I am not a recovering melancholic. I continue to overthink.
When I became the lead opinion writer for my college newspaper, my father suggested I call my column “The Road Not Taken” after one of his favorite Robert Frost poems. I thought about it but went in a different direction, choosing a title of my own: “Free Association.”
Recently I came across an article by David Orr, author of The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. According to Orr, Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” with his friend Edward Thomas in mind. After an initial reading, Thomas thought that Frost, through the speaker in the poem, was lamenting the uncertain nature of making choices, suggesting his life would have played out differently if he had traveled a different road.
Frost, it turns out, was mocking Thomas, who frequently complained about the routes they took on walks through the woods. Unaware of this backstory, readers assume that Frost is arguing in favor of the road not taken, praising independent spirits for forging their own paths.
We can’t experience a life we didn’t lead—we only know the path we’ve taken, the one we’re on right now.
Wherever he went, my father didn’t travel lightly. A heavy smoker for over fifty years, he carried in his chest the weight of a thousand ghosts. He was depressed but never diagnosed because a doctor might have the audacity to suggest he quit smoking.
My father died at age seventy in the hospital where I was born. Doctors assumed he had lung cancer, but we never found out because he refused any tests.
Naturally, I inherited his nerves. Three years prior to his death, I was hurting so much I decided one day to disappear. Medicine works best in small doses, but it’s easy—when you think about it—to fit a bottle in your mouth.
There were signs we missed, being caught up in our moods. I shared a poem with him once about my life being an arduous climb up a mountain that extends higher and higher with each step, death a slip within reach.
Our only hope is to keep climbing, he said, without looking down.
“This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.”
He spoke from experience, having survived as a young man what doctors called a “break from reality.” In the days leading up to his hospitalization, he had visited different churches, determined to find his calling into ministry.
I don’t know if my father found God, but he did take solace in the poetry of Frost, Tennyson, Keats, Byron and Blake. A student of language, he conducted his ministry as a high school English teacher for thirty-two years.
He looks human to me now, but as a child I saw him as a larger-than-life figure of strength. I remember disagreeing with him many times about my choice of friends, but I also remember how hard he fought for me, like the time my bike was stolen. Acting on a tip from a neighbor, he confronted the kid’s parents and threatened to call the police. The kid confessed, apologized and never messed with me again.
These are the pictures I paint of him in poems and stories. There’s an art to reproducing one’s father—retracing his steps, repeating his sins.
Fate is genetic; it comes before and after us. One of my favorite philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, didn’t believe in fate. He argued that we must create our lives every day out of nothing. Without being consulted first, each of us was thrown into the world, and this thrownness throws us for a loop. Even suicide, Sartre reminds us, is an act of being in the world.
No stranger to mental illness, German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote, “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”
To create my life out of nothing, I must, at every turn, risk my life. Faith—in myself, in my father, in God—requires both a leap and a precipice.
This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.
Whether or not we recognize our path, it’s easy to get lost in the woods.
A previous version of this essay was published in The Intimacy of Communication.
Throwing Judo Moves
Originally published in French in 1976, Symbolic Exchange and Death finds Jean Baudrillard incorporating into his thought the work of Marcel Mauss, a French sociologist who studied gift exchange in primitive societies. Mauss wrote about rituals in which each member is obligated to give gifts, receive gifts and provide counter-gifts, all of which contain traces of the person’s soul. The “goal” of the ritual: a gift-receiver must overwhelm a gift-giver with a counter-gift so powerful no further counter-gift is possible. In the process of trying to one-up each other, tribal members deliberately waste excess resources to ensure no one accumulates too much wealth.
Baudrillard views these rituals as a radical form of symbolic exchange, a concept he uses to critique capitalism. Emphasizing community and submission to fate, primitive peoples put to shame American values like greed, self-importance and celebrity worship.
Civilized societies based on economic exchange retain elements of symbolic exchange that haunt modern life. Still, Baudrillard argues, if we wish to save what makes us human, we must challenge the homogeny of the capitalist system with a gift it can’t return. We must force the system to humble itself before the world.
Nothing is more spectacular or subversive than suicide.
Death as creative act. Suicide as counter-gift. This is Baudrillard’s private revolution against capitalism’s reign of terror. People in Western cultures don’t kill themselves, Baudrillard contends, because resources are scarce. They crack under the pressure of mandatory consumption, their bodies too weak to enjoy a lifetime supply of products and services they don’t need and never asked for.
Thankfully, we don’t have to die to issue a challenge. We can commit theoretical terror, like Baudrillard does in his writings, or we can sacrifice ourselves through super-obedience to the logic of the system, devolving into passive-aggressive citizen-robots. In both cases a duel commences in which the weaker party throws what Baudrillard calls “judo moves” at its much stronger opponent, turning the system’s power against itself.
While I’m intrigued by Baudrillard’s provocative analysis, I’m here to issue him a challenge of my own. We live in a violent world rooted in socially constructed systems of power, oppression and abuse. We hurt, so we hurt each other. Rather than responding to violence with more violence, we must learn to forgive ourselves and each other for all our trespasses.
An understated but radical concept: forgiveness as the ultimate counter-gift.
There’s no reason to forgive someone who hurt me, just as there was no reason for him to hurt me in the first place. As a survivor who learns to forgive, I resist an impulse to give up. I can then devote myself to promoting an ethics of what I call “compassionate anti-violence,” which means fighting for empathy without punching people in the face.
This is not merely a personal healing. Survivors who acknowledge the truth of their ordeals are free to confront evil and protect others from harm, reducing suffering throughout the world. Poverty, slavery, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, terrorism, war: these are just a few examples of social and political traumas that threaten individual lives and the foundations of entire cultures.
Of course, anger and sadness are normal responses to injustice. I don’t deny anyone’s right to express outrage or disgust, but staying angry increases misery. To make matters worse, many survivors mistakenly blame themselves for events beyond their control. An inner-directed forgiveness has the power to heal self-inflicted wounds.
An Existential Burden
I live between extremes. One moment, I’m hypervigilant—scanning my environment for threats, startled by the sound of my heartbeat. A few minutes later, I’m numb, disconnected from reality, an imposter in my own body—a classic case of depersonalization.
When I’m hypervigilant, I’m keyed up from living in protect mode. When depersonalization sets in, I’m desperate to confirm I’m alive. I find danger lurking in all directions, each step a trudge through the middle of imaginary battlefields.
There’s a reason for my distress: as a child I endured years of physical and psychological abuse. As a teenager, in addition to clinical depression, I received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, an existential burden no amount of medication or therapy will ever erase.
Everyone suffers. My attacker was hurting when he hurt me. I assume he struggles to make sense of his actions years later. I don’t want to compound my suffering—or his—by hitting back.
Of course, I’m no saint. I’ve hurt family and friends, even lashed out at strangers. One spring day in 2003, I took more pills than my bottles directed. This got me a date with an ER nurse whose name escapes me. She poured me a pitcher of soot water to neutralize the poison.
“You’re so young,” she said. “You have so much to look forward to.”
There’s a chart somewhere with my personal history. I don’t know if I thanked her for filling in the blanks.
my therapist says overthinking
can be a defense mechanism
overthinking can be
a defense mechanism
overthinking can be
an unfenced metaphorical prison
it’s not my fault
my therapist says
can be used against me
my therapist runs a mom & pop
Oedipal arrangements shop
with thirty-one flavors
of oral fixation lollipops
overthinking can be
a dense intellectual prism
a defense mechanism
anxiety is a preexisting
paid for by a
my therapist ties
Freudian slip knots
to agoraphobics flying
kites in parking lots
it’s not my fault
it’s not my fault
I don’t believe
it’s not my fault
my therapist is the reason
I’m in touch with my feelings
c b snoad
I once performed mental
down on a tightrope over
the Grand Canyon
I once unzipped my flesh
and stepped out naked
in spirit astonished at
the jumble of my bones
I once rode a roller coaster
at a joyless amusement park
with my old friend vertigo
and a bottle of brine
yet here I am with my wits
about me and a new lease
on life ready to reboot
my drive in recovery mode
here I am with my wits
about me and a new lease
on life writing poetry
in recovery mode
c b snoad
Just Another Manic Monday (Through Sunday)
I am the free will of my Self
I am the life of my Self
I am the breathing breath of my Self
I am the paper pen yellow tablet of my writing Self
I am the Right Here Right Now of my present Self
I am the visions of my viewing Self
I am the mistakes of my erring Self
I am the sadness of my desperate Self
I am the shower I washed my Self today Self
I am the chicken potatoes juice of my Self
I am the wandering of my restless Self
I am the problems of my troubled Self
I am the sitting chair Self on the floor Self
I am the room of my loafing Self
I am the limited Self that limits my Self
I am the passing moments of the times of my Self
I am the Poetry of my Poet Self
I am the wall ceiling lights hallway of my Self
I am the memory of my forgotten Self
I am the sleep of my snoring Self
I am the habits of my habitual Self
I am the pills of my medicated Self
I am the lunatic of my Beautiful Self
I am the age twenty-three years of my old soul Self
I am the Second Stanza of this Poem Self
I am the movement of my do-it-yourself Self
I am the silence of my silent Self
I am the child of my infantile Self
I am the doctors of my evaluated Self
I am the tyrant of my terrorizing Self
I am the asthma of my allergy Self
I am the confusion of my poorly worded Self
I am the lazy of my boredom Self
I am the thirsty of my parched Self
I am the sex of my fucking Self
I am the gender of my penis Self
I am the dreamer of my dreaming Self
I am the misspelling of my phonetic Self
I am the sound of my hearing Self
I am the impending end of my doomed Self
I am the dying of my living Self
I am the editing of the original copy of this Poem Self
I am the free will of my Self (still)
I am the omissions of my censored Self
I am the attack of my alien Self
I am the sloppy penmanship of my hurried Self
I am the trauma of my traumatic Self
I am the inmate of my prison Self
I am the space-filler of my occupying Self
I am the steadiness of my constant Self
I am the adjectives of my descriptive Self
I am the technology of my robot Self
I am the ALL CAPS of my little Self
I am the liar of my lying Self
I am the aching of my aching Self
I am the nausea of my nauseous Self
I am the cramping of my right hand Self
I am the arch of my barefoot Self
I am the Responsibility of my Self
I am the waiting of my patient Self
I am the insurance of my hospitalized Self
I am the No Exit of my inescapable Self
I am the No Self of my Self
I am the culture of my Self
I am the human nature of my Self
I am the helplessness of my learned Self
I am the Existentialist of my philosophical Self
I am the villain of my evil Self
I am the hero of my savior Self
I am the money of my worthless Self
I am the questions of my ambiguous Self
I am the peace of my fragmented Self
I am the graduate of my undergraduate-degree Self
I am the arms hands fingers of my Self
I am the clothes that hang about my body Self
I am the pointlessness of my pointless Self
I am the enemy of my Self
I am the perpetrator of my Self
I am the Becoming of my Self
I am the refusal of my Self to fully be my Self
I am the empty of my hollow Self
I am the Unique Insignificance of my Self
I am the __________ of my __________ Self
I am the water of my wet Self
I am the belabored point of this ranting of my Self
I am the happiness of the pursuit of my Self
I am the feeling of my numbed down Self
I am the crossword puzzle of my wordsmith Self
I am the fear itself of my fearful Self
I am the free will of my Self (yes still)
I am the shadow of my presenting Self
I am the gentle tap on the shoulder of my lover’s approaching me Self
I am the Possibilities of my future Self
I am the logic of my illogical Self
I am the God of my non-believing Self
I am the reading of my scripted Self
I am the italics of my italicized Self
I am the absurdity of the absurdity of my Self
I am the flavor of my tasting Self
I am the fart of my farting Self
I am the loser of my losing Self
I am the vapor of my phantom Self
I am the dog-walker of my dog-walking Self
I am the unshaven mask of my follicle Self
I am Nothing More Than the Everything of my Self
I am the depression of my depressed Self
I am the moving away when people come towards me Self
I am the sole participant in the world of my Self
I am the hyphen of my self-esteem Self
I am the fulfillment of my Amazon Order Self
I am the balls of my naked Self
I am the ME of my ME Self
I am the free will of my Self (of course still)
I am the neurotic of my psychotic Self
I am the rage of my macho Self
I am the repetition of my repetitious Self
I am the repetition of my repetitious Self
I am the anticipation of my anticipatory Self
I am the navel of my gazing Self
I am the THE of my THE Self
I am the simile of my metaphorical Self
I am the Buddhist of my mindful Self
I am the activities of my daily living Self
I am the violence of my violent Self
I am the syntax of my grammatical Self
I am the hunger of my insatiable Self
I am the appearance of my doppelganger Self
I am the signs of my signified Self
I am the cost of my expendable Self
I am the desire of my longing Self
I am the reactions you have to this Poem Self
I am the disaster of my post-apocalyptic Self
I am the television of my TV Self
I am the free will of my Self (on and on and on)
I am the stock boy of my stocking-groceries Self
I am the knife of my cutting Self
I am the process not the product of my writer Self
I am the compassion of my nice guy Self
I am the darkness of my light Self
I am the smell of my nostril Self
I am the grunt of my brute Self
I am the drifter of my drifting Self
I am the rhythm of my rhythmic Self
I am the embers of my burning Self
I am the English of my language Self
I am the unconscious of my Jungian Self
I am the proof of my self-evident Self
I am the okay of my okay Self
I am the glasses of my bespectacled Self
I am the free will of my Self (it has only just begun)
c b snoad
I am the line below my name and date on this page of my Self
A young psychoanalyst named Fliess once asked Freud how a therapist knows when a patient has been cured. “When the patient realizes therapy never ends,” Freud said.
I’ve been thinking about taking a break from therapy in the near future. After at least one monthly session for the last decade and a half, I’m ready to move on.
We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves, each of us simultaneously a personal expert and unreliable narrator of our lives. We awake each day in the same body we went to bed with, but our worries and neuroses, played out in dreams or nightmares, don’t disappear overnight. Our core conflicts persist but manifest in different ways according to our moods or external stressors. Yet every morning we begin again in the middle of things, psyching ourselves up for the inevitable challenges of facing the world in front of our mirrors.
My personal narrative includes memories of individual therapy sessions spent crafting and revising an inconclusive autobiography, therapy itself a series of stories-within-stories, a self-reflexive automatic writing of the soul.
There’s no cure for the trauma I’ve suffered, but I’ve learned to recognize the sound of my own voice again, which speaks to the kindness of my therapists. A kindness I’m now showing myself.
Writing in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, Franco “Bifo” Berardi tells us in The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy that “there will be no full employment in the future.” The global workforce over the last twenty years has been forced to work more and more but with less and less guarantee of job security or economic stability. Working from home sounds convenient, but what happens when jobs become increasingly “temporary” and flexible workers drift from low wage job to low wage job without health care or the promise of retirement benefits? The precarious nature of work is indeed a dire situation, but it might be a blessing in disguise. Against centuries of capitalist logic, Berardi states his case for a dramatic reversal of values:
Society does not need more work, more jobs, more competition. On the contrary: we need a massive reduction in work-time, a prodigious liberation of life from the social factory, in order to reweave the fabric of social relation. Ending the connection between work and revenue will enable a huge release of energy for social tasks that can no longer be conceived as a part of the economy and should once again become forms of life. (213)
Berardi is dead serious: too much work is killing the Soul. There’s no use producing goods and services for bodies too exhausted to enjoy them. The Soul, which Berardi says includes language, creativity and affects, has fallen into a deep depression. People suffer individually. Society suffers as a “hole.”
It’s time to utilize our creative powers to rebuild a more just society in which everyone is entitled to food, clothing and shelter.
“Every person has the right to receive the amount of money that is needed for survival. And work has nothing to do with this. [. . .] Until the majority of mankind is free from the connection between income and work, misery and war will be the norm of the social relationship” (214).
Depression is a natural response to perpetual misery and war. But a way out emerges in the midst of tragedy, a revolution via the Soul. The pain of depression is infused with the potential to develop a new existential template, an enlightened approach to life accessible to us only through our unique brand of suffering under capitalism. To overcome depression—both on a personal and social level—we need a special type of therapy, one that helps each patient “singularize” and “become conscious of his or her differences, to give him/her the ability to be in good stead with his being different and his actual possibilities” (216).
The goal of therapy is to find and embrace my “self” in order to appreciate the Otherness of others.
After the Great Recession, de-growth is here to stay. Today the notion of wealth should not be based on possession but enjoyment, on having enough time to spend with each other in communities rooted in trust and understanding. Politics and therapy should be one and the same.
A therapeutic politics. A political therapy. Berardi is the ultimate idealist; for his passion and vision I applaud him. But he wrote The Soul at Work at the beginning of Obama’s first term as president. Hope and change were promised but rarely delivered. Congressional Republicans had made a pact, we later learned, to thwart the first black president’s efforts at the same time he was dancing with his wife at the inaugural ball.
Berardi puts too much faith in rationality and the triumph of compassion over fear and bigotry. Some people hate for no reason. Some people vote for “security”—from minorities, immigrants and refugees—over their own economic interests. Economic competition is no longer just a race; it’s about “opposing” races competing for American jobs that end up being outsourced or go to robots that don’t complain or call in sick. Inequality is a social, not a natural, division between individuals who all live and suffer and die together. We are more alike than different, and we’re all afraid of poverty, disease and isolation. Yet our misery under capitalism grows.
Prior to 2015, few could imagine a Donald Trump presidency. Berardi has redefined some of his thought in light of Trump’s rise to (white) power, but the core ideas he laid out eight years ago appear naïve today. Rather than less work, there will be more work. Plenty of work after Trump unravels “the fabric of social relation.”
We live in a post-truth world. Can the Soul survive post-hope?
There are strange doctors in every specialty. Offbeat cardiologists. Creepy podiatrists. Sketchy dermatologists.
Then there’s almost every psychiatrist I’ve seen.
Socially awkward? Speak incredibly soft with minimal emotion? Eye contact not your thing? After you’ve exhausted your first, second and third through sixth choices, consider a career in psychiatry.
I don’t know the extent of French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan’s quirks, but when he introduced the variable-length session his colleagues must have thought him batty.
Analysts typically bill for a “50-minute hour,” which affords them a 10-minute break between sessions to maintain their own sanity. Lacan found this format too predictable. A depressed patient aware of the clock might limit herself to less pressing concerns in the interest of time. An obsessive patient attuned to patterns might prepare in advance an outline of his session, a classic defense mechanism.
To combat complacency and open possibilities for unexpected associations, Lacan liked to end discussion at any moment. He interrupted patients after an intriguing thought or provocative turn of phrase, inviting them to process these moments between sessions.
Maybe you’d see Lacan five minutes this week, 47 the next and 18 the week after that. Surprise was guaranteed.
It’s possible that Lacan’s own psychology informed his unorthodox approach. Rumor has it that an examiner interrupted Lacan near the end of his thesis defense, cutting him off mid-sentence. Did he feel compelled to repeat this experience with patients in an effort to regain control? If so, it didn’t work. Lacan’s methods led to his expulsion from the International Psychoanalytic Association.
I admire Lacan’s creativity but today the variable-length session would drive insurance companies and hospitals nuts. Imagine the paperwork. The fluctuating co-pays. If I were in and out of the office, who would validate my parking?
I imagine many folks enjoy art in itself. Maybe it takes their breath away. Maybe it shocks their bourgeois sensibilities. However art affects them, they move on—back to their families, 401k’s and streaming video subscriptions.
Against reason I’m driven to create my own art—a gratifying but often frustrating endeavor. Sure, I’ve been proud of a poem or essay here or there, but when I step back to judge my oeuvre against established writers I’m thoroughly unimpressed.
This is probably my depression speaking. To combat a severe lack of confidence my therapist has me on a new drug called Self-Esteem, a generic form of Empowerment. I’m still learning how to take it. Everyone—the most recent psychological literature suggests—has the same intrinsic value. This includes me apparently, but it takes four to six weeks before my gut fully absorbs the concept.
Perhaps my hesitant nature—an inability to assume a position of strength, to let words flow beyond my control—bolsters my writing. A deep consideration of language might constitute a conscious ethical choice. My ideas, unsure of themselves, reflecting the anxious tone of my unique artistic presence. Mastery of an uncertain craft.
From (and against) a place of fear and pathological aversion to criticism I put pen to paper and begin anyway. To reluctantly own myself, to inscribe my name in doubt: the mark of not just a struggling artist but a deeply conflicted human being.