Climb Out of the Hell Well, pt. 2 – Start Hoping

Sunrise by Roy Lichtenstein, 1965
Sunrise by Roy Lichtenstein, 1965

In part one of this essay I described the Hell Well as the pit of despondency we dig ourselves into through worry. Since worry and despondency are seemingly undying, or at least perpetually renewable, we need a tool against them that’s just as strong. That tool is hope.

Hope springs eternal. Yeah, whatever, put it on a poster with a baby sloth and hang it in the church basement. Any of us with even the tiniest ember of cynicism still glowing from thousands of hours of listening to Pavement records want to scrape that lavender-scented pap to the toilet and flush twice. Which is why we need to get over ourselves and accept the fact that hope is eternal. The powerful conviction that things can always improve 1Not the frail delusion that things will always improve. will not die unless you let it. No facts can invalidate it; no reality can extinguish it. Hope’s immutability is what makes it such a ferocious weapon against despondency. “Hope is an ax,” wrote Rebecca Solnit, and it is–an indestructible ax. An adamantium skull cleaver hewing bloody stumps from despair.

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1. Not the frail delusion that things will always improve.

Climb Out of the Hell Well, pt. 1 — Stop Worrying

Over Water II by Chuck Olson
Over Water II by Chuck Olson

In the wake of the election, some of my friends are stuck down a Hell Well. They’ve used their worry and fear for America’s future to dig themselves into a dark pit of despair, some of them so deep that the only light they see comes from the demonic flames further down. I recognize it because I spent most of my life down a Hell Well.

Thanks to an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, I passed decades in fear of one horrifying future or another, or the fear of their being no future at all. Only in the last six of my 42 years–a tiny 14% of my life–have I crawled out for any significant period of time. That was only after my life became so unbearable that I hit the emotional and psychological bottom of the Hell Well.

I’d dug myself down with my worry, and I’d stay down there for years because I’d been futilely trying to worry myself out. It doesn’t work. The tools you use to dig can’t be used to climb. I had to forge myself new ones. And while not everyone who’s dug themselves into a Hell Well has an anxiety disorder, we can all use the same tools to climb out.

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Sing Along For Power

I put together this playlist of some of my favorite sing-along songs. Most of them are anthems. Some could be called protest songs. A few of them are just bits of joy. But listening and shouting along to any of them is an act of power.

I experienced it this morning when, clawing my way out of despair, I put on my headphones and walked outside. Something made me search Spotify for A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario?” In minutes I was walking faster, roaring along to “Rowr! Rowr! Like a dungeon dragon.” Then playing it again. “Here we go yo! Here we go yo!” Then before it could end finding “Sabotage,” shouting now, “I can’t stand it!” Then queuing new songs reflexively before I’d be left in silence. Racing, screaming the choruses, I didn’t realize what I was doing to myself until, four tracks in, surprising feelings overcame me: hope, strength, energy, determination, confidence. In another word: power.

So I made a playlist to share that power. Listening to music as a source of empowerment seems like a bromide, but it’s not. It’s an operative technique to change your mental state and thereby move you to constructive action.

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Fear = Fail

Fear = Fail
The only answer to fear is to be braver than the people you fear want you to be.

This is going to be a weird-ass analogy, so hang with me for a minute. In the days after the September 11 attacks, Major League Baseball went on a week-long hiatus. People debated whether the game should resume at all. Buck Showalter, current manager of the Baltimore Orioles and then analyst for ESPN, argued that it shouldn’t. He understood that cancelling the remainder of the season would send the message that the terrorists had brought us to our knees but, he said, “they kind of have.”

I was as scared after 9/11 as anyone, probably more, but hearing Showalter chirp that nonsense was the first time after the attacks that my fear changed into anger. This coward was telling me that because scary men could do mean things to America, we’d better get used to sacrificing our way of life because nothing would ever be the same again. Buck spoke up for al Qaeda and shared their lie that we were on our knees and we should stay down and stay afraid. His noxious wind blew the terror out of me and fanned a fire that, if I remember rightly, shot plasma from my eyes, melted the TV and burned down an entire Applebee’s.

I’ve thought of Buck’s “they kind of have” over and over since the election, because it’s what I’m hearing now from the mouths of my fellow progressives. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are filled with the fear that scary men could do mean things to America, and we’d better get used to sacrificing our way of life because nothing will ever be the same again.

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Pull the Mask Off of OCD

NOTE: Irrational anxiety is not a necessary part of life. Help is available, and the International OCD Foundation is a great place to start looking. Click here for the history of my own OCD and to learn and why you have nothing to fear.

Being an unemployed TV writer, especially an unrepresented one, consists mainly of being ignored. I write scripts no one reads, send emails no one responds to, and spend my days sitting alone at home waiting for a passage to materialize in the void and a hand to come through it and tap me on the shoulder.

It was with that feeling that I woke up yesterday morning and the thought popped into my head that it could make no possible difference to anyone if I didn’t get out of bed. No one would notice. The world would spin happily along outside not pausing to think about me, or if it did, because it was deleting me from its phone contacts, it would assume I was happily doing whatever it is I usually do. It wouldn’t care. So I stayed in bed. I laid there, sad and hurt that no one cared whether I was alive or dead, and refusing to see a reason to face another day during which it made no difference whether I was conscious or not.

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OCD is the Same Everywhere, And You’re Never Alone

spiral_path_by_cernig-d45xrgnMy hometown newspaper the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is running a series of articles this week about obsessive-compulsive disorder. Today’s installment, about Pittsburgher and OCD sufferer Amy Iannuzzi-Tingley, will seem familiar to anyone who’s fought the disease. And that’s a great thing.

When people newly dealing with OCD contact me for support, they’re anxious, 1Duh. filled with worried questions, and afraid that their particular situation is viciously unique. But it never is. It’s always typical, so much so that I tell them I could cut and paste a response from dozens of emails I’ve written to other OCDers. In fact, I sometimes do.

That might sound dismissive and upsetting, but only if you don’t have OCD. If you do, you know how deeply comforting and important it is to learn that someone else has experienced the same thing  you’re experiencing and made it out the other side. Which is why I’m happy that there’s one particular sentiment that I most often cut and paste a response to. It goes like this, from actual emails I’ve received:

  • “You described so many symptoms that I’ve been experiencing for years and silently suffered through. It helped me so much to know that you’ve managed to control your OCD and live your life.”
  • “I suffer from similar symptoms. It is really comforting to know others have fought through this battle successfully.”
  • “Some of your descriptions match identically with feelings and thoughts I have. I was so glad to hear I am not the only person who suffers from this. “
  • “I’m in the same boat. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one.”
  • It was cathartic to reach out to someone and ‘hug them’ over the internet.”

I could cut-and-paste part Ms. Iannuzzi-Tingley’s story with parts of my own, or vice versa, and nobody would notice the changes. All of us with OCD start out feeling confused, afraid, and alone. But as soon as we realize we’re not alone, we stop being confused. Then it’s only a matter of time until we’re no longer afraid.

Read about my own experiences with debilitating OCD in my essay “My OCD.”

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1. Duh.