a field guide to functional insanity

Do you suffer from crippling self-doubt with little to no basis in reality? Does “no basis in reality” describe most of what your brain explores on a given day? Have you ever stopped to contemplate your purpose in life only to realize that when you think about it too much, you don’t have one, and neither does anyone else? Does the prospect of arriving at home only to discover that your bagel wasn’t toasted strike as much terror into your heart as the prospect of global warming?

I understand. But it’s time to lock it up.

Medication is one thing. It got me out of the well and back into the real world. It slows the ticker tape that runs constantly through the back of the unsound mind, flashing any one of the following messages: “BAGELS MAKE YOU FAT!” “SQUIRRELS ARE VICIOUS!” “YOUR COWORKERS ALL THINK YOU’RE A WEIRDO!” “A PLANE CRASH WOULD BE A TERRIBLE WAY TO DIE!” But it doesn’t turn it off altogether and if you want to make it through the day unscathed–or at all–you need tools.

This is my toolkit.

I think I’m a pretty high-functioning nut. I hold a respectable job and I live in my own apartment, an apartment that’s only kind of a disaster. I think most people wouldn’t know that I’m a nut if it weren’t for the fact that I write about it on the Internet.

I’ve known since I was a little girl that my brain doesn’t work quite the way it’s supposed to, so I’ve always gotten by otherwise: with trickery, storytelling, strategy, and logic. Here’s how.

  1. Talk yourself out of bed in the morning

Every morning when I wake up, I think about staying there. I spent much of my sophomore year of college in bed. This was ultimately a bad idea, because my professors kept emailing me to ask why I wasn’t in class. Also, my friends kept asking me why I wasn’t in class. And my roommates kept wondering why I wasn’t leaving the apartment.

All of this leads me to my solution: every morning when you wake up, think of all the people who will negatively judge you if you don’t get out of bed. What if your landlord stops by to fix your faulty shower drain? He’s definitely going to remember you as the weird tenant who was in bed at two in the afternoon. And even if he doesn’t, he’s probably going to wonder what’s up with that job that you told him about that pays you enough to cover the rent check every month. On a related note, your boss will negatively judge you. More specifically, your boss will fire you, and then you’re fast-tracking on the road to being a non-functional human. Don’t get fired. And if you do, at least make it because you left on the emergency jetway or something.

I’m allowed to work from home, which means that sometimes I have to trick myself into getting out of bed. This is especially useful when there’s nothing on my calendar and the prospect of delighting my officemates with the dulcet tones of me narrating my innermost thoughts for hours on end. If I sign up for SoulCycle, not getting out of bed means flushing a ridiculous amount of money (that no rational person should spend on an exercise class but we all do so whatever, I’m not even counting that as crazy) down the toilet. Sometimes instead, I promise myself frozen yogurt in the evening, or sushi, or new underwear.

Sometimes you have to stay in bed. Only stay in bed if it’s the weekend and you’ve been a good and sociable and normal human for several days on end. Don’t stay in bed if it’s not the weekend unless you have a head cold and staying in bed is the reasonable thing to do. Don’t make it a habit. Make it a treat.

  1. Prepare for the inevitable event of social interaction

An effective way to address social anxiety is to stay inside. On balance, though, this methodology is not worth the tradeoffs (dying alone, possibly with cats). Instead, you need to steel yourself for the prospect of small talk with people who think you’re a weirdo.

Staying up to date on the topics that your peers like to discuss is a great way to handle social interaction. When you find yourself trapped in an elevator or early to a meeting–and you will be early to the meeting, because you know you’re nothing if not punctual!–talking about topics of general interest is a great way to pass the time. (Note that the weather is not a topic of general interest, no matter how fiercely you believe it should be.)

I deal with small talk by ensuring that there is not a single moment of silence. I babble until I’ve made up at least a few words and possibly several facts, which is most effective if you’re dealing with somebody who is less well-read than you are. This strategy often backfires and I generally don’t recommend it, but if the alternative is staring blankly at your conversational partner, then making a run for it, you should probably stick with blabber. Bonus points if you can convince someone that the jackalope is real.

  1. Respond to emotions like a normal person

It’s hard to react appropriately when you experience emotions at a level that is comparatively more intense than the normal population. In particular, when you have the kind of mood swings that have been diagnosed as clinical, you might be inclined to react in kind.

Maybe don’t. I mean, do—like any good therapist will tell you, feeling your feelings is critical to being a functional human—but maybe try to feel them at appropriate times, like alone in your bedroom.

Learning to postpone your emotions is a useful skill. I have a comically bad poker face, so I like to be armed with a prop at all times. I don’t go to meetings without my laptop or paper and pen and when I feel myself lapsing into what I like to call a “rage stroke,” I distract myself by recreating my favorite high school doodles. When I receive emails that make me angry, I draft responses, then delete them, then do something else, then draft new responses. Rinse and repeat until you’re left with only what needs to be said plus any bitchy rejoinders that can be masked as politeness. When my face really thinks it’s time to cry but my body thinks it’s time to continue sitting through this meeting/dinner party/doctor’s appointment, I breathe through the back of my throat like I’m in yoga and think about ordinal sequences or the lyrics to “One Week” by the Barenaked Ladies.

If all else fails, find the best place to freak out quietly without attracting attention in whatever position suits you best. I like to find a nice clean bathroom where I can curl up on the floor and feel my feelings. Public places are also surprisingly well-suited for really unsubtle displays of emotion. Last month I had to go to my company conference—four solid days with 1500 people and no privacy—and the prospect of it had me in tears for days. (1500 people! All of them using words like “synergy” and “de facto” and “optimize” as if they’re normal things to say in conversation! Nowhere to hide!) So I sat in my economy seat and cried from takeoff until halfway over Kansas and nobody said a word to me. I was sitting next to a girl who didn’t speak English and an old woman who I think may have been a corpse buckled into a seat, but still.

Oh, and always have sunglasses. ALWAYS. Put them on. Cry it out.

  1. Reduce your panic to a manageable level

Does the sight of a squirrel bring you to your knees? Nope? Just me? Well, it should. That aside, panic is no joke. Sometimes I work myself into such a panic that I blank out for a second and when I come back, I’ve forgotten entirely what I was worrying about. I worry sometimes that during that blank-out, I’m also carrying out art heists or screaming expletives in public.

I deal with my panic by developing game plans. On my way to the train every morning, I worry that I won’t have enough room to read my Kindle and that I’ll have to run for the train and my back will get sweaty. So I power-walk down to the front of the platform and stand where I can choose between the first and second cars, and I choose books that are engaging enough to distract me from my sweaty back. Then I worry that I’m going to spill my coffee on myself, so I only drink my coffee sitting down and hunching so that if it drips, it drips on my desk. (This has the added benefit of dissuading any of my many single male coworkers from hitting on me, because I look like a hunchback.)

I distract myself. My coworkers think I’m incredibly productive. I volunteer for projects that have me waking up at three in the morning to put together PowerPoint decks for people in Europe to ignore during a call five hours later. Sometimes we measure whether something is possible by whether I can do it and then again by whether anyone else can do it.

The truth? While I read faster than most people I know can, I’m actually just trying to distract myself from things like the purposelessness of human life and my inner anorexic reminding me that bagels make you fat. I need to be told what to think about.

I’ve liked to be busy since I was old enough to decide that on my own and now that I don’t have many hobbies anymore—I quit dance and theatre because giving your inner anorexic an audience is a really good way to turn it into your outer anorexic, plus rehearsals are kind of a drain on my couch time—I work. I volunteer for projects that let me travel. I’m flying to London tomorrow because sixteen hours in flight is worth seven days of newness.

It’s worse at night. The daytime offers enough distraction to keep the demons at bay, but it’s hard to quiet them at night. That’s when the real stuff comes out to play: you’re hopelessly incompetent and someday soon they’re going to find out and fire you, and then you won’t be able to afford your rent and you’ll have to go back to working in retail and living in an illegal four-bedroom and eating hummus and you’re going to die alone because nobody wants to marry somebody whose ideal vacation is alone and what if you have a baby and you hate it?

I use my favorite cliché here. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Then I pick myself up off of the couch and find something else to do. This is why I read so many books.

That said, I’m writing this watching “Selena” on VH1 and there are only sixteen minutes left in the broadcast and she still hasn’t gotten shot so I’m basically about twelve seconds away from a meltdown. (Movies are actually really hard for me. I’m particularly conscious of this when my boyfriend and I are watching movies on the couch and I have really obvious physical responses to anything remotely suspenseful. Long shot of an empty hallway? Tense up! Gunshot? Full-body spasm! Torture scene? Forget it. I’m burying my face in your armpit. Wake up me when it’s time for “30 Rock.”)

  1. Make your world a tolerable place to be and make yourself a tolerable person to be around

There are tradeoffs. I always wanted to act in musical theatre. I couldn’t handle the stress that comes with not having a reliable paycheck. I got a full-time job instead.

Living in a quiet city was like giving my inner demons a microphone. I moved back to New York, where the very act of living in the world requires enough concentration to quiet my mind. I moved to an apartment 45 minutes away from my office because I think riding the subway is like a less boring version of meditation.

Make fun of yourself. Let other people make fun of you. (It’s ridiculous to be afraid of squirrels. Everyone is well within their right to laugh at you when you dodge one. Laugh with them from your position safely out of the squirrel’s path.) Don’t let them be cruel to you. I had a boyfriend once who, by the end of our relationship, took great pleasure in pushing me to my limits like I was an anthropological experiment. I had an important train to catch once and I planned to take the subway, grab breakfast at Grand Central so I’d be sure to make the Metro-North to Poughkeepsie, and he dragged me to a diner, sat me down, told me he’d pay for my cab, and watched me eat my breakfast—and this was back when I was deep in my eating disorder, and to be the only one eating at a table of two was a nightmare in itself, never mind that I was sure I was going to miss my train. I sat there and chewed slowly because eating fast wasn’t allowed and felt like I was going to either squirm out of my own skin or cry or both. He laughed. At the time, I thought I was being taught a valuable but painful lesson in not being neurotic. In retrospect, that was, in a word, rude.

You’re not an animal at the circus. Don’t let anyone treat you like you are.

That doesn’t mean that anyone is required to go out of their way to accommodate your crazy. Feed the neuroses that don’t harm you or anyone else. Fix the rest. I let myself arrive two hours early to the airport every time I travel. I don’t let myself not eat. I try not to make any one person listen to my litany of complaints for too long. When I do, I buy them a drink. I keep a journal. I write a blog. I pay a therapist.

I try to keep my temper and often fail. This one isn’t cute or quirky or excusable. It is also, in a word, rude. I also don’t think it can be chalked up to being half-crazy, but as long as we’re on the subject of personality flaws…

  1. Don’t go back to bed

Make plans. Don’t flake on them. I am a notorious flake because social interaction is an unknown and my bed is a known and nobody can hurt me in my bed. I got out of it this morning, but I want nothing more than to go back to it now.

The world is a better place to be than your bed is. The other week, I had planned on a quiet Saturday at home and my friend L__ asked if I wanted to go to a friend’s concert with her. I said yes because I’m in one of my phases where I pledge that I’m going to flake less, try more. It was lovely. (The artist’s name was Lindsay Dunphy. I really want her to become famous and release a bunch of records. Go listen to her EP on Spotify.)

Good things happen when you don’t go back to bed. I nearly canceled my first date with my boyfriend because it was cold and I was tired. Five months later, it occurs to me that I would have traded a few warm hours in my apartment for the new world that he’s opened up for me. It’s smaller than that, though; once L__ and I went to karaoke and we met a group of boys in black turtlenecks who were on their annual post-graduate scavenger hunt. I sang Queen and someone called me Beyonce. Once I went to a birthday party at a bar in Meatpacking and watched a friend of a friend get kicked out for vomiting on the bathroom floor. Once we met two Australians at a nightclub in Las Vegas. Once I called an Uber for a nineteen-year-old whose friends had left her to pass out on the E train. Once we saw a man dressed as Oscar the Grouch, with trash can, at a bar on Fremont Street—in December.

Talk yourself into it. Bribe yourself the way you bribed yourself to get out of bed: if you go out into the world tonight, you can stay home tomorrow, and the night after. Go! The world is waiting. You’re weird. You’re special. You’re allowed to be here.

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4 thoughts on “a field guide to functional insanity”

  1. I relate to a lot of this. Maybe I can start owning my weirdness, but hiding it seems to get me by too. If I show my weak spots too much I fear I will be judged by others and that it will negatively affect my happiness and success in life.

    Like

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