of burnout. Has she been to the doctor to see how her adrenals are doing?

  8. Travis says:

    This is all relatable, especially the endless to-do lists and writing on impulse. My last blog post was in 2015, but I’ve kept up the domain because I’ll get back to it someday once I catch up on the rest…

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