Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist, and Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Working When Your Brain Isn’t

Full full 06092014 disclosure

Note to readers: This is a real narrative about depression and how it works itself into every corner of your life.

Everything is terrible.

Everything isn’t terrible. My kids are off to school. The mortgage is paid, and it will continue to be paid for the foreseeable future. We have food, and we have clothing. Abraham Maslow would say we’re fine. Abraham Maslow would say things are not terrible. Abraham Maslow would say I need some perspective.

My husband says: Sometimes life is just hard. And that’s true. But sometimes, hard things are harder for some people than for others. Sometimes, everything is terrible and you can’t see things any other way.

And yesterday I just discovered that my child's after-school program may be neglecting him and leaving him to be bullied by older kids. I’m going to have to go confront the director and probably pull my son from the program. Pulling him will require me to completely reorganize my schedule because my workday will end at 2:30 p.m., instead of 5:30 p.m.

All of that would be easier, however, if getting out of bed didn’t feel like the equivalent of hauling a boulder across the Bonneville Salt Flats, barehanded and barefoot.

My husband will not have to reorganize his work life. I’m trying to not think about that though, because thinking about how my husband will not have to reorganize his work life will only make me feel like things are more terrible.

Things are terrible because my body feels like a brick and I can’t move.

The thought of confronting the woman who runs the after-school program makes me want to die. I don’t like confronting people, although my husband tells me that I’m good at it. Confrontations are draining and leave me feeling shaky and lost for the rest of the day.

I feel shaky and lost all of the time right now.

I just scheduled a meeting with the director of the after-school program for two days from now. I will arrive with a dossier of notes, an agenda, and I will succeed. Because that is what I do.

I succeed, even when I feel shaky and lost.

I blame myself for not noticing that my child was unhappy at the after-school program. He is sweet and sensitive. He told me yesterday that he felt afraid to tell me he was unhappy. He’s never felt afraid to tell me things before. I ask myself: Why now? What have I done? It must be my fault.

Except rationally, I know it isn’t my fault. I can see where the fault lies. That’s why I will succeed. Even though I feel shaky and lost.

Everything is terrible because food doesn’t taste right. Nothing in our refrigerator is appealing — even the takeout my husband ordered last night from the amazing Italian restaurant in our neighborhood that puts bacon in everything. How can vodka sauce covered in bacon not taste good? When vodka sauce covered in bacon doesn’t taste good you know everything is terrible.

Right now I’m supposed to be writing — and you are supposed to be reading — a column about living the life of the mind with a mental illness. I’m supposed to be writing — and you are supposed to be reading — about how to work in and around academia with a psychiatric disability. Right now you might be thinking: Why am I reading this meandering mess?

Everything is so terrible that my brain just isn’t working. How can you live the life of the mind when your brain isn’t working? This is the terrible secret that a person living the life of the mind with a psychiatric disability never wants to share.

My brain. It isn’t working.

Yet sometimes, some weeks, this brain comes up with so many ideas I have to use the voice recorder on my cell phone to capture them into emails I can send to myself. I have tons of notes full of ideas. I have so many ideas I have spreadsheets to sort them, to classify them, to rate them, and to date them.

But right now, I look at these ideas and they seem like they were written by another person.

A person who is alive.

Right now I can barely keep my eyes open to stare at my computer screen. It is 10:30 in the morning. I think: I should probably have more coffee. I think: More coffee will help me. But caffeine with its tainted energy doesn’t fix depression. It just makes you more aware of how depressed you are.

I think: Maybe I’ll watch a movie. The more ridiculous the movie is, the better. I’ll escape into a movie and then I won’t have to think about my suffering child and losing 15 hours a week of my workday (and how my husband will not be sharing that burden with me) and how my books aren’t selling as well as I’d hoped and how everything I touch seems to rot rot rot. Captain America would be a good choice. He’s a peppy dude.

Except as I watch the movie all I can think about is how I should be working instead. I have no fewer than three books to write at the moment. Then I look at the piles of laundry that haven’t been washed in over two weeks — because if I don’t do it, Who will? So I drag myself to the laundry room to run a load, and the pile of laundry seems to grow even as I stare at it. And how is that even possible? I'm going to be washing five or six loads easy. Who is going to fold all of this? And when?

Why wasn’t I born a man? Why isn’t there any good child care? Why don’t we have gun control? Why aren’t my books selling? Why can’t I finish my latest manuscript? Why can’t I enjoy a movie with Scarlett Johansson in a black bodysuit and Chris Evans in a blue one?

I don’t ask, “What is the matter with me?,” because I already know the answer to that question.

I never write when I’m depressed because it’s too hard. Nothing makes any sense. Sentences aren’t sentences and parts of speech don’t fall into the right places.

What would an editor do with a written manifestation of depression, I think. And that is the first thought today that has made me smile.

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