Weirdly this is not an history post.
Right now a lot of us have fallen into a great depression. The economy, the politics (also known as teh stupid at a national (and state, and local, and epic) level (take my city for instance. They are turning off the lights in every cross street to save money, BUT they are still filling downtown with great, mostly without redeeming value, (yes, there are exceptions, but not many) piles of metal for “art on the streets.” Because, art is more important than the safety of lighted streets, and “art creates community” or something – will the Sixties never lie down? They’ve always been dead.) Our kids are coming of age, and there’s no economy for them to step into. We’re most of us holding on to the edge of a job that might or might not be there in a year – or a month. Everyone is holding their breath. Something has to give, but no one knows what.
We wait and we wait, and we can’t talk to anyone, and no one will talk about anything that’s really worrying them in public (though we do, in private, with a bottle of wine and some time.) And we get depressed, because what we believe, what we do, what we are, what we want, and simple stuff that could be one to make the economy better is obvious, but nothing gets done. Or teh stupid grows deeper.
There is a certain Weimar republic weirdness. People talk around and over things. People smile a lot. Even cons that used to be acrimonious, no one talks of anything important. (Well, except me, when someone said money was a measure of labor. You guys know what it does to me.) We’re all being overnice with each other as though we were all accident victims and slightly dazed.
The people who still have jobs are working too hard. The people who don’t are wondering if they ever will again. (Some think they won’t because they bought the with-folded-hands-crap.) Those of us who drink are wondering if we can afford as much as we need. Those who don’t drink often act drunk through sheer exhaustion.
But mostly, mostly, we each one of us feels powerless, lost, as though what we are, what we think, what we want, all the plans we had for ourselves and kids and our careers, and our friends, and our retirement, count for absolutely nothing.
It is not good for man – or woman – to feel alone. It is no great shakes for man – or woman – to feel powerless and irrelevant.
I can’t tell you what to do, personally. I’m not you. I’m finding my own way out of the grey goo, into some semblance of normalcy.
Either things will get better or they won’t. Either the worst will happen, or it won’t. You can’t do anything about it, but you don’t want to give your life over to a wasteland for however long. We hear history moves faster now, but history is still not that fast. The collective thought and feeling are a slow thing to move and change.
And meanwhile… well, in Venetia Heyer makes some reference to the years the locust ate. This is of course a reference to the Bible. But it is also a weirdly resonant phrase. The character is referring to his years spent in wenching and gambling, not building a life, a family, an estate.
I hate to tell you this, but if you’re going to waste years, wenching (what is the distaff equivalent? Roguing?) and gambling are better than grey goo-ing. In another, smaller scale, I let the locust eat the years I was struggling to break in. I’d lose hope, and spend months, years, spinning in place, doing nothing.
It serves nothing. It helps nothing. So whether you’re overworked, underworked, or completely lost in some hopeless routine, let me share what has helped. Because one way or another, either this will end well or badly, and in either case you’re going to need to be alert, prepared, and not so depressed you can’t move.
Prepare for the worst, hope for the best and – to quote Heinlein – keep your clothes and weapons where you can find them in the dark. Metaphorically, at least.
I’m not going to tell you how to prepare for physical survival. It would be stupid. There are far better informed people. I do wish womeone who can’t eat carbs – for reasons other than diet – would have a list, though, since our storage is whimsical, to put it mildly.
What I’m going to tell you is how to keep yourself from being a depressed pile of mush, in the meanwhile. Because – trust me, I’m by nature a depressive, and I KNOW – if you are a depressed pile of mush, you won’t think clearly in an emergency; you won’t react quickly in a life threatening situation; you won’t take advantage of something getting unexpectedly better; and you WON’T survive, no matter how many plans you’ve made.
So, this is what has been working for me – your results may vary.
Years ago, in the throes of burnout, I bought a book on how to get out of burnout.
They identified three causes of the burnout: overwork; lack of control; hopelessness. They said countering just one of those could get you out of a burnout spin.
I don’t know where the book is, but I think it’s in one of the massive “to sell” bins, because it was to my purpose nothing. At the time, I couldn’t take control of my career, I could do nothing about working less (not if I wanted career to continue) and I’d pretty much lost all hope of my career experiencing any progress (I think the year I had six book releases and NOT ONE made it to bookshelves in CO was the time I figured that out.)
In a way we’re there. And of course, we can’t do anything substantive about those three things. But there is something we can do on a minor scale. You can control yourself and your surroundings, and make some improvements.
a) Eat well, exercise, try to get in shape (I recommend Charlie Martin’s 13 weeks program.) Try to be the healthiest you can be. Depression – at least in me – tends to translate into sweet-cravings and couch-potatoing. Counter that part. Control your body. It will pay off.
b) Clean and organize your surroundings. No, I’m not being mommy. Look, there is a psychological effect from living in a mess, and you don’t need it. And being able to find a book, a reference, a tool when needed is an inestimable good. The other advantage of these two is that most of the time they will tire you out, so you can stop running in the hamster wheel of the mind and sleep at night.
Whether you’re unemployed or employed, you need to feel like you have something you can do to help in the future.
I’ve said here before the future is not one job, not one occupation, but multiple streams of income. Yes, I know, if you’re already overworked you’re going to throw things at me (it’s okay. I’m really good at ducking) because there SIMPLY isn’t the time or… the “give.” But there is, if you find it. And it can help you. During the worst time in my writing career, I picked up art. As income it hasn’t come-in yet. (But it could, if I organized better. Something that I’m working on.) But as something to learn – something that I could feel I was making progress in and it was volitional, it’s inestimable.
Writing six books a year was eating me alive, so I added art classes and time to draw, and I felt better. It makes no sense, but it worked.
Given the times we live in, and that the future is uncertain, I’d advise you to pick a hobby that can double as a money-making thing, preferably one you can do on your own/contract/fre lance.
I don’t know what your talents are. My family is NOT normal – you knew that, right? – so yesterday we spent time picking courses off a catalog, and the gamut went from history to music, to art, to storytelling. Activities and skills people are working on in my circle range from editing to handy-manning (shut up you!) to building computers from discards, to writing indie, to art, to all sorts of what used to be called womanly crafts. Embroidery, crochet, knitting, calculus, statistics, piano, languages, programming, baking, backyard gardening… All of these will almost for sure have a value and allow you to make at least some money. All of them are absorbing enough to keep the mind from the down spiral.
Pick one and master it.
This will seem insane, considering the stuff above, but listen to me. One thing I learned in the burnout years was that I couldn’t rest simply by doing nothing. Doing nothing was an opportunity for the locust to come gnawing at the edges of how hopeless my situation was.
The mini-vacations my family does – Denver, mostly, for three days or so – worked (kind of. Family time does, because I like the guys) but it didn’t LAST. Instead of a vacation a year or so, I found myself needing a vacation every month, which, of course, interferes with mini-galt, and also with the fact that we were (and are) fairly broke.
So, here’s my advice:
a) Plan your escape. Look, there’s mini-galt and being broke and stuff. But then there’s holding yourself to such an arid and work-laden schedule that makes you feel life is a never ending slog. It means that sooner or later you will break out, and then it will be worse for the finances (and you.) There will be the “ARGH, can’t take it,” and a ticket to an expensive show you don’t even want to see that much; or dinner out somewhere expensive, or…
Here, we follow Heinlein again (genuflects.) “Budget luxuries FIRST.” Luxuries can be anything from planning an afternoon a week lollywagging in front of the tv or games (hint, do NOT go with other people’s idea of fun, even your nearest and dearest. My husband likes sitcoms, but they drive me up the wall. My kids love minecraft. I think it would leave me more tired than just working.) The fact you plan it, and it has limits, stops it from turning into endless escape and then into grey goo because you’re doing nothing and you know it. Say “Saturday at two to five, I’m going to do THIS” and then that’s fun. Sometimes your escape can be an hour a day “when I come home from my too-demanding job, I’ll take a bubble bath/read a book/watch a stupid show.” Don’t be ashamed of what you do to escape. It will probably be stupid. It doesn’t matter if it works. My busiest and most stressful year in school was made better by a truly spectacularly dumb Brazilian soap. For whatever reason it worked for me, and it was on at seven when I got home. My parents ate before me, so I’d take my dinner to the TV room, and watch the soap for an hour, after which I was ready to face reality (and homework.)
b- Plan some bigger escape too. Budget it. Eat pancakes if you must, for three weeks (or vegetable soup, in my family’s case) but take that mini-vacation for three days once a quarter. Or go hiking in the wilderness for two days, if you’re that kind of wild and wooly. Or drive to see something you always wanted to see and lacked the time/funds to. Or buy a season ticket to the symphony (this is my own personal dream. We can’t afford it, but I’m trying to figure out how to do it.)
If you have a family, the “big escape” should involve ALL of you. Something you all like to do, if at all possible. This a) is cheaper. b) it gives everyone something to look forward to “another three weeks, and I finish this, and we go to Denver and go museum hopping. Wheee.” And the kids/husband are going “another three weeks, and…” c) it helps reconnect with those you love. Part of the issue with depression is that after a while you feel as though everyone around you is miles and miles away. Having fun together, DOES help reconnect.
c – Merest escapism. This was mentioned above, but I want it to have its own place, because it’s not something that needs to be part of scheduled time off, or that needs to be very expensive.
It has become fashionable to sneer at escapist entertainment. This is nonsense. It is part of the whole utilitarian view of human as a unit in society, a cog in the wheel.
If you’re reading this blog, chances are you read. In the middle of “better reads” feel free to have the utter escapist novel. For me, weirdly, when I was really depressed this involved revisiting the trashy reads of my younger years, mainly Enid Blyton. But it can mean reading category Harlequin or pulp SF – don’t be afraid to do it. The only criteria is “does it make me bubbly-happy inside?”
Again, you need to limit its time, or nothing else will get done, but if you read before bed, make every third read something that makes you happy, even if (particularly if) it has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
And if you’re a writer – speaking for myself – write a bubbly-silly story or short novel every once in a while. It will both (hopefully) give you some money (and sharpen your mad indie skills, if you’re not going that way yet) and I’ve found (don’t think it’s just me) it helps with the escape. I too can escape into the silly stuff.
Games, movies – all of this comes in escapist flavor. Make escapism part of your plan. Limit it, of course, or nothing else will get done. When you’re depressed you obsess on things, and if escapism is all you do, it’s kind of like living on Cheetos. After a while you get sick of it, and it doesn’t nourish you either. But as part of your “make self feel better” a little won’t hurt you.
And now you’re going “Sarah, if I do all this, I’ll be stumbling-tired and nothing will get done.”
No, you won’t. A lot of this is planning ahead, which will increase your sense of being in control of your life and your future. And some of it – cleaning, organizing, exercising – can be combined. BUT most of all, by pulling yourself out of the Great Depression, you WILL rest better in the time you have, and work better when you can.
Learning a skill might be only an hour a week, but you’d be amazed the difference an hour a week makes after a year. Exercising might be fifteen minutes a day, but it too makes a difference. And your escape might be reading ten pages before bed, but you’ll sleep better for it.
My specific strategies might not work for everyone, but something like it will. Give it a try. This great depression is communicating itself to everyone, all around – and it is no use to anyone.
Don’t sit down under it. You have so many years – don’t let the locust eat them.