A method for madness
It has been a while since I have thought of myself as kind of mad. There was a time, a dark time in my 20s when I thought I was sliding into it, thoughts rushing through my mind uncontrollably, like a torrent and, worse, along with them all the rampant emotions thrown up by those endless musings. I ascribed my “madness” to being creative. Of course I was over-sensitive. Of course I was emotional. I was artistic. I even cultivated it, my swings from inspired to despondent, from seeing the world as a landscape of air, light and color to one that was bleak, empty and without meaning. When I was feeling the former, I wrote musically. When I was the latter, I saw life with startling clarity, as if the world had been redrawn by a divine hand for my personal benefit with black pen against pure white paper.
I’m not sure when it took a turn for the worse, when the depths became too hard to climb out of, I only remember lying on the single bed in the pretty blue room in my mom’s house, sunlight streaming in through the window and the row of young bamboo my Uncle had planted as additional shade, throwing wavering bands of shadow on the parquet floor and thinking, it would not be so bad to be run over by a truck. I didn’t have the courage to do anything to myself but it would have been nice for something tohappen to me, something that would simply take matters out of my hands. It was all going to pot anyway. As it turned out, my American doctor grand-aunt took matters into her capable hands, treating me as she did everything she had in her life, as something that could and would be fixed. One day, she dragged me to see a cognitive therapist, thereby, against my will, changing my life irrevocably.
Not very many people outside the United States care much for talk therapy. Most of the world thinks it is what Oprah does or her protégé, Dr. Phil. It is not. Cognitive therapy, what experience I have had of it anyway, is not confessional, an opportunity to relieve oneself of one’s emotions, though it certainly allows one to do so but, rather, a powerful, I repeat, powerful tool for rewiring the brain. The first few times I saw my therapist I remember breaking down after uttering a few sentences, overwhelmed, I guess, with both the relief that comes from being able to say anything without having to edit it for the other person’s sensitivities and the growing conviction that this man, with all his experience and his medical training, was uniquely able to solve the morass that had become me. He did, we did, but it took a very long time.
A few days ago, staring out the window and wondering how everything was going to turn out, after all the crises I had recently weathered, small and large, I realized that I wasn’t hysterical, despondent or, my favorite word for over a decade, depressed. All I felt was a strange kind of dogged determination. “Everything will turn out for the best,” the voice in my head said. “You just need to take a deep breath and be calm about it.” It has taken seven years to cultivate that voice so it could dominate the cacophony of competing and convincing voices — the one that keeps crying that it was all my parents’ fault, the one that insists that not a single person in the world could possibly understand, the one that cowers before all the challenges I face, and the one that urges me to give up since; at any rate, the world is set up to defeat me.
The problem with these pernicious voices is that everything they say actually happens to be true. I wasbrought up haphazardly. Life is, in fact, painfully unfair. “The world,” as Pat says in the movie Silver Linings Playbook puts it, “will break your heart 10 ways to Sunday. That’s guaranteed. I can’t begin to explain that. Or the craziness inside myself and everyone else.” But as Pat’s therapist says to him repeatedly throughout the movie, one needs a strategy for dealing with that incessant heartbreak.
While I was going through it I wasn’t precisely sure how the therapy was working, only that I seemed to be getting better at managing myself. My therapist challenged my assumptions and my most deeply held beliefs, blind-sided me with insight into motivations I had hidden from myself and, literally assigned me exercises in growing up. Over time I managed to piece together a method for dealing with my personal pandemonium. When life gets overwhelming, I retreat to regroup but not for so long that the world becomes daunting. I adhere to the things that make me happy and I scrupulously avoid the things that don’t. I have, to some degree, mastered the beast inside me. I am both Pavlov and his dog. And I am only so because I was taught by someone how to be so.