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Confiding in the Void

We’ve reached the 11th month of 2018, so I can say that the theme of this year has been community. From my perspective.

What does the average specimen of Homo sapiens need to be satisfied with their group and their own prospects within it? What are we currently lacking, we atomized modern creatures? (Please read the whole Samzdat series.) I’ve been trying to figure that out, and although I’ve gained some insights, I can only speak authoritatively for myself.

The following is a personal account of anomie.

As young as I am at 24, I’m still astounded by the amount that I learn over relatively small timespans. Human nature has long fascinated me, but during the past year I have dealt with it more intimately and dwelled on it more deeply than in the past.

Notice that I use the word “it” and refer to human nature in general, rather than citing specific connections with individual people. I have deep emotional relationships with my fiancé and immediate family, but my friendships remain primarily intellectual. Even with my dear partner, I struggle to be raw and vulnerable when I’m not intoxicated. Alcohol loosens my tongue and enables me to express the sentiments that scare me.

I would say that I love my friends, and they greatly enrich my life. Yet I remain puzzled by the easy camaraderie and affection that people seem to share with each other. I don’t know how to put this into the right words, the words that would properly convey what I mean. It’s a discomfiting sensation because words are supposed to be my forte.

Over the past couple of years, I have become more familiar with that which I cannot articulate. I’ll try anyway.

Here’s what I want to tell you: I remember the profound closeness of my childhood and teenage years, when platonic intensity bound me to a handful of other girls. I didn’t fully appreciate those friendships at the time. I feel their absence acutely, and it hurts to remember, because I know what I’m missing. I still haven’t figured out how to make true intimacy part of my adult life.

I used that word earlier — I said that now I understand human nature “more intimately.” I wasn’t wrong, per se, but my peer-to-peer connections are anchored by shared curiosities rather than bare feeling. My friends and I have little bearing on each other’s hearts. If we hold more than that between us, it’s hard for me to see.

Again, I sincerely love my friends, but I don’t think that we know each other at the core. We rarely offer that level of exposure, although I suspect that most of us would readily accept it from someone else. Tossing around ideas is safer than revealing angst in less-than-sardonic terms.

I come across as an open person, as far as I can tell. People have commended me on it. I don’t think that I give the impression of being reserved. But I am; I have secrets that fill me with inexpressible shame. That’s normal. Usualness does not reduce the burden.

I think that my brethren — my fellow thinkers and discussers — tend to be afflicted in this way. We prize cleverness and abstraction to the extent that we suppress our yearnings for human-to-human communion.

On the other hand, I could be committing the typical-mind fallacy. (Is it ironic to include that caveat?)

I have a guess about why I’m pondering this subject, why I feel bereft of true connection beyond my partner and family. It’s probably because I’ve reduced my dose of psych meds. The underlying realities are the same, but how I weigh them has changed.

I’ve been taking venlafaxine for five or six years, since I was a teenager. The drug saved my life; I would be an addict on the streets or otherwise miserable without the boost that it gave me. At a time when I was mired in despair, venlafaxine restored my energy and optimism enough for me to drag myself toward adult functionality and eventually happiness.

Granted, the upgrade was accomplished with plenty of support. I still resent my parents for creating me without my consent, but the anger has lost its potency. I owe them an incalculable debt for helping to transform my life into a good one. My fiancé deserves gratitude as well.

Despite all of the complaints above, I am cheerful most days — often productive! I love my job, am thankful for my luck in finding it, and cherish the belief that I am helping to build a future where autonomy is paramount and accessible to all.

I hope that the trend will continue. I want to believe that my brain is going through some kind of chemical adjustment period and I’ll be able to come to terms with a self that has emotions surging under the skin. I want to feel what I feel without being overwhelmed.

It may turn out that I need to stop tapering. I may decide to jump back to 225mg daily instead of my current 150mg. I can’t pinpoint why I hope that my mental health won’t require a reversion.

As a transhumanist, in principle I see nothing wrong with relying on medical technology to feel okay. Apparently despite my beliefs I’ve been nursing a latent hope that venlafaxine actually “fixed” me over the past five years, as opposed to being a treatment that I will need… forever?

In conclusion: I’m glad that I wrote this blog post, but I’m slightly fearful of the reactions. Despite my trepidations (or perhaps because of them) I’m going to solicit thoughts from a few of the people I like and respect. It’s a way of being intimate — there’s that word again! — without addressing them directly.

Am I being cowardly or brave? I think the former. Laudable courage would be publishing the secrets that I mentioned before. Alas, that is more than I can offer, although I would readily accept such disclosures from others.

Mood-Related Gym Equipment

On the macro “meh” feeling and dragging my feet.

The hedonic treadmill. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. How many of us are just trudging forward? We convince ourselves that we’re making progress, making a better life, but actually we’re walking in place on a level surface. Getting nowhere.

It’s like a depressing scene out of The Phantom Tollbooth, meant to teach clever children to temper their expectations.

Forlorn dog on a treadmill. Photos by Jason Kasper.
Photos by Jason Kasper, here and here.

In case you aren’t familiar, the “hedonic treadmill” concept refers to a set point for contentment, or ennui arising from personal stasis, or some combination thereof. Here’s an explanation from Shane Frederick (bona fide Yale professor! for whatever that’s worth):

The lack of evidence for a relation between objective circumstances and reported well-being has given rise to the concept of a hedonic treadmill, on which humans’ happiness remains stationary, despite efforts or interventions to advance it. The metaphor is also interpreted to mean that humans’ happiness will decline if their material circumstances remain constant.

When I reflect on my state of mind over the past couple of years, it’s obvious that I’m on the hedonic treadmill. My current life is sooooo superior to its previous iterations, and yet I feel existentially dissatisfied.

I’m cheerful enough on a moment-to-moment basis, but ambition is pressing on my back all the time. Constantly I feel driven to do better, to be better. When I accomplish a goal that I’ve been driving toward, the joy is fleeting.

Do I need improve at actively appreciating what I already have?

Shane Frederick again:

The conclusion that material circumstances have no effect on welfare seems implausible and objectionable, because it implies that economic inequality is irrelevant, that the poor would be no better off if they were rich. [But] data showing that subjective ratings of happiness remain constant despite objectively improving circumstances could instead be explained by a satisfaction treadmill, whereby improving circumstances lead individuals to adopt successively higher aspirations for the amount of enjoyment they regard as acceptable.

I guess the idea of a satisfaction treadmill is marginally less despair-inducing. You develop higher standards! That’s an improvement right????? But if it doesn’t improve your subjective experience, what’s the point.

How about you, dear readers? Do you feel like you’re on the hedonic treadmill? Or a satisfaction treadmill, or some other mood-related gym equipment, like an elliptical? Hedonic weightlifting with progressive overload would be the best thing, I suppose.

Please recommend strategies for coping with persistent internal discontent. (I know, I know, I should meditate.)

Originally posted on Substack.

The Best of Men

“I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger — much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.” — Fred Rogers speaking to the Senate, 1969

Your Emotional Support Animal Needs Emotional Support

When I attempted college for the first time, it took about a month for everyone involved to figure out that I was not ready to live on my own, away from familiar surroundings and my support system. I had a nervous breakdown, sobbed on the phone to my mom, and that was that. The next day she drove twelve hours from the San Francisco Bay Area to Reed College in Portland, OR, then drove twelve hours back with me and all of my stuff in the minivan. I’ve been at home with my parents ever since, for three years now.

During the month that I spent trying to Be A Real College Student, I got a pet rabbit. My dorm allowed small animals, and I was incredibly lonely, on the shy and timid side. In other words, I was desperate for comforting companionship. I looked at Craigslist ads, emailed a guy advertising baby Rex Rabbits, and paid him $25 as the adoption fee, plus $10 for the cage. Then Doof was mine! (His full name is Doctor Doofenshmirtz — I named him after the villain from Phineas and Ferb. Everyone hassles me about this because Doof is a very elegant rabbit whose proper name should be Shadow Prince or something like that.)

Collage of a bunny rabbit.
Collage of Doof (the black rabbit) by Sonya Mann.

This new little creature was small and very scared and velvety black. I left the door of his cage open, and eventually he hopped out to explore my room. Soon he discovered that wainscoting is a great thing to chew on, as are rain boots and backpacks and especially laptop chargers. During the following days I learned that he enjoyed munching on leaves and grass, as well as peeing on things outside of his cage, like my bed. A little harness-and-leash dealio from Petco allowed me to take him for walks on the gorgeous green campus lawns. My fellow students were very enthused about this. Who wouldn’t be enthused about an adorable, curious baby bunny exploring the bushes and gamboling on the lawn?

Doof was my emotional support animal, although I didn’t know this vocabulary when I bought him. According to the ADA National Network website, emotional support animals “provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities.” (A psychiatric service animal performs similar functions, but does have the specialized training, and a different legal status.)

Here’s the hard truth, the truth that I’m ashamed to admit: when I got Doof, I was not equipped to care for him properly. I had the money for his pellets and hay, but I didn’t do enough research about rabbits’ needs. More crucially, I didn’t have the emotional energy to deal with getting a wild animal situated. Rabbits are domesticated in terms of appearance — selective breeding has made them damn cute and fluffy — but on the inside, centuries of evolution carry far more weight.

Rabbits in the wild are busy busy busy: foraging for food, keeping track of territory (yes, they’re highly territorial), and maintaining a social hierarchy with the other bunnies in their warren. Pet rabbits get bored, like the unfortunate dogs who are left at home alone all day. Without appropriate stimulation, bored animals will destroy your stuff. More importantly, they experience stress, and even anguish.

Unlike dogs, rabbits are prey animals, meaning that they are cautious and easily scared. To form a mutually beneficial relationship with your bunny, you have to be patient, learn to express affection the way rabbits do, and sort of individually domesticate your pet. Doof and I developed a very sweet relationship — he would lick my hand and I would rub his cheeks — but I wasn’t successful when it came to providing an environment with enough activities. I couldn’t live up to the responsibility that I had taken on.

Collage of a bunny rabbits.
Collage of Pumpkin (left) and Doof (right) by Sonya Mann.

Things turned out okay, because my mom came and rescued me. Now Doof and his friend Pumpkin live in my backyard along with our chickens, happily eating fallen leaves from the old apple tree, digging worrisome tunnels toward the fence, and bossing each other around. I miss living in close quarters with my bunny, getting those tiny bun-kisses, but the relationship we have now is much more satisfying to both of us. I know that he is able to fulfill the crucial desires so deeply encoded in his brain. It gives me a rush of joy to see Doof grooming Pumpkin, because I know their bond is precious to them. (In the wild they would be mates, but all of the rabbits I’ve owned are neutered, and yours should be too.)

I’m not trying to scare you away from getting an emotional support animal. I’m saying that an emotional support animal is a serious commitment. Whenever you get a pet, you are making a promise to that animal. The promise is, “I will take care of you, be kind to you, and do my best to make you happy.” Each of us has to seriously assess what “my best” is. If you’re brutally honest with yourself, your best effort might fall short of what the animal requires. You may need to get yourself to a healthier place before you can give a vulnerable creature what it needs.

sweet young bunnies
Photo by Jennie Rainsford.

Emotional support animals provide the emotional support in their title because you must cherish and care for them. There are days when you can’t tell yourself, “I want to live,” but you can say, “I have to live because someone needs to feed Sookie and she’s bonded to me.” In my own struggle with debilitating depression, animals have been immeasurably helpful. They remind me that food is the most important thing, that well-placed scritches are also important, and that digging holes is a good thing to do any day of the week. Animals lead comparatively simple lives. When their needs are met, the satisfaction is pure and strong, for both the pet and the caretaker. Meeting their needs is the essence of a positive human-animal relationship.

If you intend to get an emotional support animal, or any kind of pet, here are some things to remember: Adopt instead of buying! Don’t be like me and get a baby animal — rescue one of the thousands of older animals who struggle to find a home. Do a TON of research beforehand. More research than you think you need to do. Look up what the problems can be with the species that you’re considering. If you’re interested in bunnies, I recommend the book Understanding Your Rabbit’s Habits by Tamsin Stone. And hang in there, okay? Remember that emotional support can come from humans too. We’re all rooting for you.

Posted in commemoration of Doof and Pumpkin, two sweet deceased bunnies.

Short Book Review: Scott Adams’ Success Secrets

Dilbert visits the park. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].
Dilbert visits the park. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].
Scott Adams, the cartoonist who created Dilbert, is a weird dude. No surprise to anyone familiar with the comic strip. I just finished reading Adams’ autobiographical self-help book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. I don’t agree with all of his advice — do I really need to state that caveat? — but some of Adams’ concepts are interesting and even spot-on.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert

For instance, Adams asserts that systems are superior to goals. What he means is that it’s smarter, for example, to always be looking for a better job instead of following a five-year plan to attain a certain position. He lays out a bunch of principles along these lines that in his view should lead to success. His through-line is the idea that you should optimize yourself to take advantage of luck when it strikes.

The book is certainly interesting, and I think particularly useful to people starting their professional lives. Here are the two quotes I liked enough to write down:

“Good ideas have no value because the world already has too many of them. The market rewards execution, not ideas. [After realizing that] I concentrated on ideas I could execute.”

“Reality is overrated and impossible to understand with any degree of certainty. What you do know for sure is that some ways of looking at the world work better than others. Pick the way that works, even if you don’t know why.”

I particularly agree with the second suggestion, that you should shape your paradigm to be productive rather than accurate. (This is basically what my therapist wants me to do.) If I dwell on the rottenness and chaos of the world, my realistic perception harms me; I become miserable and can’t get anything done. Far more effective to be an optimist without justification than a pessimist with plenty of proof.

(I like to call myself a cynical optimist. Is that annoying? It’s such a good phrase, and a decent representation of my personality.)

Dilbert visits the beach. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].
Dilbert visits the beach. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].

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