I'm not sure if I've expounded on The System (or The Principles) before in my self-absorbed musings about my depression. And because I'm too lazy to check, if I have, tough noogies. Skip this writeup. I would.
My depression is something I've spent a great deal of time thinking about over the past ten years. I am cursed with being a relatively smart guy (I'm told) and with having a fairly good detached analytical view of the world - so long as it doesn't include me or my self-worth. That makes it difficult to trust any of my own observations or conclusions about my own psyche or its brokedness.
Here are some possibly unrelated things that I've pulled out of the mass over the past few years.
My parents are, as you always hear, close to the root of the problem. Not because they abused me. Not because they denied me love. Not because they had addictions, or because they spoiled me (much, I hope). No, they're structural problems. I think, as far as I can tell, that it all starts there when I was a very young kid - not because of what they did, but because of who they were and how they themselves were broken.
One of the worst things about my state of mind is that absolute certainty with which I know I'm a toxic useless failure.
This is interesting to me as an analyst. When you tell an analyst that something is a failure, their first question should be "by what criteria?"
Sometimes, it's self-evident. But most times, you discover if you look closely enough, it's not.
See, in my case, I have a furiously negative self image, and it's roughly divided into two components. The first is for failing to achieve some set of internal goals or my own ideas of my 'potential'; familiar to anyone who has heard of the mid-life crisis. The second is for 'owing' something for who I am, what I can do, and I what I've been given.
Bear with me.
I've come to decide, from reading many books and talking to many mental health professionals, that one of the ideas generally shared by the psychiatric community that I somewhat agree with is that my basis for self-evaluation must have, essentially, come from my parents. When I was tiny, whenever I needed to know if something was Good or Bad, I would immediately toddle off to my parents and present it to them and ask. If it was something external to me (the cat, something my friend did at school, the current weather) I would accept their judgement of it and add it meticulously to my internal memory. The problem is that I would also approach them when I wanted to know whether I was Good, or Bad, or had done something Good or Bad. Posing that question and getting an answer to it, because it concerns You, is freighted with emotional feedback, learning and communication.
I think that this is where most people who aren't depressed got the 'normal' thing. See, they'd ask their parents to judge them, and their parents would indeed give them feedback - but colored heavily by emotion, usually and hopefully in their case, love and affection. Even if you have to be told that what you did back there on the dining room floor was Bad, your parents' communication of this to you will be flooded with emotional overtones of love and affection. I've watched many parents. It's visible. Even if they're furious with the kid (rarely) the overriding emotional as opposed to factual feedback is 'I love you.' The factual feedback may be "that was bad, because you have damaged something and caused others pain or work or cost" but the emotional feedback is also present, and 'says' "You made a mistake, and I'm telling you this so that in the future you don't make the mistake, because I love you and want you to survive and do well."
My father is a clinical narcissist. Not in a drama queen way; it's not that everything is about him. It's just that things that don't involve him aren't...quite real, somehow. IF you present him with a situation or theoretical that involves you, it somehow will either be reshaped so that he is a critical participant or it will be ignored, not-real. So for example, if I were to go to him and ask him about why I was having a bad day at school, he might come back by explaining that it was his fault. If I tried to ask him about a situation involving me and another kid, he would become reticent and awkward, and refer me to mom; because he knew that he couldn't help me. It was like Russell Crowe's character in A Beautiful Mind - he knew, intellectually, that his response was lacking or skewed, so he would tell me to go see Mom, even though he couldn't feel it. But he was making an iron-willed effort to Do The Right Thing with his kid, which meant acknowledging his failure to connect.
The only emotional signals my Dad really was capable of sending in an interaction were vague, you-know-I-love-you-son (which is not bad, but which is framed more as a 'you know this, right?' than a 'Hey, kid, I love you, don't forget it) and rage. He was good at rage. His family was fucked up; his mother, my grandmother, was an abusive evil witch. Dad escaped, barely, but not undamaged. He was brought up being told outright that he was a failure and the reason she was miserable. He left after college - hopped a freighter, went to Israel, hitchhiked around, spent some time trying to figure out who he was without that constant negative feedback source. But anyway, he survived - and spent nearly all his energy doing that. He knows it. It comes across in his mind, as far as I can tell, as "I will not achieve my potential to help the world directly, because I had to survive and escape - but my child, who will not be burdened by this abuse, will be able to use his or her energy and resources and gifts to really shine and make a difference in the world. Without the weight of those chains, my child will fly."
God love him. I do. He basically fights himself every day, fights the things his emotional self knows are true because his mom programmed them into him, and managed to interact with me only with support and with love, even if it was a sort of detached vague love. He never got angrier with us than we deserved, I think; but the problem was that he was an angry person, and he was angry at a lot of things in the world. And he would express that. Not at us, but around us. He and Mom would fight, no holds barred (purely verbally) often - they claimed it was why there were still married tightly after thirty years, but there was a lot of shouting.
Mom was a psychiatrist. And she was smart. Very smart. She loved us (me and my brother, sorry) as well, and loved us deeply. The problem with Mom was that she loved her job, and had internalized it, and was unable to turn it off. She interacted with the world through a particular channel of uncensored-but-externalized communication. You could tell Mom your innermost secrets and horrible shames, and it was OK; she wouldn't ever blame or judge you - because, like a therapist, she was listening to you and taking it all in neutrally. It was data. This is how she handled most substantive interactions - intellectually, drawing on her knowledge and training as a shrink.
This is not to say she didn't love us, or express it. She would express her love for us often, and emotionally. But - and here's the kicker - it was never really done as part of one of those critical interactions where the emotion and the data are paired. It was always sort of randomly, at quiet moments, when the data channel was quiet - she'd lean over and hug us, or tickle us, and we'd laugh.
Pick up the pattern yet?
Although both my parents loved me, and made me know that (to the point where never in my life have I even been uncertain of their love) their love and more importantly their emotional communication was entirely disconnected from our substantive interactions, where instead they responded with purely data and analytical responses (in the case of mom) or with awkward redirections or firm control of anger (Dad). So I never really learned to interpret emotional signaling related to the topic of conversation. In Dad's case, I learned to filter it out as much as possible, because I knew his anger wasn't at me. The only time or way I could actually communicate what I was feeling about important things (self image, self confidence, etc.) was to have a factual communication about my state using with mom what I call the 'therapist channel' - uncensored, broadband, neutral affect, and NO EMOTIONAL SIDEBAND.
Actually, no, new topic.
One thing my parents did give me was a System, or the Principles. See, where many kids I know and watch learned to determine what they should or should not do based on the emotional feedback from their parents, that's not what happened to me. Most people, I think, have the following mechanism for self-esteem. My therapist told me this, I have read it in many places, I have come to accept it (in the abstract) as a logical construct: people build little versions of their parents inside their heads, and when they do things, they present those deeds to these internalized parent icons, and then derive emotional feedback (postive or negative) from those constructs - because that's how their parents communicated with them as children. "How'm I doing?" comes across as "hey, would this make my parents project pleasurable or painful emotional feedback?"
Yeah, I don't have that.
What I have, instead, is the System. My parents had a very strong set of ideas, as intellectual liberals with liberal guilt and with the incredibly important stressor of being an interracial couple in the US in the 1960s. They believed, firmly, that people Should Behave A Certain Way, and that if enough people behaved that way, Things Would Work. People should be judged on What They Do and how they interact with others.
You couldn't judge people on what or how they thought. That was theirs, inside their head, and you had no right. You could only judge them on what they did. If someone thought hideous things because that was their upbringing and kneejerk response, but had enough self-control that these things never came out, then they were to be lauded for the intellectual overcoming the weak and bad emotional. Racism was bad, but racism was expressed. You couldn't judge people who thought racist thoughts, but you could judge them for their actions and speech.
They had this little set of Rules. Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots. Not because God said so, or because it would make a difference to me what I did - not directly - but because being a Good Person meant ensuring you always, always acted and interacted within the rules.
That didn't always mean 'be nice and polite.' For example, it's OK to actively go after other people - if they deserve it and have broken the Rules. Never behind their back, but if someone breaks the rules ("Hey, nigger!") then it's appropriate to bring them up short, face to face, and make them pay and/or learn a lesson. Not because they'll stop thinking that way - but maybe you can teach them not to act that way, and if so, society wins. Maybe, if you're lucky, the fairly strict rules of courtesy the System prescribes for interacting with strangers might make one of them stop and think, "hey, that person I don't know was polite to me, and there was little or not stress in our interaction. Maybe if I'm polite to someone else, I can pay this forward."
Oh yeah, the Rules. Anyway, rather than building up an emotional-feedback mechanism modeled on my parents and an instinctive emotional response to stimuli, I was inculcated with a rational and analytic model (note: 'rational' doesn't necessarily mean it's correct or even makes sense - here, it just means that it is intended to operate via reason rather than feeling.
My parents would punish me normally for transgressions involving any interaction with them. If I mouthed off too much, or ignored them at the wrong time, or deliberately didn't do what they told me to do - yep, there were Consequences. And that felt (and still feels) perfectly normal. Those were handled with some emotional signalling - because Dad, for example, was allowed to get angry with us if it was deserved. But situations that were more abstract, especially situations involving my interactions with others, not them - those were always evaluated and handled with the Data Channel. And, worse, it always felt like they weren't judging me when they handed back those responses - they were judging how well my System of Rules was working. If I did well (followed the rules), I got basically an acknowledgement, because that's how people were supposed to act. If I did poorly, I got punished - but it didn't even feel like they were punishing me, it felt like they were administering a corrective stimuli to my Rules, trying to fix them. I hadn't done something of my own volition that was to be lauded or punished; my System had produced a mechanistic result, to be approved of or discouraged.
Again, it's taken ten-plus years of hard introspection and reading and talking to professionals to be able to frame this stuff even this well, and I don't think I'm framing it well.
So, moving on. The upshot of this is that when I was using my actual parents for feedback, the only emotional feedback (not data, emotional signalling) I would ever get that was coupled with my communication was (possibly) anger on Dad's part, in those situations where it was justified by the Rules. He wasn't often angry with me, but that was the only emotional signaling that ever made it through.
Growing up in elementary through high school, I had several close friends. I made friends easily. Not because I was quick to form tight bonds with people - but because I now had a subpersona. Meeting new people or being in emotionally charged situations was a source of great confusion and pain for me. I didn't know why at the time. Now I know it's because I was unable to interpret the normal emotional signaling that people learn as kids to imbue their interactions with. If I tried to befriend another kid by trying to 'bond', it wouldn't work, they'd get weirded out, and generally they'd eventually do something that to me was completely out of the blue - something that if I had been tuned in to emotional signals would be as clearly coming as a brick towards the window, but to me would always be a cruel and sudden negative check, for no reason I could discover.
I learned at an early age to be the Entertainer, instead. I'm smart. I can be funny. I tell decent stories, and my upbringing was privileged enough that I managed to get into several amusing and interesting situations that I could tell folks about. And because there was no emotional involvement, while I might embellish a story to make me look more skillful or cool, I never edited out the parts that made me look stupid, or dumb, or just plain funny and the butt of the joke - because this was just data. Just stories. No pain there.
The Entertainer is a damn fun guy to have drinks with. But - and here's the important part - the Entertainer serves two purposes. One, it lets me interact with other people, especially those I don't know or don't know well, in a manner that Follows the Rules, makes them happy, and ensures everyone comes away from the encounter relaxed and maybe amused. The othe rpurpose, though, is that it completely and utterly blocks any emotional signaling information from making it back to me. Because the only one my psyche was built to hear was anger, and you don't want to hear that anyway - and reason is highly prized, so thinking clearly is important. Hence, the Entertainer. This doesn't mean the Entertainer is deaf or blind to his audience's emotions! The entertainer is in fact a keen and skilled crowdwatcher and observer of the human condition - so long as the emotions being received, analyzed and acted on have nothing to do with me, The Custodian. If they don't, then they're not anything I need submit to my broken and fucked-up self-worth mechanism, so I can apply the full force of my observations, my thinking and my wit to observing and responding to them. I'm not trying to brag, honestly - but I rarely tend to make people uncomfortable as Entertainer. I know just how far the jokes can be pushed. I know when someone's unhappy about something or about the Entertainer, and I can adjust quickly.
So for conversation that may be entertaining and stimulating and funny and generally anything that doesn't have to do with any emotional communication about me, the Entertainer is hell on wheels.
But, you see, in many cases that first meeting or interaction, as you get old enough, involves people who are trying to determine if they will let you in; if they will get close enough to you to offer personal information. Flirting, especially, is basically entirely a game played on this wavelength; when people who are good at 'The Game' talk about it, they talk about it like a chessmaster talks about board position. But to the Entertainer, it would be like playing chess blindfolded with a Braille terminal giving board updates, unable to talk to his opponent. Pure data. It's hell in terms of visualising board position, or your opponent's state of mind, or anything except the cold numbers of the chess position itself.
And here's the thing. Most people who aren't broken like me can tell that something's wrong. Either they take the lack of signals back to mean "I'm totally not interested in you other than as an entertaining light conversant" or in the case of women (who have told me this, long after the fact) they take the lack of signalling coupled with engaged and good conversation to mean "I like and am paying attention to you, but not as a potential partner; as a human being with whom I'm enjoying speaking."
Many of them, who I know after the fact were signalling with what was practically a megaphone, emotional sideband wise, ended up convinced that I was either gay or attached, because that's the only thing that could explain my detachment. Most of the ones I became friends with and hence got info from later tell me that in fact it was a relief to find a relatively entertaining guy willing to pay close attention to them in conversation without trying to immediately determine if they were available and/or looking. With relief, they would immediately write FRIEND! on my forehead, and proceed to quickly reach a state where they would tell me all manner of extremely private information because they knew I wouldn't 'misuse' the information, or capitalize on it for my own gain.
Meanwhile, I'm completely clueless, because Entertainer is blocking all signalling info at the deflector shields. I'm not even interested in them sexually/romantically, because to me, they're just a data source on the other side of the wall, and because I was firmly conditioned with the notion that a woman having attractive visible bits is not sufficient reason to impose my crude sexual desires on her.
After becoming friends with many of these women, of course, I would start to find them very attractive, because once we were friends I knew them to be smart, fun people (who were also sexy) and THAT WAS OKAY TO CHASE! But by then, if I evinced interest, they would in nearly every case freak out, considering it a 'betrayal' because I seemed to be saying that "yeah, I lied about not being interested to get you close to me, surprise!"
This isn't all about relationships, lack thereof or loneliness, though. Suffice to say that this particular consequence of my upbringing contributes handily to feelings of loneliness and to feelings of failure; I'm xx years old, have no family, have never had even a real relationship. Fail.
There's another problem, though. See, the System will accept negative feedback. Negative emotional messaging. Those are received loud and clear. Even through the Entertainer's wall. And those cause pain. The pain is dealt with by control; but, you see, the pain and anger never go away. Never. Ever. They just sit there, behind the damn. I don't ever act on them (except in a few rarified situations where The Rules say it is OK to use that anger to deal with someone who is way over the line and Deserves It). But even when I have, that doesn't make me less angry. It just makes me physically tired, and (worse) in many cases makes me feel like more of a failure for having let it out - because even if The Rules say it's OK to check someone who has transgressed, they also say that your response should be proportionate - and it almost never is.
More reasons to feel like a failure.
The System defends itself. Because, you see, there is a Rule that says something like "Anyone who tries to get you to change the Rules in order to feel better is a danger, and suspicious." Because the whole point of the Rules is to protect in the face of what the emotional self wants. When you're a teenager, this is a useful thing to have - I'm pretty sure that the reason I escaped teendom without a drug problem, alcohol problem or having had a really bad car accident is because the System was always there, riding herd on what I Wanted To Do. That's good.
The problem is that as you get older, if you don't manage to learn to be happy and live with yourself - if you find that the System itself is causing some of the distortion and damage that is making you bitterly unhappy - you're fucked. Because then the only way to get better is to Fail. Massively. The punishment mechanisms built into the system will switch full on if you try to disassemble it - because it means you're putting your own happiness ahead of the common good. That is the ultimate no-no.
Even when dealing with my friends, I know they love me. I love them, and I love their children. I know I am loved, intellectually, and my friends and family tell me that my love of them is felt.
But I can't feel theirs.
I can know of it. I can be sure it exists. I can see it. But it doesn't in any way make me feel good, because positive emotional signaling - you guessed it - is filtered.
So you can see where this is going. The only emotional feedback that gets through is negative. Interactions are forced into one-way sterility with deflectors up. This situation can never get better; at best, it can 'not get any worse.'
After ten or fifteen years of this, coupled with all the other reasons mid-life men have for feeling like crap (deserved or not) - yeah, recipe for fucking disaster.
I know I'm not a failure. I know I haven't transgressed the system. I know I have many friends who love me. I know I am a self-sufficient member of society, who is relatively kind and polite to strangers, who helps others when I can.
But that is what is expected of me. There's no reward for that. There's only punishment for failing at that. And being a depressed bastard who is toxic to be around - yep, that generates punishment. Spiraling down.
It's funny - I think one of the reasons I stick around is because I don't actually have a desire to kill myself; it would be Failing or Breaking the Rules. But the best I can hope for, as far as I am capable of imagining or envisioning the world, is a constant slowly or quickly degrading state of anger pain and misery, tightly controlled, with survival the absolute best I can hope for.
Sometimes I fantasize that the aliens will come whisk me away, and put me in the Arena, and tell my in ringing tones that they will Judge Humanity Based On Me. I am arrogant enough to think I'd come out OK, because the System would be in its element. I would Do The Right Things. Only if they had telepathy, and could read the sewage inside my head, would I worry.
One of the reasons I am slightly glad I didn't get hired by the U.S. Government a few years ago when I was trying is because given the revelations about Abu Ghraib and numerous other morally, ethically and legally questionable actions exposed in the years after, I know with 100 percent certainty that if I had remained at that job, I would be punishing myself constantly and viciously for failing the System, for being complicit with that stuff. The only thing that could have happened that would have left me not incredibly worse off would have been for me to very firmly quit, and make sure my superiors knew the reasons why - and that sort of disapproval of the U.S. Government's actions and branches is not taken well, no matter when it is proffered or how it is presented or even if the listener might agree with you. Nope. I'd be a blacklisted pariah, at best, clinging to the idea that I had Done The Right Thing in this sacrifice, which might make me not hurt more, but sure wouldn't make me feel good about my life.
One thought that came to me recently was that I know several people with similar sets of Rules, concerned with Doing The Right Thing even in the face of terrible adversity. I realized that all of those people, regardless of how prominent their Rules were or how damaged they were, had parents who had grown up in the shadow of World War II and who were northeastern liberal intellectuals. I wonder if, in some way, the System is a reaction to what happened in that war - if these people (the parents) were, consciously or unconsciously, trying to make sure their children never slid down the slippery slope of complicity, even if it cost them terribly.
See, I fantasize, sometimes, about being the closest guy to a hostage taker with a gun. Or being the one closest to the kid in front of the out-of-control bus. I'm not arrogant enough to be sure that I would Do The Right Thing - because that would be Pride, and against the Rules - but I do know this: If I ever suddenly realize that by sacrificing myself I might save other people, and that I'm about to actually do it, there will be a great and terrible lightness in my soul.
Because in one swift stroke, I will, in my own fucked up and damaged mind, be able to expiate any failure to launch; any failure to achieve; any action which required me to punish myself over the years. That huge reservoir of rage, which requires an enormous investment in energy to keep under control, will not be a problem anymore. See, I don't know how to get rid of that rage, and I can't touch the System, because the System is all that keeps it in check - so even if I wanted to break the System to make myself happier, if I were to dismantle those behavior patterns, I'd probably commit suicide by cop immediately. But, you see, if I could sacrifice myself for others, I would have the hope of dying (finally) with my heart and mind clear and light, because the rage would die with me, and because I would be able to fulfill the Purpose that is embodied in the Rules: YOU WILL SERVE OTHERS AND MAKE THE WORLD BETTER. In one shot, any list of failures would be balanced.
Do you know how frightening it is to realize that in a moment of extreme personal danger, your clearest and only motive would be to make sure you didn't come out alive?
Shit, man. It's not good.
So yeah, I wouldn't (I'm pretty sure) eat a bottle of opiates and down a bottle of whisky, because that would be giving up - and that would Break the Rules. It would be a Waste of my Potential. It would Betray Those Who Love Me.
In closing, I'd like to wander back to the two types of failure. There's the failure to achieve, which is familiar to anyone who has looked back from 40 on their dreams from their 20s (with a few, very few exceptions who were very, very lucky). But there's also something even more pernicious. I was brought up relatively (in comparison to the world's population, extremely) well off. I never knew hunger. I knew my parents loved me. I was well educated. As an American, I could reach out my hand at any time and partake of knowledge, of diversions, of technlogy, even (to some degree) of social justice that 95% of those on the planet would kill for.
And to me, you see, that means one of the primary Rules is Be Worthy Of What You Have.
And that's a killer. It means you're fucking *born* fifteen yards into the red. Everything you do that others might have taken joy in their achievement at accomplishing, you view as only what is expected of you to balance this gift - and you'll never, ever feel like you made it into the black. Unless you succeed so incontrovertibly that almost by definition you're a happy and successful person anyway.
And that's where I am.
Thanks for reading, if you made it this far. I mostly write these so that, a couple years from now when I have to break in a new therapist, rather than taking six months to explain this shit to them I can say "Yeah, go here and read these things."
And you people, out there on the internet - as Arlo Guthrie once said, You Might Be in a Similar Situation.
Knowing other people might have your demons...maybe that'll help.
Just knowing that other people live and survive with such a broken fucking psyche - KNOWING it's broken but powerless to do anything about it - maybe that will help you to talk to someone about it when you couldn't before, which is better than not.
You can always talk to me, if you like.