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. ♦
I’m basically a cartoon. I’m slightly under five feet tall, my hair is enormous, my clothes are ridiculous, and I’m almost always laughing and dancing around. When I’m feeling cartoonish, which is most of the time, I am lighter than air, smaller than an atom, happier than a clam. Have you ever heard of anyone being HAPPIER than a clam? Cartoons can get sad—they have their hearts broken and lose family members and have to put their dogs down—but they bounce back on their feet with one of those impossible ninja moves and keep smiling.
I’ve been a cartoon most of my life, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s how I learned to deal with the world. Trying to pinpoint when is tough. I was a very tiny person in elementary school—almost a foot smaller than the other kids my age. People constantly made the joke, “I didn’t see you down there!” and I took that VERY seriously. They were literally overlooking me! To make my voice heard, I cracked jokes, played characters, and I dressed oddly, often wearing a shoe from one pair on my left foot and a shoe from another pair on my right, which in hindsight couldn’t have been good for my feet. I was a gymnast and loved to perform my paltry handstand skills to prove my height was an asset. I imagined people saying, “What a useful person she is!” What they said was closer to, “She’s good at gymnastics because she’s small!” (In gymnastics, shorter girls are considered to perform better because they have less “body” to throw around.) But as long as I was recognized for my height, the observation was OK with me. Any time someone described me as “the small girl,” I thought, Hey, at least they know who I am!
But I also became some people’s wind-up toy: They just sat back and expected me to entertain. I remember being at a party as a freshman in high school and kids from school wanted me to tell stories about my family, because I was related to a few eccentrics and could do impressions of them all. They laughed and seemed to love it, but there was a disconnect between the person they watched and the real person inside. We barely knew each other. They didn’t ask me questions, or seem to care to ask questions. I’d wanted to stand out, and now I did. But I was no less alone because of it. My classmates were drawn to me in school because my antics added silliness and unpredictability to otherwise monotonous days. But when it was time to go home, those people chose to hang out with their real, close friends. As a solitary kid and preteen, my antics were a way to get people talk to me, even if what they were saying was just droning white noise. In high school, I wanted the noise to stop.
When I got to college, I met a girl named Claire who grew up in a similar way: People liked to watch her dress up in costumes and play characters; she was lonely but not alone. She made a short video called “Glow Man’s Thoughts,” which made me cry the first time I saw it, and still makes me cry, because it’s the perfect summation of everything I’ve ever felt in my life: that people like to look at me, and I like when they look at me, but I don’t always like to talk to them. Glow Man likes to be alone. And that’s true about me, too:
Being alone means I don’t have to be “on.” I can be cranky and tired, and I can be sad. A guy I worked with once asked me to “turn it off for a second” when I was doing a bunch of silly characters and voices. He claimed that I wasn’t being the real “me.” I lowered my voice and forced tears (a beautiful performance, I might add), then whispered, “Real like this?” He freaked out and insisted I return to my “happy” character. A good cartoon doesn’t get sad unless it’s to cry hilariously large tears into an overflowing bucket. But alone, I can cry normal-sized tears into a normal-sized bucket. I love to cry—it feels cleansing—and occasionally when I have nothing to do I revel in sadness for a day. I have certain rituals that I do to keep myself sane, when no one is watching. Sometimes it’s reading, sometimes it’s drawing. Lately, I’ve been opening my window and staring outside for a long time, for up to hours on end. I process all the feelings I don’t have the time or energy to otherwise think about, and turn off my phone and computer and all interactions with other people. I think about things I saw and heard on the street, friends who are getting on my nerves, about heartbreak and how I feel about being a recent college graduate with uncertain life plans. I keep track of time by watching the elevated train go by.
Recently my cartoon persona has been helping me pursue something I’ve always wanted to do, which is comedy. I can use the same techniques that saved my ass in school from utter and complete loneliness to draw in an audience through storytelling, characters, or full reenactments of Fiddler on the Roof in which I play the Roof. I know how to keep people entertained, and I’ve also figured out the other half of the equation—how to keep myself content and balanced. Tune in next week when I get an anvil dropped on my head but get back up and keep laughing. ♦
For my fifth birthday, my parents drove us down to Disney World in a borrowed car with a cracked windshield. The whole time, even when I was sucking cotton candy off my fingers, giving my stack of quarters to Mickey Mouse–hatted employees to try and win a stuffed Minnie (only to have my father buy one for me—“This way, it won’t cost me hundreds of dollars worth of quarters”), and hugging Donald Duck (my favorite because he sounded like a fun-ass baby with too much saliva in his mouth), and throughout so many joyous firsts—seeing palm trees, wearing a T-shirt in December, sticking popcorn in my nostrils and yelling, “Look! A new kind of eating!”—I had one disturbing thought that wouldn’t leave me alone: We are all going to die.
Not like right then and there (although this was a possibility—riding Space Mountain made me think I was going to drop straight down to the last rung of hell). I was concerned with the idea that I would have to die eventually, and so would everyone I loved. My father, who carried me on his shoulders whenever I got tired? He would have to die one day. My mother, who smelled so much like flowers that I would think of any excuse to make her bend down close to me (“Is there something on my face?” was a favorite ploy) because sometimes, as she did, her long black hair would fall over my face and I could pretend it was my own hair? She too was going to die. Whether it happened now, soon, or later didn’t matter. Once someone died, time was irrelevant, time was useless, time was over.
Other thoughts I had on the weekend of my fifth birthday in Disney World, Florida, included:
I need more candy.
Why do people have to die?
Why did I have to be born into a loving family who will all die?
Why do I have thoughts?
I WANT TO WEAR CINDERELLA’S DRESS OH PLEASE OH PLEASE OH PLEASE LET ME.
Is my mom afraid of dying, too?
I wonder if we can have McDonald’s for breakfast AND lunch AND dinner!
Thus began my lifelong tendency to see the bad, dark, scary, and sad parts of life just as vividly, at least, as the good ones.
I slept over my best friend’s house for the first time when I was 10 years old. Instead of being elated that my parents were finally allowing me to stay the night somewhere else, I was wracked with guilt. Why did I want to pull away from my parents? They’d say, “We wish you didn’t have to grow up. We wish we could stay like this, as a family, forever,” and it gave me tons of anxiety. My parents were so incredibly loving that I couldn’t have fun with my friends without stressing out about making them unhappy by leaving.
“Do you ever feel guilty doing things without your parents?” I asked my friend. “Like, when we go to the mall, and they drop us off and go home and wait for us to call them so they can pick us up—does that make you sad at all?”
“You think way too much,” she said. “I highly doubt our parents care what we’re doing. They’re probably excited to have some time away from us.” But the idea of taking joy in their loss was terrifying. I couldn’t sleep for wondering if they couldn’t sleep, and worrying that they might be worrying about me.
My mother’s motto was “Be happy. Don’t worry.” She said she woke up happy every single day. She trusted everyone and claimed that no one had ever lied to her in her entire life, and even though she knew that wasn’t possible, she still believed it. In pictures, her smile was always so huge and uncontained that it appeared to be bursting at the seams, like she couldn’t smile wide enough—like she could spend the rest of her life smiling, and it wouldn’t be enough to express how happy she was to be alive.
“Your mom is a happy-go-lucky type,” my dad said when I asked why she smiled like that in photos.
“I see that,” I said, even though I didn’t totally believe it. If she was so happy, why did she snap at me whenever I refused to pose in family photographs? “Smile with your teeth,” she would tell me whenever the camera came out.
“Just because you smile like that,” I said, “doesn’t mean everyone has to.”
“Yes, you have to smile like that,” she would say.
She also liked to say, “You will be happy if you strive to live a normal life.” When I started high school, it angered me how her version of happiness negated mine. Her happiness seemed to work only when other people did exactly what she did; it left little room for other ways of being. Why did she insist that what I really wanted wasn’t to be a writer, but to find a stable job as a dentist or a pharmacist, when I had never even once expressed an interest in cleaning teeth or learning about the chemical compounds in medicine? If she really valued my happiness, couldn’t she let me decide for myself what sort of life I wanted?
Like other self-proclaimed optimists I knew, my mom made it sound like happiness was a choice, and anyone who was unhappy was simply choosing to be miserable, even though it was clear as day to me that if anything, she was choosing to ignore the things that did not fit neatly into her idea of happiness, and that was its own form of tyranny.
My father, for his part, saw my stubborn refusal to submit to happiness as a waste of energy: It was self-defeating, self-pitying, and utterly boring. Whenever I bitched and moaned about the trials and tribulations of the life of a teenage girl, whether it was how I didn’t like or respect a single one of my classmates, or how some of my teachers were just as shallow, superficial, and popularity-obsessed as the kids were, or how unfair it wasthat the boys in my class shouted out the answers and talked over people like me, or how every other person my age was allowed to go to prom afterparties except me, his sympathies were limited.
“You love to feel bad,” he told me. “It’s your favorite feeling. Most people like to feel good, but not you. You love to make life hard for yourself.”
“Forget you, Dad,” I said.
“No,” he said. “Go ahead. Keep feeling bad. Let me give you some more things to feel bad about. You can take some from me, since you love it so much.”
I am pretty sure a bag of kettle corn or two is just what I need. I’ll get three. Because today I am going to be kind to myself. That is what the books say I should do and so that is what I will do. I will start by treating myself to whatever I want. Here I come, fancy cheese. I am sure that the most expensive cheese in the store is exactly what I need. I am pretty sure that if I pair this cheese with this olive bread, this will be the ticket. I bet some figs will go well with this, too, and some honey. I will need a few bottles of this blackberry grape drink too. Also, cookies.
But what if it’s these bath puffs that would make me feel better? These bath puffs are on special for a dollar. I bet this whole Jacuzzi-sized bin of bath puffs would be just what I need. But this Longhorn section interests me, too. If I started collecting Longhorn stuff, shot glasses and travel mugs and foam horns and pens and plush football rope toys, I would feel full of heart. If only I felt less indifferent to Longhorns, or if I were from Texas, or into football, or any kind of sports, or if their team color were a deep midnight blue, or if there were a Ryan Gosling section, if I could get a Ryan Gosling trucker hat or snuggie or baby bib, then, surely, things might work out for me.
There is a jewelry store within the store, I see, and I could imagine that jewels might make me feel a way that I’d prefer, but these don’t really appeal to me. It seems like they don’t appeal to anyone. There is no one at the grocery-store jewelry store, which saddens me for the jewelry-store man and, though I could go and clean out his jewelry store because I have given myself that permission today, sadness is to be avoided.
Probably if I swept down this whole aisle of vitamins—just cleared the shelf off right into my cart—that would work. Or if I went down the office-supply aisle. I love office supplies. Office supplies always make me feel better. Or what if I bought all of the gift cards in the store, a thousand of them, and gave them to all of my Facebook friends? Giving always makes me feel good. Or what if I went and ordered a cake the size of my living room? That would surely be great. A giant cake and all of the flowers in the flower section. And balloons. All the balloons. And all of the patio furniture, plus all of these giant metal roosters. Actually, they might not have enough metal roosters here. I only see about twenty, and some of them are small. I’ll have to order more roosters from other stores. Because I’ll bet, if I could get enough of these roosters to cover the whole front yard, nothing unwanted would ever get in.