Joan Didion wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, but I think we also tell ourselves stories in order to die/kill ourselves slowly. If I don’t get up as soon as I wake up, the day is consumed by mental fiction about all the bad things that could happen if I go out, or if I stay here, or if I just have to exist with myself, anywhere, much longer. If I make it out to see a person that night, she is a moving face muted by restaurant noise and glimmers of light and the anticipation of my bursting into tears. I have turned the most innocent froyo outing into a weird TED talk about death. An ironic viewing of Jupiter Ascending into a PSA about the meaninglessness of the universe. I was swinging from a tree in a halo of fairylights at the top of a hill in a friend’s backyard when it hit me that other people might not know about or at least constantly ponder how everything ends and that I MUST conduct an impromptu doomsday cult recruitment sesh to educate them and make them stay in bed with me; not in bed WITH me (human connection: gross!), but in their own beds, psychically accompanying me on a nightly basis to the Barnes & Noble midnight release of my brain’s biography of my life, titled: Everything Shitty She Has Ever Done and Everything Shitty That Could Ever Possibly Happen to Her and Things She Will Never Know For Sure (Everything). Rookie writer Jenny once said that if your brain is what tells you when other parts of your body are in pain, how is it reliable in letting you know when it’s in pain? Despite my knowledge of my own history with mental health, the ability to assign narratives to depression, anxiety, and panic in a way I couldn’t with, say, a broken thumb, blows every little obstacle up to epic proportions. Anxiety over anticipating a single conversation becomes screaming and nausea and crying anticipating all of life’s uncertainty. And the memoir’s audiobook: this. fucking. song.
INCREDIBLY HERB-Y, RIGHT? Also: cool flowers, “JUDY”? Also, this is the song that acts as a motif in the Christmas rom-com Love Actually in which Hugh Grant is the prime minister of a real country that people live in? GIMME A COOLER TUNE TO RELATE TO, DEPRESSION. But it’s the cheeriness and pace that make it all the more disorienting. Her breezy affectation and perfect vibrato are nauseating among the piercing video game soundtrack, melodramatic black-and-white movie strings, and marching band drums. “Both Sides, Now” is one of Joni Mitchell’s less complex songs, but the nursery-rhyme expression of something so dark is way more upsetting than any kind of nuanced take, and Judy’s escalated version doesn’t really let you in. It leaves you hanging, fades out, abandons itself. It blasts through the Uncanny Valley, where everything is just human enough that you ought to be able to connect, but just unsettling enough that you can’t. Jenny said it reminds her of a scene from The Tin Drum, a book and movie about a boy who decides at age three to stay in his child body forever after witnessing the bitterness and cruelty of adults. The boy visits the circus, and a member invites him to join them, and the boy responds that he prefers “to be a member of the audience.”
I have written this editor’s letter so many times—“I can’t believe you only get to live in your own body and that Freaky Friday isn’t real; crazy stuff!”—but if one squillion people were so troubled by the disparity among how we were all seeing the colors in a photo of a dress, this is not the kind of thing that, no matter how basic it is, really stops being upsetting, or at least interesting. I did a classroom visit and Q&A last week at the University of Wisconsin and was asked multiple times by readers of Rookie why I write and talk about my mental health so much and I guess I didn’t realize that I do, and also, never saw it as any sort of statement so much as a natural part of what I feel and think about. Poor mental health should not be mistaken as offering deep insight into the human condition—that’s a dangerous story to tell oneself. What I am about to tell you is not the answer to anything, and the answer to my bed-in starts with my doctor, because there are no edgy, artsy ways to feel healthy. But because I would like to leave you with something useful, these are some people I try to view life through when I feel I have seen it from both sides, from every side. This is what I call BE YOUR OWN MOM/GRANDMA/BFF/ROLE MODEL/BILL MURRAY.
1. BE YOUR OWN MOM came to mind when I listened to the Fleetwood Mac song “Gypsy” for the millionth time and suddenly heard a whole chunk of lyrics that had always gone over my head:
And if I was a child
And the child was enough
Enough for me to love
Enough to love
I try to be my own mom not because I am able to step outside of myself and extend the same unconditional love to myself that a mother does to a child. It’s more like realizing that I am still young and developing. We think of ourselves as constantly at the end of something because we are, at all times, older than we have ever been! BE YOUR OWN MOM is like: You are raising a person (you), and you want life to be as easy as possible for her, so maybe do the thing now that will help her most in the future, e.g., it is super easy to indulge negative thinking about someone you’re jealous of, but if you’re like YOU’RE RAISING A PERSON AND ALL OF THIS THINKING ADDS UP TO BAD VIBES, you might stop and know that transferring that brainpower to something more productive makes for a happier daughter in the long run.
2. BE YOUR OWN GRANDMA. This is when I get hung up on or victimize myself over a situation that is ultimately catty and temporary, e.g., an acquaintance going on about a stupid pop culture thing I get deeply invested in and pissed off about because THEIR OPINION IS WRONG! Then I imagine me in my old age being like, “Why did you waste so much time on such fools? Wish that convo about ‘Anaconda’ wasn’t one of my five remaining memories rn!!!” Or I imagine my actual 97-year-old grandma being like, “You want a #TBT? I’LL give you a #tbt! The GREAT DEPRESSION!” And then I zap catty thoughts from my brain as soon as they creep in.
3. BE YOUR OWN BFF. When I feel like I’m dealing with something and I have no clue what to do, I think about what I would say if a friend came to me with the same issues, and it’s a lot easier to be loving, yet rational. Like, if a friend came to me and was like, “I’m freaking out because life itself is so scary and I can’t leave my bed because there is so much sadness in the world and I am so scared of pain,” I’d be like, “What’ve you got to lose! Stop inventing problems! Come out and play!”
4. BE YOUR OWN ROLE MODEL. I am so lucky to have heroes, to have friends I admire, to have found artists whose work or ’tude I find inspiring. When I’m consumed by mental fiction about a hypothetical—e.g., I can’t tell my partner why I am upset because he’ll laugh in my face and then speed away in a monster truck and never come back—I think about what the kind of person I admire would do. Not anyone specifically, just the kind of person I would see as heroic. I often stop myself first, because the self-loathing part of me is like, But you suck and will never be that anyways, but then the BFF is like Why not just try, and the Grandma is like Please don’t let me die full of regret, and the David Bowie is like We can be heroes.
5. BE YOUR OWN BILL MURRAY. Last year’s Toronto Film Festival included a whole day devoted to the work of this fine actor and performance artist. The last question of the interview portion was, “What’s it like to be you?”
I think if I’m gonna answer that question, because it is a hard question, I’d like to suggest that we all answer that question right now, while I’m talking. I’ll continue. Believe me, I won’t shut up. I have a microphone. But let’s all ask ourselves that question right now. What does it feel like to be you? What does it feel like to be you? Yeah. It feels good to be you, doesn’t it? It feels good, because there’s one thing that you are — you’re the only one that’s you, right? So you’re the only one that’s you, and we get confused sometimes — or I do, I think everyone does — you try to compete. You think, Dammit, someone else is trying to be me. Someone else is trying to be me. But I don’t have to armor myself against those people; I don’t have to armor myself against that idea if I can really just relax and feel content in this way and this regard. If I can just feel, just think now: How much do you weigh? This is a thing I like to do with myself when I get lost and I get feeling funny. How much do you weigh? Think about how much each person here weighs and try to feel that weight in your seat right now, in your bottom right now. Parts in your feet and parts in your bum. Just try to feel your own weight, in your own seat, in your own feet. Okay? So if you can feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification, a very personal identification, which is: I am. This is me now. Here I am, right now. This is me now. Then you don’t feel like you have to leave, and be over there, or look over there. You don’t feel like you have to rush off and be somewhere. There’s just a wonderful sense of well-being that begins to circulate up and down, from your top to your bottom. Up and down from your top to your spine. And you feel something that makes you almost want to smile, that makes you want to feel good, that makes you want to feel like you could embrace yourself.
So what’s it like to be me? You can ask yourself, What’s it like to be me? You know, the only way we’ll ever know what it’s like to be you is if you work your best at being you as often as you can, and keep reminding yourself: That’s where home is.
So BE YOUR OWN BILL MURRAY really just means…be you. Not be yourself, like you have to know who you are and feel super confident in who that is and be ready to conquer the world. Just ready to kind of exist in the world, and let the Uncanny Valley melt away to a place that is very difficult to navigate, but in which you can absolutely function.