I am Kafka’s Bug

James Sutton via Unsplash

I read a lot of books.

In general, I like most of them, and sometimes they even affect me emotionally, though the latter is rare. I can usually tell when a book will make me emotional or cry because I tend to have specific triggers relating to my personal history.

But recently I was surprised. I got emotional about a book that I had no idea would resonate with me so deeply.

On a whim, I had decided to read Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I was in the mood for something short and had access to a copy, so I read it. It’s a classic that I knew little about — a man turns into a bug? — and I knew even less about the author. I had heard lots of things in culture be referred to as ‘Kafkaesque’, meaning they replicated his absurdist style.

But I found The Metamorphosis to be hardly absurd.

Sure, I get why people say that. A guy, Gregor Samsa, wakes up to find that he has transformed into a bug of some kind (though the fact of what Gregor turned in to, and if he did indeed turn into anything, is hotly debated) and the how and why of the event are never explained. That’s all pretty strange.

But despite Gregor’s new bug persona, the feelings, emotions, and tragedy of the story are all human. So human, in fact, I found myself thinking that Kafka had reached into the future, seen the inside of my mind, and used it as a blueprint for Gregor’s struggles.

Absurd? Absolutely. But I related so strongly to what Gregor was feeling, my chest was heavy with the connection. It completely changed my mood and my day.

Because the narrative is so layered, I can see how one could get many different meanings from the text. The book has obviously meant something to many, many people over the years, given how thoroughly it has been discussed and dissected.

But to explain what I got out of it, I’ll have to get into some of the things that happen in the story, so spoilers ahead.

After Gregor realizes what he has become, his family finds out (he lives with his parents and his sister). His parents soundly reject their son, but his sister feeds him and looks in on him and cleans up his room. There are a few occasions where Gregor is beaten or attacked by someone in the house and he is injured and does not really heal from these wounds.

Gregor is trapped in his bedroom and because of his size and the unfamiliarity with his new body, and later, his injuries, he has trouble moving around the space. He can understand his family, but they cannot understand him.

His mother comes around at some point and starts helping his sister take care of him, and they start leaving the bedroom door open for him in the evening so he can see the family at dinner. Through this open door Gregor sees the life he once had, the life that he can no longer participate in.

Because the family now lacks Gregor’s income, the other three reduce their use of paid servants and take jobs. They struggle to support themselves and wish to move to a smaller place, but cannot due to Gregor’s condition. After months of this strained living, they rent some of their space to three men and hide Gregor from them.

In addition to having strangers in the house, Gregor is also more isolated because his sister and mother are so busy all the time that they no longer take care of him like they used to. His room gets dirty and they don’t notice when he stops eating. His sister, in particular, seems to grow bitter at the anchor Gregor has become on her life.

These feelings of being trapped, of not being loved, of worthlessness, of depression and hopelessness, are all things I’ve experienced. My life is difficult in ways that I did not choose and I cannot escape, and I do what I can to make the best out of what I’ve got. But beyond relating to these feelings that Gregor, and to some extent, his family, experience, there were two other aspects that struck me.

The first is that there was no rhyme or reason as to why this happened to Gregor. He didn’t do anything to cause this; it just happened.

I struggle with those bad things in life, minor and major, that just seem to happen, especially when no good comes of them. Sometimes there is not a lesson to be learned or a brighter spot made from dealing with the darkness. Sometimes things just happen to people and they have to deal with them. It’s not fair or just or right, but there’s nothing that can be done about it. I felt this so strongly with Gregor’s situation; he could not stop his transformation or change his situation and it made for a sad and tragic story.

The second aspect of this story that was so moving to me was that there are no villains. Everyone in the story is an imperfect person. Parents reject their son, the sister neglects her brother, Gregor goes a little mad and envisions imprisoning his sister in his room so she can play him the violin forever. But even at their worst, none of these characters are villains or even bad people. They are simply dealing with a difficult situation the best they can.

Gregor wanted certain things to alleviate his great suffering, even understanding they were not good things to want but feeling that getting these things was the only way for him to retain his humanity. His family denied him certain things, not out of malice, but because they didn’t know, and couldn’t know, if he had any humanity left within him.

They all tried their best to handle the crisis. Unfortunately, they all failed. But seeing that they were given an impossible situation to begin with, it is hard to fault them.

My situation may not be as completely impossible as Gregor’s and his family’s, but sometimes it feels that way. Reading Kafka’s words felt like him giving me a nod of recognition and a shrug that simply says, “Well, you may be failing, but who can blame you? At least you’re trying.”

I have kept myself intentionally ignorant of the many examinations of this story until I could write this, so I’m not sure what Kafka intended or what others believe he intended when he wrote The Metamorphosis. Whatever the purpose of the story, the experience of reading this, of having my darkest self feel seen and not judged, is invaluable.

Even if I am just a bug.

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Photo Credit: © 2017 James Sutton via Unsplash

Don’t. Assume. Anything.

naomi-august-138149CN: Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, suicide

While writing, reading, and books are a main part of what I write about on here, I also want to talk about other things that affect me and others around me. In this post, I’m going to be using the term mental illness a lot, mainly because it’s an easily recognizable term. I want to clarify that I do believe that a mental illness is a brain illness, which means it is a physical illness even if it manifests in the intangible mind.

If you are a person with a mental illness, chances are you’ve had some silly things said to you about your illness from people who do not share your experiences. I’m sure I’ve even said some of those things, though I myself have depression and anxiety, because, hey, no one is perfect.

But I want to explain why some of these things can be bothersome, so here are three things that have been said to me in the last three years when I’ve revealed that I have depression/anxiety/panic attacks. These things came from well-meaning individuals, but I found myself feeling less empowered and uplifted and more misunderstood and alienated.

“I never thought you were depressed. You’re always so happy!”

I would like to introduce you to my Survival Mask. My Survival Mask makes it so that I can seemingly function in the world while dying on the inside. My Survival Mask helps me navigate day to day situations without turning into a blubbering pile of despair every time someone asks me how I am. I have stuff to do, and my Survival Mask helps me focus on getting those things done instead of focusing on how I terrible I feel. Each morning I create the mask and once I’m back in a safe space where I can wear my real emotions on my face, I take that mask and throw it against the wall, only to create a new one the next day.

I deserve a flipping Oscar for the amount of people I have fooled into thinking I am a positive, happy, optimistic, always bubbly person. I mean, I am, that’s mostly what the Real Me is like. But the Real Me is only achieved when my depression is under control thanks to medication and other therapies. And while I am open to talking about my mental illnesses, I don’t feel like sharing every problem they cause me all the time. I’m definitely in the camp of “fake it ’til you make it” and I try to live how I want to be, not necessarily how I am. The drawback is that wearing my Survival Mask is exhausting, so when I’m not wearing it, all I want to do is sleep. And not everyone can hide their depression, and really, none of us should have to. The stigma around mental illness is a big reason why most of us try.

If I tell you I have depression, what that means is I suffer from a mental illness that affects every moment of my life. I’m letting you in, lifting the mask, and I’m trusting you. You don’t have to tell me you didn’t know, because I meant for you to not know. But now that you do, I’m hoping you understand me a little more than you did a minute ago. If not, you can educate yourself here.

“Oh, you have anxiety/panic attacks? What about?”

While stress and upsetting situations can trigger/make me more susceptible to anxiety and panic attacks, neither require a source. Sometimes I just feel anxious. Sometimes I just have a panic attack. Both suck and zap me of energy and often leave me feeling fragile and vulnerable. I have learned, through therapy and continued education (which can be found here), how to deal with both in ways that work for me. I use a pressure point and breathing exercise, calming music, ASMR videos, and EMDR therapy (this video usually) to reduce anxiety, and sometimes these methods can keep me from falling into a panic spiral when I feel a panic attack coming on.

But for panic attacks that get to a point where those methods won’t work (or I’m not in a state that I can use them effectively), I often have to cocoon myself, which generally means I have to wrap myself up in blankets, stay in bed (my safe place), and sometimes receive comfort from a safe person. I’ve had one panic attack where I could not get to a safe space, was alone, and could not calm myself. It was so bad I started having suicidal thoughts. I knew I needed outside help, so my only option was to call 911. It was the right decision because the panic attack triggered an asthma attack, so I was in as much physical pain as I was mental pain.

But here’s the real problem with the question above: even if my anxiety/panic attack has a trigger, I’m not likely to tell you what it is. First, knowing that you think all anxiety/panic attacks have a source lets me know you are not a safe person to discuss them with. Second, unless you are already a trusted person with whom I’ve talked about this before, this question feels like prying. I know the intention is usually to help, to identify the problem and reassure me things are fine. But if you understood anxiety/panic attacks, you’d know that while I appreciate your sympathy, your reassurance isn’t actually helpful.

“Depressed? You shouldn’t feel bad about yourself. You’re great!”

Self-esteem has never been a problem for me. Being that I am a woman with a large quantity of fat on my body, the assumption might be that I have body image issues, but I don’t. I’ve always been bigger than other people even before I was fat and it’s never been something that bothered me in a lasting way. But self-esteem doesn’t have to be body related, it can be about my view of myself as a whole person.

To be completely honest, I am brazenly self-centered. I analyze everything I do, say, and think and I live in my own little world most of the time. I talk to myself and I enjoy talking about myself and sharing my thoughts and opinions. I am always intricately involved with whatever is going on with my brain, sometimes to the detriment of my communication skills. I’m compassionate and empathetic, loving and kind, but also cynical, sarcastic, and I can use my words as weapons. I’m extroverted and love to talk to people about things I enjoy, but I’m also introverted and enjoy being alone and can get annoyed when my solitary activities are interrupted. I can be extremely patient and extremely impatient. I am Type-A and can be an insufferable know-it-all. I know I am smart and capable of many things. I can come across as condescending and conceited, overly enthusiastic and loud, a bleeding heart, ditzy. I know I am awesome but I also know I’m not a perfect person. Either way, I do not feel bad about myself. I try to be my best self, which doesn’t always work, but I try, and that’s what matters most to me.

I am a person with depression but I do not have low self-esteem. While low self-esteem can accompany depression and sometimes the two can become intertwined, depression and low self-esteem are separate issues. I believe where the two become conflated is in the notion that depression lies to you about yourself, which is true for many people. But in my case, depression does so by taking over my feelings.

Depression makes me feel worthless, that no one loves me, that no one understands me, that I am utterly alone, and that dying would be better than continuing to live in such pain and turmoil. When depression takes over, I feel those things, but I don’t think them, because the me that does the thinking is Real Me and Real Me knows better. I can even hold two opposing ideas – feeling unloved but knowing I’m loved – in my head at the same time. I’ve been dealing with depression for over twenty years now, so while not all people with depression can, I am able to separate my thoughts and feelings from what depression puts in my head.

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If I had to sum up in one phrase how to avoid statements and questions that make life more difficult for someone with a mental illness, I’d pick this:

Don’t assume anything.

There are many kinds of mental illnesses, and every person’s experience is different. If someone has trusted you enough to reveal that they have a mental illness, know that they don’t do so lightly. Do your best to be a support to the people in your life with mental illnesses. Help us end the stigma by breaking the cycle of misinformation and bad representation by educating yourself using the many sites and tools the internet provides.

Above all, set an example by treating us with the dignity, respect, and compassion we deserve as human beings.

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If you or someone you know is suicidal, please contact

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

 

Photo Credits:

© 2016 Naomi August via Unsplash
© 2016 Artem Kovalev via Unsplash