Hello darkness, my old friend

The last day of 2021. A remarkable year. So much promise. So much tumult. Change. Evolution. Love and loss. A year of so many highs and lows in my life like really none other I can remember.

I woke up this New Years’ Eve morning after a night of terrible, restless, barely continuous and certainly unrefreshing sleep to a gray and dreary New England December morning. The house is quiet and cold and in wild disarray befitting my current state of focus. The people I love most in this world are scattered about in the world. I’m alone.

I brewed myself a cup of coffee, looked out the kitchen window and preceded to listen to no fewer than five different versions of “The Sound of Silence.” It’s really only that first lyric that sticks though. I thought I was going to write a retrospective of the year – what made it tumultuous in my own life as a microcosm of the journey we all took this year. It turns out that what I really want to write is something a little different.

A winter’s day in a deep and dark December…

2021 has been a conundrum of an experience: at once seeming so optimistic and fleeting, and dreadful and plodding. My own mental health has been a journey, and I generally consider myself a resilient sort, but there have been a lot of times where I’ve not shown myself that resilience. More than a few times this year the thought that the years are getting shorter, time is accelerating, my life is slipping away has infiltrated my thinking. I feel healthier and stronger than I ever have, but I fall into deep self loathing and doubt frequently.

The effects of poor mental health – while not mental illness – can lead even emotionally healthy people to make choices that put off the most mundane of tasks. In this case, tasks I’ve set out for myself. I find myself scraping to get the bare minimum done sometimes. Just like periods where I feel less than peak physical condition, I will not infrequently go through periods of sustained poor mental condition. It’s temporary, generally fleeting, but sometimes it can be a more prolonged downward slope that I only really notice after a while of poor performance.

None of this is designed to diminish mental illness or its effects, however mental health and mental illness are related but different things. I’m talking about my general sense of well-being.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), while mental health reflects “our emotional, psychological, and social well-being.” Affecting “how we think, feel, and act,” mental health has a strong impact on the way we interact with others, handle problems, and make decisions, mental illness refers to “conditions that affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, or behavior.” These conditions can include but aren’t limited to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.

To be sure, mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the United States.

  • More than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.
  • 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year.
  • 1 in 5 children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental illness.
  • 1 in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.

If you feel like your state of mental health is anything other than a passing phenomenon, or if you’ve had a depressive state for more than a few weeks, please take the steps necessary to care for yourself starting with making an appointment with your health care professional.

I know I’ve really struggled this year to keep focus, keep from spinning out. I have good supports – a good job, friends I rely on and love, family I adore. I’ve just stopped writing race recaps because I just couldn’t sit down to do it, I’ve almost stopped writing altogether.

The last 22 months – and as the SARS-COV 2 variant Omicron spreads it seems like we’ll shortly be heading into a month 23 and beyond – have wrecked havoc in so many aspects of life. So many people have a hard time keeping their emotions and fears and anxieties in check under the best of circumstances and these last months have been months of existential dread, fear, anger, uncertainty, and toxicity. The Century Foundation notes that according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s first Household Pulse survey of 2021,  anxiety rates were 35.9%, up from 6.1 % before the pandemic. As early on in the pandemic as June 2020, the CDC reported 31% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, 13% reported having started or increased substance use, 26% reported stress-related symptoms, and 11% reported having serious thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days. Numbers that were nearly double the rates we would have expected before the pandemic.  Last May, it felt like we were heading back to “normal.” Now? Not so much.

Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts; don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours

There’s the political division stoked by various actors, with both good and self-interested malevolent intent, profit and power motive. Slate has a great podcast called Amicus which discusses legal concepts. Their December 18, 2021 episode talks a lot about where we are, and it’s a great take breaking down the clusterfluff in which we find ourselves. It’s stressful and the more I think about it, the more they’re describing “Don’t Look Up.” We’re all just standing around watching this happen, waiting for the meteor to strike us.

Then there’s the “Great Resignation.” People aren’t returning to the labor market. They have options, and they also have a not insignificant safety net. As one Harvard economist puts it, we seem to be in “a once-in-a-generation ‘take this job and shove it’ moment.” The economist can suggest economic factors like social safety nets, but I also think people want to get ahead. Spend down the savings of keep a cushion? Well, you spend it down when you no longer want to do that job. Incidents of airline passengers behaving badly, student misbehavior, and of course the inevitable stressors at work and home. One can easily see the decision making: “Forget that noise, I’m stressed out enough with [waves hand generally] all of this.”

That’s a lot of “Then there’s.” We’re all struggling here, some more than others, and all in different ways, but make no mistake we are all struggling in some manner, shape or form. So I know my individual mental health challenges aren’t unique, but maybe that’s the point. We’re all going through this collective trauma.

Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing
Bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that
Never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4 PM on some idle Tuesday

There’s an opinion column which I adore that was eventually put to music. It’s schlocky and overbearing, but you know, sometimes it’s those schlocky and overbearing things that stick in the mind’s eye. I’m going to appropriate the opening line for my own purposes with apologies to the author.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my opinion has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this opinion now.

There is so much about this whole piece that I could riff on, but the thing I’ve been mulling over is this:

Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.

Mary Schmich

I suppose it’s a logical consequence friendships will realign – the social gravity has changed, and that change effects the bodies in our lives in sometimes unpredictable ways. Each of our friends and people in our lives are going through the same stressors described here, and each person feels that stress in different ways. Some of my friends have become closer, some grown distant, some closer then abruptly pushed away. We’re simultaneously hurting and seeking understanding and at the same time increasingly less likely to give grace to others generally. Friendships suffer at the very moment we’re all crying out for the care and support of those same friends. The capacity we have for bridging those gaps has become perilously narrow. We’re seeing those we’re close to evolve and change as these stressors affect them, and they see us doing the same and we no longer understand them.

If I could wish for anything this season, it would be that my friends and those with whom I’m friendly could approach each other assuming more good intent. Let’s be a little more vulnerable with each other. We all seem far more fragile than we’d like, backs against the wall. I know my life’s metaphor would be more optimistic if I could trust that those around me are behaving as kindly as their individual capacity allows.

There’s one thing I have learned. It’s really hard to make friends as we get older, and when you have a large group of common friends you’re doing well. I’m fortunate that I have several of these groups in my life. It takes years to cultivate these friendships. These friendships are irreplaceable to me and I’ve watched relationships across multiple friend groups strain, fray, and ultimately break. I feel personally less rich because of this.

As we reach the terminus of 2021, a second consecutive year holding a decade of experience, perhaps my experience of the years speeding up and getting shorter is just the result of these years having been such a temporal whiplash for which I’m just not calibrated and for which my mental health and capacity for working toward bridging gaps has suffered because – let’s face it – this just isn’t normal.

So, it seems “The Sound of Silence” wasn’t the Simon & Garfunkel song that I should have been listening to. “I Am A Rock” is two and a half minutes of a man telling the world just how much he doesn’t need it, illustrating his point by demonstrating all the ways he needs the world.

A winter’s day

In a deep and dark December

I am alone

Gazing from my window to the streets below

Simon & Garfunkel, “I Am A Rock”

Rocks feel no pain and an island never cries. But alas, no man is an island and any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

May the year 2022 show us all that we are all connected. That together we are resilient. That we need each other. That kindness matters. Because all these things are true. 2021 was super hard, with so much tumult and danger. I’m also willing to bet that if we could just make that shift, there would be a lot fewer people quitting jobs, and fighting each other on airplanes and at the donut store. Maybe our friends and family will like each other again. Maybe we will all like each other just a little more.

Be well my friends. Enjoy each other. Embrace the imperfections of your loved ones and ask for forbearance for your imperfections. We’re all doing the best we can – there are some who deserve that understanding more than others.

Author: Mo

I consider myself a bit of a loner. I tend to think of myself as a one-man wolf pack. I like old school sneakers, baggy jeans, and oversized sweatshirts. I believe there is no such thing as a short sleeve dress shirt. I like neckties. I do not understand camping, car racing, or algebra – but I can camp and have been known to go a little faster than the speed limit. I have NEVER been known to do a quadratic equation.

One thought on “Hello darkness, my old friend”

  1. Wonderful post Jay, thanks for writing and sharing!
    Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and peaceful 2022.

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