The Reality in Fiction

Why do we get so attached to fictional characters?

This is a question I’ve asked myself a lot. For me, in particular, it’s because many of the most formative, influential people in my life are not physical, in-the-flesh beings, but fictional constructs, whether written down on the page, drawn, or portrayed by an actor/actress in a TV show or movie. Anybody who knows me, in particular, knows that I have a particular attachment to two characters especially: Captain America and Daenerys Targaryen. They aren’t the only two who I feel have been formative in my life, obviously; Daenerys didn’t exist until I was in my college years. But they are the two I would say I feel the most attachment to in recent years – to the point where I have a tattoo signifying Captain America on my left shoulder, and I’m planning a Targaryen crest on my right.

Partially, it comes down to actual science (I know, right?); to a certain degree, parts of our brains don’t distinguish between a real person and a fictional character, much like if you read Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal, you discover that the reason we get a rush when we accomplish something and get a reward in a video game, it’s the same feeling as receiving an actual, physical reward because our brains just don’t differentiate. While the rational parts of our brain can tell us that these characters just aren’t real, the more emotional areas of the brain don’t distinguish between real and fictional – a fictional character can be just as close to us as a trusted friend or a beloved family member.

This also happens because, through fiction, we often get a direct line to a character’s inner thoughts and reasoning that we don’t normally get in real life. Creators of fiction have to explain why bizarre things are the way they are, because anything too unrealistic and we will stop caring, while reality is under no such constraints. So, in the case of my two example character above, we can read comics and get a look into Captain America’s thinking, much the ways we can see the thought process inside Daenerys Targaryen’s head in her viewpoint chapters. When these characters are then portrayed on the big screen, whether television or movie, we also tend to get some of this, though not direct thoughts, but often characters will take time to explain their actions or motives so that we, as the audience, can understand.

Bring together the fact that our brains, on some level, view these characters as real, and that we get a feeling of knowing them personally (which is helped along by media portrayals, as the actors chosen for the roles are often very attractive, and we as a species just tend to innately trust attractive people), and we begin to develop empathy for these characters. We see the things they go through, and we feel sorrow when they suffer, joy when they overcome, and the whole gamut of emotions in between. We feel like we are right by their side, like we are with friends or family, when they are having their most important, intimate moments. We feel for them, and the feelings are genuine, though the characters are fictional.

This connection only grows through time; much like the ‘real’ people in our lives, time apart brings distance, but time together – watching them on screen, reading about them in books or comics, playing them in video games – brings us closer. We may never be able to reach out and touch these characters, to form a bond through contact that produces oxytocin like a genuine hug, but the longer we are with them, the closer we tend to feel to them. And, of course, the degree of closeness varies from person to person; some people may never think of characters as real at all, while others might become dangerously obsessed with the characters, to the point where they stalk the actors/actresses who portray them or the writers who write them.

It’s important to be able to differentiate; I think that’s a sign of a healthy mind. I like Daenerys Targaryen, and I feel she’s been a powerful female force on a show dominated by men in Game of Thrones, but I also know that Emilia Clarke, the actress who plays the role, isn’t Daenerys, though she may project parts of her personality into the character, or take parts of the character into herself. Similarly, I know Chris Evans, as Captain America-like as he may act in social media, is not, in fact, a super soldier, just a talented actor who did the role justice.

I’m writing this mostly because right now I am in a strange place regarding these two characters. Captain America, at least as portrayed on-screen by Chris Evans, has finished his story, and passed on his legacy, and I feel that the build-up and resolution of his character arc was a great story, to say nothing of how all the other character arcs of the Marvel Cinematic Universe intertwine in a way nobody would have thought possible had you described it a decade ago. Captain America will continue on in the comics, but the shield will be taken up by a new person on-screen. I felt sad, but also an immense sense of satisfaction with how the character’s story resolved.

At the same time, I feel much more conflicted regarding Daenerys Targaryen. Built up over 7 seasons of beautiful, superbly-acted television, the character was, while on occasional brutal and ruthless, also someone who genuinely wanted to make the world a better place, to free the slaves of the world and lift up the downtrodden, as well as being a powerful woman who didn’t require the affirmations of men to succeed. In this final season, though, she has been changed, and did something horrible which I don’t think had been adequately justified on-screen, while being betrayed by every man in her life (many of whom called her crazed even before she did anything terrible) and suffering tremendous loss. The build-up of her character seemed to have been thrown away for the sake of hitting a single, specific plot point, and once that was achieved she was no longer necessary to the story and was killed off. In the 5th episode of the final season, I did feel a sense of betrayal, of horror, but not because of the character, but rather because I don’t think the character’s previous actions had shown the necessary work to get to where she ended. Fiction, unlike reality, needs to show us how characters get to where they are, and I don’t feel like it did, and because the series is now over that is where the story ends.

These two are by no means the only characters I feel have been real in the past to me, and have helped shape the direction of my life; you have only to see the characters I feel were largest in my mind – Sturm Brightblade of the Dragonlance Chronicles; Paksenarrion of the Deed of Paksenarrion; Picard and Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation; Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in Star Wars; Beowulf; Michael Carpenter in the Dresden Files; Superman and Captain America; Eric Draven from the movie The Crow, one of my all-time favorites – to see the directions in which my mind goes, morally and emotionally. I have formed attachments to all of these characters and more, and seen them all as friends and valued comrades; I cried when Mordin Solus gave his life for others in Mass Effect 3, and cheered when Captain America picked up Mjolnir in Avengers: Endgame. I’ll likely continue to form attachments to characters, though the personas of Captain America and Daenerys will loom larger because of their reminders on my skin.

We form attachments – we CARE – about these characters because in a very concrete sense, they are real to us.

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Break-Up

It’s so hard to find someone who cares about you.

I heard that on the radio as I was coming home (from the song Someone Who Cares by the band Three Days Grace), and right now, that really feels true.

It’s been almost a year since my last entry, and a lot has changed. I started a job in the social work field doing something called wraparound, and boy is it intense. But the really big one, the one I’m talking about here, is that I was in a relationship.

It started in January, and I think things had been slowly building to that for a while; we were friends, but she knew I wanted to be more, so we started dating. And I really threw myself into it; I was the best boyfriend I could think to be. I cooked for her, bought her little gifts, drove across town to drop off emergency chocolate for her at work, listened to her when she was having troubles, spent as much time as I could with her. It was a slow build-up, but I was happy with her, even joyful, and it lasted for months, and felt like it could have lasted for years.

As you might have guessed from the title of this entry, it was not a happy ending. A few weeks ago when I was asking her where she saw us going, I got a very blunt answer: nowhere. While I had fallen deeply, crazily in love with her – to the point that I was making long-term plans and even considering uprooting my life for her – she had come to the conclusion that she felt nothing for me. I was someone who was occasionally fun to do things with, but nothing more.

As I’m certain I’ve discussed here before, I’ve struggled with issues of self-confidence, of feeling worthless and unlovable. And so to be told by someone I loved deeply that not even a tiny portion of that was reflected in her… well, it wrecked me. It’s been a little over three weeks, and I still don’t know what to do with this feeling of emptiness. I feel like having put so much of myself into this relationship, to have tried so hard and done so much only to be told it was worth nothing made me feel like I was worth nothing.

Rationally, I know that’s not true; I’m valued at my job, and I know my friends like having me around. But emotionally… well, it’s not hyperbole to say I wish she would have stabbed me rather than tell me that. At least with stabbing, there are guidelines for what to do, how long it takes to recover, painkillers to dull the pain. But no painkillers numb that emotional wound. Nobody can tell me how long recovery will take -and bear in mind, this was my first serious relationship (yes, at 38; I’m a really bad introvert, and my depression made me even worse at doing things to start relationships earlier in life). I don’t have much to compare it to, and nothing to look back on and say that it’ll get better in x amount of time.

I don’t form deep emotional connections easily. I’m pretty empathetic, which is a boon to me in my job, but deep connections take time, and I don’t risk them often. But when I do, I don’t hold back, I go all the way. And here and now, it’s not served me well. I feel hollow. I described it the other day as that feeling you get when you think you’ve forgotten something in another room, and then you go to find it and can’t remember what you were looking for – but that feeling, all the time. Like something is missing.

Something is, of course – my relationship. The person I loved. Who was one of my closest friends. Now I can’t bring myself to speak with her, because it’s so painful – just one text from her a little over a week and a half ago sent me halfway into a panic attack. So much doesn’t feel like it makes sense anymore – was I just too blind to see that she didn’t care? Did I do something wrong? Is what I have to offer in a relationship really as worthless as it feels right now?

My head is a mess of emotions- sadness, anger, bitterness, guilt, shame. I don’t know how long it’s going to take to start feeling better. To start feeling like maybe at some point I can think of myself as someone who can actually reach out to another person in a relationship kind of way, like I have something to offer besides misery. I could probably keep going with this for some length, but I think it would devolve into a sad, pathetic exercise, a bitter screed, or something even less palatable. So, I’ll end it with this: like the song I started this entry with says:

Why is it so hard to find someone
Who can keep it together
When you’ve come undone?
Why is it so hard to find someone
Who cares about you?

Hopepunk

I thought about naming this post after former President Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, but I figured that would be a bit presumptuous of me. So instead,I went with hopepunk. What is hopepunk? Well, as the person who seems to have originated the term, I’ll go with what author Alexandra Rowland says: hopepunk is the opposite of grimdark.

Grimdark is, according to the website TVTropes, a tone shift in how a work, whether in film, books, or some other media, is presented – rather than go for a lighter, more hopeful tone, instead it moves in the other direction, darker, edgier, more dystopian, more amoral… more hopeless. Nowhere in geek culture is this more obvious than in the setting of popular miniatures wargame Warhammer 40,000 – where there are no good guys to play, nobody is clean or pure; even the nominal ‘good’ guys think nothing of exterminating whole planets of their own people to halt the spread of infectious ideas, or to deny ground to their enemies. In a grimdark setting, hope is a thing of the past; all that can be hoped for anymore is survival, and perhaps revenge.

I bring this up today because of the events in Las Vegas on Sunday night, of a shooting rampage that left, as of this writing, 59 people dead and 527 injured. I spent much of yesterday after hearing about this in a daze. That someone could inflict such terror and bloodshed on his fellow man, and for (thus far) no discernable reason… I just couldn’t wrap my brain around it. The thing that came to my mind most readily was a quote from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by Theoden, king of Rohan: “So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate?” I was sickened, saddened, depressed, horrified, angry. I despaired over what could have caused this, and raged over those who decided to take the opportunity to say that it happened because of disrespect for the president, or who decried any possible attempt at conversation about gun control. I was trying desperately to find something to help me make sense of things when I remembered reading about the concept of hopepunk a couple weeks ago.

I’ve written about hope before here; in the process of recovery from mental illness, and learning to manage what will be a lifelong condition, sometimes hope is all that you have. And I am, by nature, a cynic; I tend to think that things will likely get worse, not better, which is odd coming from someone who has adopted (and should probably get tattooed somewhere) the credo dum spiro, spero – while I breathe, I hope. But I was having a hard time finding anything to be hopeful about in this situation until I remembered the idea of hopepunk. It’s not the deepest philosophy, but I felt that it somehow touched something in me, something that helped me to come back out of the dark hole I was descending into. Like the concept’s author says:

“Jesus and Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Robin Hood and John Lennon were hopepunk. (Remember: Hopepunk isn’t about moral perfection. It’s not about being as pure and innocent as the new-fallen snow. You get grubby when you fight. You make mistakes. You’re sometimes a little bit of an asshole. Maybe you’re as much as 50% an asshole. But the glass is half full, not half empty. You get up, and you keep fighting, and caring, and trying to make the world a little better for the people around you. You get to make mistakes. It’s a process. You get to ask for and earn forgiveness. And you love, and love, and love.) ”

Things are dark now. They will be dark again. For some of us, there hasn’t been a time in recent memory where it hasn’t been dark. But they won’t always be that way. Despite whatever is happening now, things are slowly getting better. Sometimes they aren’t perceptibly better; sometimes they might not get better for us, but rather for our children or grandchildren. but things are getting better, though it can be hard to see. 60 year ago, I probably would have been put in a sanitarium – and that’s assuming I survived my suicide attempts. Even 5 years ago, I was unable to get health insurance, because I had a pre-existing condition and that meant insurance companies avoided me like the plague. Now I have insurance, I just finished my MSW (even got the degree int he mail today), and I’m looking to get into the field and get to work because I want to help.

The world is dark at times. Grim, painful, and ugly. What happened in Las Vegas Sunday night was a gruesome, terrible example of that. But there is hope. Sometimes we can see it in the events in the news, and sometimes in the lives of the people around us. And sometimes we can see it in the media we choose to immerse ourselves in. For me, a website I read a fair bit, RPG.net, has created a fair list of media they feel qualifies as hopepunk storytelling, and I agree with many of them. And, because I’m a geek, I think I’ll point out a few of my favorite examples.

Game of Thrones, a show famed for its brutality and character death count, has moments of this – fans of the show will see it in ‘dancing master’ Syrio Forel, when he says “And what do we say to the God of Death? Not today.”

Fans of DC Comics will see it in the oath of the Blue Lantern Corps: “In fearful day, in raging night, With strong hearts full, our souls ignite. When all seems lost in the War of Light, Look to the stars, for hope burns bright!”

Some may even see it in the 90s Kevin Costner vehicle The Postman, where a grifter in a post-apocalyptic USA takes up the guise of a US Postal Service mailcarrier, initially as a way to con others – and starts a movement he ends up believing in (plus, as a bonus, it has a cameo with Tom Petty, who passed away yesterday, playing himself as leader of a settlement).

I think the two that might do the most for me, though, are these two: the first is from the first season of the HBO series True Detective (and, as a warning, it does include some NSFW language):

The second comes from the TV series Angel, a spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was  a show that was all about a group of monsters, misfits, screwups, and criminals trying to find some kind of redemption in fighting against evil the best they could, and this idea became one of the central points of the show:

So, rather than rant about people like Pat Robertson, or how desperately the country needs gun control or something like it to keep these terrible things from happening over and over, rather than add to the deluge of negativity and despair, I write to you about hope. Find it where you can; ask others for help if you can’t find it on your own. Hope for a better world is how the world gets to be better. I leave you with some of the final words of Canadian politician Jack Layton: “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

I would love it if those reading could contribute their own examples of things they think might fall under the classification of hopepunk; please do so in the comments section below.

Identity

Who are you?

This is a question I ask myself all too often, because there are times when I feel it’s not too apparent. I mean, yes, on a literal level, I know who I am – I know my name, and when I was born, and where I live. But on a deeper level, I often have difficulty knowing exactly who I am.

Some of this is because of my experience with mental illness. I know I have made a lot of changes in the four and a half years since coming to Menninger (and Texas), but sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly how much. I can’t clearly remember what I used to be like before depression became a looming figure in my life; I’m aware of events, and I know some generalities – I have always been on the quiet, bookish side – but I can’t clearly recall what my personality was like before. Who was I when the crushing bulk of depression wasn’t weighing on my mind all the time?

This isn’t a particularly new phenomenon; many people have reported that their mental illness seemed to take over a large portion of their life and even co-opt parts of their identity. There have even been studies done about it, and articles written; you can find one here entitled Stealing Me From Myself about how people with mental illness, and the loved ones in their lives, have noticed significant changes in personality and identity when the illness sets in. Living with a mental illness, especially a severe one, can majorly redefine what we see as our ‘self’, our identity; it becomes a part of who we are, and it tends to be quite forceful about it, crowding out other portions of our identity. The things we used to enjoy may not appeal to us anymore, either because we just find ourselves incapable of feeling joy that way, or because we lack energy to participate anymore.

When we learn to deal with or manage our mental illness – however long that takes – we often find that old parts of our personality return. Someone whose crushing depression made them unable to enjoy hiking might have the energy to take it up again, for example. Someone whose delusions made it impossible to read without discovering hidden messages and conspiracies, when medicated, might find that they can pick up an old favorite book and enjoy it for what it is once more. But not everything comes back. As another article – Mental Illness, The Identity Thief – talks about, sometimes there’s just no way to get back to where, or who, we were before. I can’t watch some of the movies and listen to some of the music I used to enjoy because of the rush of negative emotions they bring on. There are people whose presence I used to enjoy, but whom I just can’t be around because some of the things they do are dangerous to my own self-care.

And then there is how others see us. This can be one of the worst parts of the change in our identity, because the people who have known us as mentally ill often have difficulty seeing us as anything else. There aren’t many people in my life who actually remember me for who I was before – mostly just my family and a couple old friends. And there are a lot of people who I have met since who have had to deal with me when I was at my worst, and often haven’t had the chance to interact with me since I’ve begun to successfully manage my illness. Do they see me differently? Will they always see me as the guy who couldn’t smile, who was all too easily tired out, who was relentlessly negative and cynical? If I were to meet them again and speak to them as who I am now, would they be able to reconcile the person I am with the person I was? Or, like Melissa Kirk writes in Psychology Today, will that image of me as a mentally ill person be the only way they’ll be able to view me? Will my identity in their eyes always be shaped by that?

Going forward, I’m not sure who I’ll be. I’m not really all that sure who I have been; many of my memories are cloaked in the fog of depression. There are parts of my identity that I am sure of now – I’m a geek; I’m an academic; I’m a liberal’ I’m a Christian. But how much will my identity change as my life continues to move forward? Will moving into employment in the social work field shape my identity at all? And if so, how? Depression will continue to leave some lasting impression – I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t since it’s a permanent passenger – but how much of an impression will that be?

I don’t really know who I’m supposed to be, but I’m interested to find out.

Loss

I’ve spent the last week mulling over the death by suicide of Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington. was one of those 90s kids who picked up their first album, Hybrid Theory, and I really loved their first few albums, though I started to drift away as time went on. There was something about the music, the lyrics, the power behind what was being sung that really spoke to me – probably because, whether I knew it or not, that was a relatively dark period in my life. For my last two years of high school – 1996-98 – I was dealing with the fallout of having a thyroid condition that was mostly unmedicated, and a lot of the symptoms mimicked depression pretty well. This continued into college, where I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder when I was 20. I was not in a good place mentally, so many of the songs of Linkin Park spoke to me – Numb, Crawling, In The End, Somewhere I Belong… I didn’t know much about Chester Bennington or his background, then, but the things he was singing about really felt close to my heart.

Hearing about his suicide was kind of a blow because of that impact his music had on me. I’ve learned more about who he was and what he had dealt with in his own life over the last week, and I can see now why his songs touched me – because it seems like he had many of the same kinds of feelings I did. And I’ve attempted suicide myself, as well as lost a close friend to it, so I know what it can feel like to be on both sides of that divide. I even managed to have an acquaintance-ending argument with someone on social media because of the way they reacted to Mr. Bennington’s death; they asserted that his choice was weak, selfish, and a ticket straight to hell, and I strenuously disagreed.

I can’t speak to what Mr. Bennington felt; I never met him, and I only really know him through his music. But the idea that suicide is somehow weak or selfish is one that just burns me up. For me, and for some other people who have contemplated (or attempted) suicide that I have spoken with, suicide is a solution of last resort, when the pain – usually emotional and mental – just becomes too hard to deal with. It’s not a spur-of-the-moment decision, but usually comes with prolonged suffering. Only it is suffering that others can’t see, and it is suffering that often those who suffer can’t (or don’t feel they are able to) show, because of how that suffering is perceived. There’s a sort of societal assumption that ‘real’ suffering has to have a visible component; a broken limb, a huge gash, even a tumor. If it can’t be seen, then, some assume, it must not be real, it’s just imaginary.

While yes, it is all in the heads of those who are suffering, that doesn’t make it any less real. Being in one’s head does not somehow make suffering imaginary. But when people feel like their pain won’t be taken seriously, they keep it inside, and that just lets it grow and fester, like an infected wound – only there is no iodine or antibiotic for emotional trauma. People living with that pain fight a daily battle just to be even marginally functional, and when you’re fighting a part of your own brain, there’s really only so long you can keep fighting without help. For some that means medication, others therapy, still others can find some activity to help, and a combination works for many. But it’s not weakness to give in after fighting a losing battle – if that were true, we’d view the Spartans as weak for losing at Thermopylae.

As for selfishness, that’s trickier. Suicide can appear selfish to someone who has never thought of it, and again, I can only go on my own experience and what has been told to me by others. But depression can get your mind so twisted up that you feel like a burden to others – your family, friends, the people you work with, even casual acquaintances. It feels like every time mention is made of how terrible one feels, that it is somehow a burden to those around us. So we pull back, and stop sharing, because we don’t want to be a burden. but that puts more metaphorical weight on us, and we pull back more, until we become certain that removing ourselves from the lives of those we care for will be the best thing we can do for them. I know in my darkest times, I believed that my friends and family were so burdened by my presence and by the things in my head that my loss would actually be a comfort to them, that it would be a relief to not have to deal with my issues anymore. It seems nonsensical – how could someone we love and care for be such a burden that their death would be good for us? – but that’s the insidious nature of depression. It twists our thoughts around to such a degree that up seems like down, black seems like white.

Don’t even bring up suicide being a trip straight to hell with me. I am a Christian, and I know that one can read one of the commandments – ‘thous shalt not kill’ – to be a condemnation of not just murder, but suicide as well. I’m familiar with the medieval treatment of suicide, seeing it as a crime against God and man alike, so much so that suicides were buried, not in graveyards, but at crossroads (discussed here). My response to any of that is this – that God, who is infinitely loving and compassionate, must see the pain that someone who died from suicide was in, and that they may not have been thinking clearly. Such a loving and compassionate deity would see that soul’s pain and, instead of banishing them to hell, accept them into heaven, because surely they had already suffered enough. And a God who would condemn someone who died from suicide to an eternity in hell because they finally gave in to the pain they were suffering from is not a God I would feel is worthy of worship. There may be a theological argument for hell being self-imposed, that perhaps a person who died from suicide felt themselves unworthy of God’s love and intentionally separate themselves from their deity, but I would think that in such a case, the door would still be left open to them. If you really want to have this argument with me – and I don’t suggest it – it will start off hostile, and will probably involve a whole host of profanity. So let’s move on, shall we?

I’m going into social work, as anyone who has read many of my previous entries will know, so therapy is what I want to be able to do. This is because I want to be able to reach out to people before they reach the point of no return; I’ve been there, and I know how hard it can be to reach out, but having someone to talk to, who isn’t going to judge you, make fun of you, or try to second-guess you, can be a godsend. I don’t know how Mr. Bennington handled his feelings, and I wish he hadn’t died the way he did, but I know the demons that can be crawling in our skin. I know there are wounds that won’t heal, that can’t be seen. I know what it can be like to feel so numb that pain is the only thing that makes an impact, and death seems like the only answer. These are real things, even if they aren’t visible, and there are millions of people in this country alone dealing with them every day.

I welcome discussion here. If you have questions about my own experiences, please ask them. If you want to talk to me about anything, feel free to message me, and I’ll answer. I know that here, I’m just an anonymous voice on the internet, but I know that talking to someone else can help, even if only a little. I’m not as eloquent in my handling of this topic as a former colleague of mine, one of the most intelligent and well-read people I have ever had the pleasure of learning alongside, who covered this in his own way with The Grendel Crawling In Our Skin: In Memory of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington. And I know that for people who are suffering from thoughts like this, it can often be nigh-impossible to reach out, even to someone who may have an idea what they are going through. I’m sorry; I wish the internet allowed me to just step through it and sit with you through your pain, and do what I can to help. But right her, right now, this is what I can do.

Goodbye, Mr. Bennington. Your music helped me through some very difficult periods in my life, and I know it helped many others. Your music helped inspire the work of another of my favorite artists, Icon for Hire (whose singer did her own cover of Numb several years ago); many of their songs are about dealing with emotional issues and mental well-being. It may not have helped you, but it did reach many who might otherwise have felt alone in their suffering. Wherever you are, I hope you have found some measure of peace.

Nostalgia

Well, I just flew in from my 15th undergraduate reunion, and boy, are my arms tired.

What? It’s not only a good line, but it happens to be mostly true – I haven’t actually boardedmy flight home, but I’m typing this in the airport, and my arms are tired. Mostly from lugging my weekend luggage up and down hills that I’m certain got steeper since the last time I was at my undergraduate alma mater, Kenyon College.

I haven’the been there since I graduated in 2002, and I was expecting…. well, I’m not really aure. While Kenyon was the place where some dark parts of my life happened, or started, it is also where I met some of my closest friends. I guess I was expecting to feel like I belonged, like I was coming home. Nostalgia, you know? Instead, I felt a profound sense of alienation.

I’ve never been the most social person, and this weekend made that especially clear; of the 50 or so members of my graduating class who attended, I recognized only a handful – with a few fingers left over. I was placed for the weekend in a student dorm, on a part of the campus that I had never spent much time when I was a atudent, largely because of the party/fraternity reputation of those dorms. And for many of my fellow ’02s, those were the times they were there to reenact.

Drunken singing, loud conversations until the wee hours of the morning in dorm halls, and at least one loud, angry meltdown… the things in college I tried to avoid. I spent two years living on the 4th floor (no elevators) of a dorm, on the Wellness (no drinking, smoking, loud parties) floor, avoiding that. And these were all people in my class, but I knew virtually none of them, and none of them (save a few) knew me. And when I spoke to the people I did know, reminiscing about our college years, it became clear to me that a great deal was missing.

Moatly, I’m speaking of my memories. Kenyon is where my depression first manifested, and even that is hazy to me. One friend spoke of a D&D game I ran involving puzzles, which he seemed to remember vividly, and which certainly sounds like something I would have done… but I found myself smiling and nodding, because I have no memory of that. I remembered playing D&D with him, among others, but my memories are all hazy and unclear; I have few details I can recall. That was just one incident among many that showed me how little of my time there remained in my mind.

It isn’t that it wasn’t important – as I said, I met some of my closest friends there, and was taught by some amazing professors. But whether the depression muted my memories, or they were lost in the many attempts at treating my depression (ECT, I’m looking at you), they just aren’t there anymore. I have bits and pieces, flashes of vivid memory, but most of the rest is just a dark, muddled mass of blurred shapes. And with those memories gone, so, too, was much of my connection to the college. Things still mostly looked the same, but I had to rely on the cues of others around me when it seemed something was new or changed. It didn’t help that the reunion was almost entirely on the ‘upper classmen/women’ side of campus, which I had few memories almost no little connection to in the first place.

Still, it was great to see the few people I did recognize, including my former roommate; we roomed together all four years, and so when he showed up, it felt like falling into familiar habits. The people I knew looked so similar to what I remember, with few exceptions, that it was both surprising and comforting at the same time. 15 years has made them wiser, and more adult, but not visually too different, at least to my eyes.

And yet, it felt like so much was missing. Both my memories, and the connection I expected to feel. I walked for miles around the campus, but while things were familiar, nothing pulled at me. My emotional connections were with the people I knew, and few of them were there. And the lack of memories is worrying, because, thinking about it, it reminds me of the gaps that a blackout drunk has (I’ve heard them described quite vividly). I don’t know what kind of person I was when I was there, really; I was a poor student, certainly, but was I also a poor friend? Are there people I wronged many years ago who feel they are owed an apology, and have never gotten it because I can’t remember? Similarly, are there friends whose lives I have missed because I forgot how to reach them? Much of what I can’t remember is likely pretty boring, routine, mundane life… but are there important things I can’t remember, and if so, what are they? Troubling thoughts.

But anyway, nostalgia. Even in a dorm I had never seen in my college years, surrounded by people I never knew, I felt a strange tugging at my heart as I packed to leave. I don’t know if, or when, I might be back, and what the college might look like. Or who I might see, or miss seeing. Strolling the aisless of the college bookstore – a place I did remember, and felt oddly comforted by – I ran into an old professor of mine, my advisor, who had been one of my favorite teachers; it was his classes, in large part, that guided me towards medieval literature years ago. He was older; he walked with a cane, and couldn’t remember me – and, given my own memory troubles, I can’t judge. But it was one more familiar face before I left, burdened with collegiate memorabilia. One more reminder of things past, that will never come again, no matter how deeply they are missed.

Like one of the songs of Kenyon goes, farewell, Old Kenyon, fare thee well.

Sleep Cycle

People without mental illnesses often have real difficulty understanding a lot of what goes on when you have one. It’s hard to describe, for example, what real, long-lasting depression feels like to somebody who has never experienced it. But depression is not the only major symptom of a depressive disorder, just the most prominent. One of the others is one I’m having difficulty dealing with right now, and as the title might suggest, it has to do with sleep.

With depression, a lot of those who have it are either suffering from hypersomnia (sleeping way too much) or insomnia (not nearly enough). Both cause problems. But another common issue for people suffering from depression is that a standard sleep cycle can be very difficult to maintain. For those of you who can go to bed at 9 or 10 PM, waking up between 5 and 7 AM for your day, I know (from questioning others, mostly) that people on a schedule like this wake up refreshed, and gradually start getting more tired, both physically and mentally, as the day goes on. So, when the day is over, their bodies and minds are ready to sleep, and then the cycle continues.

For me, and several other people with depression I know, sleep works very differently. I wake up tired – probably about like many people would feel if they skipped sleep altogether. A lot of that tired feeling is mental; it takes my brain a lot longer to get up to running at full capacity than people who have a more normal sleep cycle. And so over the course of the day my body gets tired, like a regular person, but my mind wakes up. So I feel the most awake and aware – at least, mentally – at the time most people tend to be going to bed. This is, not coincidentally, when I do most of my schoolwork – writing papers and the like – because it’s when I feel the most coherent. Of course, my body has been up all day, and it needs sleep, but my mind runs the show, and so keeps going. This, of course, leads to me staying up far later than I should, because it is when I get the most productive time out of my brain. So I go to sleep, and then sleep less than I should, which leads to my body being more tired… and this goes in a cycle.

On days off, I’ll often get a couple hours of sleep in the middle of the day, because my body needs it and my mind isn’t working on all cylinders yet. But once my mind starts being active, I can’t really go to sleep until it runs down – literally. I can try to go to sleep, but my mind tends to be working overtime, and when your brain is working that hard it’s hard to get to sleep. I can sit in bed for hours, but until my mind gives the OK, no sleep will be had. So jobs that require use of my mind early in the day tend to not go so well, because my mind is not up to speed yet, and won’t be for a while. I can work doing physical things – like lifting, sorting, and packing or unpacking boxes at my last job – just fine, but if someone wants me to talk about social work policy or attachment theory, or how I would handle a particular case, my response is going to be sub-par. For some jobs, this is obviously a problem – working someplace at a 9-5 job, where my brain needs to be constantly in motion, is going to be messy for me, because my brain just won’t work that well when I arrive. There’s not really a way around that; even arranging my schedule so that I sleep directly after such a job, my mind still tends to get going around 10 or 11 PM. And when that happens, my body gets up, too.

You can see how this might be a problem, because there aren’t a lot of jobs that start at times like that, and the ones that do are third-shift jobs which are often more physically than mentally demanding. And while my mind is plenty willing to work at that time, my body generally isn’t. So it’s an interesting and annoying tightrope to walk, finding the place where both my mind and body can operate efficiently and get enough rest while still maintaining a life that allows me to be something other than a pasty vampire. And this is an issue that persists even without my depressive episodes being active; even when I’m not suffering through an episode of depression, which could be weeks or months long, my mind and body still function like this. It’s difficult to retrain your body to a more normal way of working when the body is willing, but the mind is not.

So just imagine that your situation was this – that instead of being exhausted when you go to sleep, you are exhausted when you wake up. And when you should be going to sleep, you are instead wide awake, and your mind is working at peak efficiency. But you still have to deal with a job that works regular hours, and may require relatively regular use of your mental acuity. What do you do, hotshot? What do you do?

That is part of what depression does to me.