The Game

In college, I lived in the nerd dorm (a dorm just for students and professors in my integrated honors program).  We were big on games: chess, Risk, and Dungeons & Dragons were often played in the lobby as well as many video games (mostly MMORPG’s) in the TV lounge and computer lab.  But there was one game that was the ultimate game.  It was simply called The Game, and the only rule of The Game was that when you think about The Game, you have lost.  It was no uncommon to hear someone mutter, “Dammit, I just lost The Game!”  That was inevitably followed by groans of, “Goddammit, you made me lose too!”

The point of this, besides making all of you also lose The Game, is to express how I feel about positive thinking and gratitude in our culture.

There are times when I genuinely feel positive and grateful.  Those are nice experiences, and I relish them.  I also know that gratitude and positive thinking work for a great many people, and that’s awesome.  I’m glad people have found things that work for them and make them happier with their lives.

But my problem is how often people demand that everyone be positive and grateful.  There’s this moral imperative at work, and in a lot of cases it’s used as a way to silence people who aren’t feeling good, who lack things they need, who are pointing out real problems that need to be addressed.  Too often, positive thinking and gratitude are like The Game: if you think of anything negative, you lose, and you will be publicly shamed.

It’s my experience that it’s utterly unhelpful to tell people how they should feel about anything.  Not only is it unhelpful, but it’s often destructive and creates a cycle that makes people feel even worse.  Picture this scenario: I mention to someone that I’m depressed and anxious because I don’t know if I’ll be able to pay my rent, and their response is, “Well, you should just be grateful that you have a roof over your head at all.”  I feel invalidated–he doesn’t think my problems are important because other people’s problems are worse.  I feel anxious–oh god, I can’t say anything about this, and I need to be grateful, why am I not grateful yet, oh god oh god, come on, be grateful right now or he’s going to hate me, come on, what the fuck is wrong with you, it’s not that hard, just be grateful, for fuck’s sake!  I feel guilty–I shouldn’t have bothered anyone with my problems when other people are worse off.  I’m a terrible person, and I should probably just kill myself so no one else has to deal with me.  Now I feel worse, and I’m feeling like I can’t trust anyone to talk to them about what’s worrying me because I might be invalidated again.  Now I’m depressed, anxious, suicidal, and totally isolated.

I’m sure that the people who’ve told me to think positive or be grateful for what I have were trying to help, and I totally get that no one is perfect and always knows the right thing to say to someone in distress.  I know it’s hard to see someone in distress and feel helpless.  We want to fix things, and if there’s nothing material we can do to help, it’s easy to fall into the trap of telling people to just feel differently.  But distress is like The Game: the more you try not to think about it, the more you lose.

I can’t speak for what helps other people, but when I’m in distress, what’s much more useful to me than prescriptive gratitude is having someone just be present with me and validate my experience.  Most of the time, what helps most is, “Yeah, that really does suck.  I’m sorry you’re hurting.  You don’t deserve that.  I’m here, and I care about you.  Is there anything I can do to help?”  What helps most is people remembering that I exist, even when I’m quiet–calling, stopping by, just generally letting me know that they remember me and care about me.  I don’t expect anyone to fix me, and I don’t want to put the burden of making me feel better on anyone.  I just want to feel like I’m not alone and invisible and insignificant.  I want to feel like my feelings are real and invalid and important and allowed, even when they’re not easy ones to experience or witness.  Those things, rather than being told that I should feel grateful, are what make me feel grateful.

If writing gratitude lists or reading self-help books about positive thinking helps you, great.  I’m truly glad you’ve found something that makes you happier–everyone deserves that.  But please don’t assume that that approach will work for me, and please don’t keep beating me over the head with it.  I mean, I often need suppositories and enemas to maintain my health, but you don’t see me shoving things up other people’s butts when they have GI problems just because that’s what works for me.  (Sorry, you know I had to throw a poop joke in there somewhere.)

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “The Game

  1. I am sorry if the things I say are not helpful.

    A little over 3 1/2 years ago I tried to save the life of my cousin. She was 19 years younger than me, more like a baby sister to me, or like one of my own kids, than like a cousin. She was an RN working in a hospital in a nearby city. She was my only blood relative in this state. I was sick with an infection and running a high fever, on antibiotics and having a bad reaction to the antibiotics. But even so, when she told me that she wanted to kill herself if only she could find the strength to do it, I told her that I was going to get in my vehicle immediately and drive the four hours from my house to her house and be there as fast as I could. I did not tell her I was sick. I did not tell her that I would have to borrow the money from a friend to pay for the gas to get there. But she told me No, she said she did not want me to come, she said she wasn’t really serious about committing suicide. She said she had a friend staying with her 24-7, and she did not need or want me there, too.

    I asked if I could speak to her friend. She handed him the phone. I told him that my cousin had been telling me she wished she had the strength to kill herself. He said he knew that and that this was why he was constantly with her. As soon as I got off the phone with him, I contacted my aunt, my cousin’s mother, and told her that her only daughter was talking about wanting to committ suicide. My aunt said she knew that but that her daughter had told her that she wasn’t really all that serious and that she did not want her to come to be with her. “My daughter is a grown woman,” she said. “I have to respect her wishes.”

    So, for the next four days I spend many hours talking on the phone with my precious cousin. I said everything I could think of to say to encourage her. I did everything I could think of to do. I got her to agree to make an appointment with a therapist right away. The next day when we talked, she told me that she had a therapy appointment.

    I was writing a long loving email to my cousin full of plans that will never be, when she died.

    I screamed when I got the phone call telling me that my precious cousin was dead. I wanted to die, too. I wanted to die, instead.

    I went to bed for two and a half years. I only got up to go to the bathroom. I stopped doing everything else, including bathing and brushing my teeth. I barely ate when my husband brought me food. And that was how I “lived,” for two and a half years.

    The only reason I did not die too was because I did not want to put my loved ones through the hell I was experiecing.

    I am sorry I could not save my cousin. I am sorry I am not helping you. I will keep praying. That is all I can do anymore.

    • Oh, no, this post wasn’t directed at you or anyone else here. It was mostly prompted by stupid crap I keep seeing on Facebook. I’m sorry I made it sound like it was directed at you. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.

      I don’t expect you or anyone else here to fix me, so I hope you won’t feel guilty or bad. I actually think you’re a very kind, compassionate, and interesting person, and I enjoy talking to you. You don’t have to save me to be a person I value.

      I’m so sorry about the loss of your cousin and your grief. I’m glad you’re still around.

      • Thank you so much, Kyra, for your kind reply. I am glad I’m still around and I’m glad you are, too.

        When you get to be my age — and I hope you do get there, it’s an interesting, albeit bumpy ride! — by the time you’re in your 60s, a lot of people you know and care about will have died. A LOT. But losing my sweet young cousin in 2011 was the worst grief I have ever experienced so far. I still have moments when the grief slams into me like an ocean wave. Very painful. I guess a big part of why it hurts so much is because I tried very hard to save her, and still she died.

        BUT — here is a very cool thing. An amazing thing that I still don’t quite understand.

        In my last reply, I said that I went to bed for 2 and a half years after my cousin died. I had that wrong, it was two years. Still way too long. But anyway, here is what made me start living again: Exactly two years and two days after my cousin’s death, a big dust storm hit where we live. One minute the sky outside my window was bright and clear and the next minute, a huge wall of dust hit our house. The wild wind blew and blew and wailed like a banshee, pounding our town with gritty dust.

        The morning after the storm, I went out the front door to take out the trash and get the mail. (I was starting to get up to do a few little chores now and then, but I was still spending the majority of the time lying in bed in a depressed puddle.)

        As I stepped down off the front porch, I saw something shiny lying on the ground right by the single front porch step. That wasn’t so unusual, here in the high desert afterwe have a dust storm, we often find odd bits of trash that has been blown in our yard. Anyway, thinking that the shiny object might be something sharp that would hurt our dog’s feet, I reached down and picked it up. It was a silver colored metal tag, similar in size and shape to a dog tag, with a hole punched through one end so it could be hung on a chain. The tag had words engraved on one side of it.

        The words that are engraved on the metal tag are the same words that my cousin had ended every email with, for many years: Dance Like No One is Watching, Love Like You’ve Never Been Hurt, Sing like No One is Listening, Live Like It’s Heaven On Earth.

        Whew. I am getting goose bumps right now.

        I don’t understand how such a thing came to be in our yard. Was it a really big coincidence? Did God or an angel put it there? Did my cousin somehow reach out from beyond the grave? I don’t know. But.. that was the day I stopped spending most of my time in bed, wishing I was dead. That was the day I started living again.

        I am praying for something like that to happen for you, to help you want to live again.

        By the way, now that I have finished NaNoWriMo, I have made my blog invisible while I’m making some changes. I expect to be back online soon.

        I hope you are feeling better. I keep thinking of you, Kyra, praying for you and trying not to worry.

  2. I do like gratitude lists, and positive things, but I would never tell someone else to do what I do just in case it wasnt for them. Plus we cant all be positive all of the time. I’ve learned that much anyway. I hope you will find something that works for you. And lol about the poop joke. Your too funny!

  3. I do gratitude lists because people tell me it will help. It doesn’t always but every once in awhile it does. I feel pretty bad surrounding gratitude lists because, although I have bipolar disorder and sometimes thing are rough, I also have a lot of positive things in my life that I really don’t feel as grateful for as I “should” when I am feeling poorly. The thing that drives me the most crazy is when people tell me “other people have it worse.”. Well no effing shit, but how is that supposed to make me feel better. Common humanity and all that, I realize, but still, it usually just makes me mad (and all members of my family have the habit of saying that). Ick, makes me irritated just thinking about it. LOL. 🙂

    • Hey, if it works for you, awesome. I don’t ever want to tell anyone not to do something just because it doesn’t work for me. But I also understand feeling guilty for not being “grateful enough.” When I was living a life of financial privilege, I often felt guilty for being depressed because it was like, “What do you have to be depressed about?” But we don’t have to justify our pain for it to be real and valid.

      And yes, “It could be worse” should burn in the fiery pit of the deepest hell. Can we just eliminate that phrase from the English language? And all the other languages that use it, too?

  4. Not exactly the same as what you are saying here, but I am reminded of one of my favorite blog posts of all time, by an activist named emi, talking about how much she hates narratives of linear healing, the way people are expected to move from being a “victim” (weak, vulnerable, negative) to being a “survivor” (strong, empowered, yadda yadda).

    Her point was basically: Eff you how I feel, and how I cope with what has been done to me. If I feel weak, or depressed, or plain shitty some days–then that’s how I’m coping that day. Demanding that I cope in some way that looks “positive” and “survivor-y” to you is BS. So STFU.

    Anyway. It was a message that I needed to hear, back when I first heard it. Also, for what it’s worth, I am sorry you are hurting, I’m certain you don’t deserve any of this (now or then)–and I’m really glad you let strangers like me read what you write.

    • YES! I hate the insistence on person-first language in a lot of cases. (I don’t know if the victim/survivor thing is really person-first language, per se, but that’s the closest term that I can come up with at the moment.) I feel like the insistence that we shouldn’t call ourselves victims can unintentionally take us away from internalizing the realization that crimes were committed against us. It takes away from the fact that someone did this to me–it wasn’t just something that happened on its own. That’s something I needed to realize–and keep needing to realize over and over–because it’s much easier to blame myself than the perpetrators.

      The insistence on the term “survivor” also feels like it’s pushing the healing process. It’s like OMG NO YOU HAVE TO BE A SURVIVOR IMMEDIATELY GODDAMMIT! And there are days, a lot of them, where I’m just not. There are days when everything has piled up on top of me so heavily and so high that I am not surviving. And as much as it doesn’t feel like it on those days, that’s okay. Dealing with trauma is not a linear process, and I don’t need to stuff myself into labels that don’t fit like clothes so tight I can’t take a deep breath.

      Wow, so that kind of turned into a rant. That’s a thing that happens to me with surprising frequency.

  5. Also, Kyra, my complex PTSD has been triggering really badly lately because of all the intense writing I just did in NaNoWriMo. Writing my memoir is HARD. That’s why it’s taken me so many years. I know it’s supposed to be therapeutic to write about our traumas but all I’m feeling right now is a lot of pain. Me being triggered emotionally is undoubtedly why I took this post of yours the wrong way.

    I’m so sorry, the last thing you need is somebody being overly sensitive and taking things way too personally. This is a painful subject, I’m sure, for a lot of your readers. I’m guessing that most of us have probably known people who have committed suicide. I have known several.My cousin is just the most recent and most painful one.

    • No need to apologize, my friend. God knows I understand being hypersensitive. It’s a difficult struggle, especially when you’re dealing with traumatic memories and other PTSD stuff.

      I understand that my writing can be difficult a lot of the time, so my feelings won’t be hurt if you need to not read or comment on stuff. I don’t use trigger warnings, but I do tag posts that contain suicidal stuff.

      • Thank you for understanding. I am a crazy mixture of Wonder Woman and a weak little wimp, an “idiot savant” both intellectually and emotionally. I have survived so much, including physical challenges like cancer that supposedly had spread to my endocrine system 35 years ago, and degenerative disc disease that I was told 15 years ago would soon put me in a wheelchair. Yet I have been cancer-free since 1979 and I fast-walk at least a mile several times per week, weather and depression permitting, or else I jog on the indoor trampoline for half an hour or longer when the weather is bad.

        Jumping, running, fast walking and fast dancing, makes this old great-grandma feel like a little girl again. Oh how I love that feeling!

        After surviving so much, not the least of which is my recovery from schizophrenia in 1969, I sometimes forget that I’m not invincible. But then there are those times when something triggers my PTSD and the slightest cross word or disdainful look will make me shatter inside. When I feel a vulnerable time coming on, I have learned to pull in, to put up walls and increase my boundaries, like a turtle going into her shell. Unfortunately, I have a tendency at such times to go overboard, and then I have to fight my way out of the prison of my shell again.

        I should probably come with a warning, LOL.

        It has taken me most of my life to accept myself as I am, and to believe it’s okay for me to be this way — that *I* really am okay. I know I am doing my best, and my best really isn’t too shabby, all things considered.

        I can tell by reading your writings that you are both strong and weak, like me. “Complex” PTSD is aptly named, isn’t it? The gift that keeps on giving.

      • Oh, I think we all might need warning labels! For my part, I know I tend to come across too strong sometimes. Sometimes it seems like I’m just too intense about everything. Sometimes that intensity can be really useful, but sometimes it burns a little too hot, and I hurt people without meaning to.

        I so understand building walls you can’t seem to get out of. I’m an expert at wall-building, but I’m not at all good at pulling them down when I need to. So I end up isolated and in pain, but I can’t even communicate that to the people around me.

  6. This is excellent. I love that you shared this and the way you said it is extremely articulate. I appreciate it.
    People like to diminish others’ suffering by saying things like, “it could be worse” when a billion other people suffering really doesn’t keep me or you from going through our own real trials.
    Then people say, “I’ll pray for you” or “God understands” which is lovely, and I hear often, but if that’s all they know how to say, it isn’t showing the kind of compassion anyone would benefit from.
    As if illness and/or depression were not isolating enough, you are right, people thrust their positive mantras on us as though we can snap out of feeling bad.
    I really do believe that we can all be more grateful for what we have, but it won’t change the problems we face. It can change our perspectives. But people act like happiness, joy, positive thinking, and even wisdom comes with a snap of the fingers- it is a long harsh journey into the depths… We all do our best. I’m sorry you feel marginalized instead of embraced.
    I really appreciate your perspective and I do share your sentiments when people say dumb inconsiderate things when they believe they are helping :/
    Great post!

    • When people say “It could be worse,” I kind of want to punch them. Then when they complain, I’d say, “Hey, it could be worse.” I never actually would, but god, it’s tempting. I don’t get how anyone ever thinks that phrase is a good idea.

      I don’t mind “I’ll pray for you” most of the time. That, to me, is a good thing to say when there’s nothing else you can do. I’m undecided as to the existence of god[s], but I figure prayers can’t hurt. If there is/are god/s (wow, that grammar is fucked up), then appealing to them could help. And if not, you’re still putting good thoughts out into the universe, which can’t make things any worse.

      I think the root issue is that a lot of phrases can be used as polite ways of saying, “Shut up. I don’t want to hear about your pain.” And that leaves us isolated and in even more pain.

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