As soon as I stepped out of the venue where I’d just seen my favorite band, Sleater-Kinney, play, it felt like I had stepped into an abyss. Mere minutes ago I had been ablaze with excitement, spirit-bound to the spectacle I was witnessing; now I felt like life and color had seeped from the world, and would never return.
My friends and I walked toward the subway. They discussed their delight at hearing certain songs, swapping bits of their music-loving histories. I could barely keep my head up. My logical brain was slapping my emotional brain in the face. Dude! it was saying, What is your problem? You should be feeling happy. That was so much fun. But I couldn’t help feeling like I’d been the victim of a rude bait-and-switch. I’d hopped off the carousel straight onto the house of horrors.
I had experienced a similar high-to-low in my final year of high school, when I co-directed a play that some a group of us students had written, produced, set-designed, choreographed, and performed ourselves. In the lead-up, I’d been stressed but completely focused, and on our single performance night, I glowed with satisfaction unlike any I’d ever felt—people were enjoying something we had created together: it was wonderful. Yet as soon as the performance was over, I sank into a kind of depression. All our work, all our joy: it was done. Despite being dimly aware that my reaction was a bit overdramatic, I still couldn’t wiggle out of my sadness cocoon. The performance, and its attendant euphoria, was something I’d never experience again.
It struck me as cruel and unnecessary how low I felt immediately after such perfect elation. I was a particular brand of miserable; I housed a void that felt extra empty because the space there had once been so full. Instead of being able to savor joy and repleteness after a great experience, I felt bereft and directionless. These heightened experiences gave me pleasure and I gave them everything I had—then they were over, and I lost the joy native to the experience, too.
Looking back on these memories, I wish I’d tried to find a way to exterminate the negativity that crept into my thoughts. With time and distance, I’ve developed some methods for recovering from this kind of high-low blow.
1. Re-engage with the memories.
A week after I saw the Sleater-Kinney show, I found a live recording of the band’s Washington set online (thanks, NPR!). I watched it from the comfort of my couch, getting to see again—and up close this time—the fierce interplay of the egregiously talented individuals I loved so much. Watching a new set reminded me that seeing a band live is so exhilarating precisely because it happens just that once. Contrary to what I thought might happen when I found the footage (i.e. that I would watch it every day until I died), I haven’t watched it again. I was so happy I’d been able to witness it once in person, and that became enough.
Of course, there is not always going to be a recording crew around to store your best moments for posterity. Did you share your magical experience with another person or persons? Gather them together to reminisce, or share their feelings post-event.
2. Record your thoughts about the experience.
Another way to honor your precious memory is in writing or art—or in any other way that feels good. You might be a journaller—in that case, flip open a notebook and write down everything you can remember about what happened. Or you could write your older self a letter about it, so you’ll never forget. Use all the sense memories you have: smell, touch, sight, sound, and taste. Why exactly was it such an affecting experience? What happened that made your heart thrill?
Just say you’ve finished reading an amazing book and are devastated to be wrenched out of its immersive world (this happened to me with every Harry Potter book). If you are a visual thinker, maybe paint or collage a significant scene that has hunkered down in your brain. You could create and illustrate a mind map linking scenes and ideas to moments in your own life. Are you more musically minded? Recite your thoughts, then record and edit them into a sound piece for posterity, or to share with your friends. In a way, you get to recall the experience and take ownership of it by framing and expressing it yourself. Add your own thoughts or interpretations, or anything you learned.
My theory is that identifying every sad part of the comedown—whether you write it down, or talk about it, or make music about it—makes it more digestible and less all-encompassing. I got this idea from Dylan, who has a genius method wherein she writes every bad feeling down in a “garbage notebook.” Taking productive charge of how you express your heartache helps prevent misery from taking over your life.
3. Cry it out.
If you must mourn, then mourn. Wallowing in that exquisite feeling of loss can be delicious. And though, conversely, it can be truly awful, it’s not inherently bad to fully experience sadness—so don’t give yourself a hard time about it. Additionally, facing it head on is like ripping off the proverbial Band-Aid: By dealing with the sads directly, you can avoid putting them off and unintentionally prolonging them—which would indeed be a bummer. You know the theory that there are five stages of grief? Well, the last one is acceptance! But you need to be on the way to actually get there.
4. Plan a new project or distraction.
Focusing on something totally new can help take the energy you generated after whatever took you from marvellous to miserable. The distraction can be long-term, or something more immediate.
Some long-term ideas: You might like to think about how to do something similarly joy-giving but better, or just different. I could have started planning a totally new play of my own, for example, or learned how to write a screenplay.
Alternatively, you might need instant diversions. In the short-term: Do you have a friend whose smile never ceases to cheer you up? Make plans to see them! Is there a new band you’ve wanted to embrace for a while? Get to listenin’. Your enthusiasm for whatever made your happy moment so special still exists inside you, and you can always find something new to inspire you or to adore.
Your new project or distraction doesn’t have to be totally unrelated to the thing that brought you joy, either! Should I have started a band in my post–riot grrl sads? Hmmm…probably. The best ideas always come months later, I always say. Well, actually, I just came up with this right now, but it still rings true—don’t be hard on yourself if takes a while to think up something you are excited about and want to commit to.
All of this is not to say you should try to forget this magical thing that happened. No, no, no. Life is a rollercoaster (sorry), and while it’s shocking and discombobulating when the highs and lows couple like twins, this juxtaposition can be a startlingly beautiful way of measuring your capacity to appreciate wondrousness. Recognizing how deep a hole passion can leave within you is another way of learning just how ardently you can love something—and will love something again. ♦