Working through an existential crisis, still
March 17, 2019 9:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm dealing with an existential crisis and am not sure humanism is still a mindset that works for me anymore. I'm reading about religion and spirituality at the moment to see if I can experience subjective divine experience (about the only framework I think I could understand God or some kind of cosmic order through). I'm also considering psychedelics. I can function at work but the rest of my life is getting strained. What are good resources to help me through this?

So, about a month ago, I fell into an existential crisis. [And now I recall the story was Exhalation by Ted Chiang, whoops]

I'm still working through it, and I have good moments but still find myself exhausted and fixated on the bad kind of nihilism. Positive nihilism just makes me feel even worse, because I was and am the kind of person who feels good thinking about the consequences of my actions. I like to think that I'm helping people and that my drop in the bucket makes the world slightly better. But if people die, and from their perspective they no longer remember or experience what they felt or accomplished, it all feels extremely hollow. I feel like everything I experience is far away and hollow now.

And I can't just be hedonistic because then I'm thinking about how limited my time is and wondering if playing a video game or watching TV is really going to help me. Sex is less appealing because of the dread, and when I've had sex, I kinda had to zone out and let the other person lead. Food has less taste, and I just worry about what the less healthy but tasty foods are doing to my one body that carries around my one brain. Marijuana still works because it disrupts my thoughts. Ditto alcohol, but I'm limiting myself to one drink a day.

At the end of the day, I feel exhausted no matter what. I'm not exercising as much as I used to, and I'm eating less because this feeling makes it harder to swallow or enjoy food unless I'm really hungry. And I'm not keeping up with chores. But emotionally I feel tired three hours before my insomniac old self would feel ready for bed. My throat feels like somebody's threateningly wrapped their hands around my neck all day.

When I was dysphoric and depressed, even when I felt good relatively good, there was still a low-key exhaustion and annoyance at the struggle of doing better in life. My gender transition had so many difficult little rituals, and I was concerned about proving myself at work. Now I feel pretty established in my role as a transgender woman. I even came out at work (as explicitly trans, I was presenting as my correct gender but "stealth") a few weeks ago, partly I guess to see if it would get me out of this funk. In a month, I'm getting my bottom surgery. And I'm realizing I'm well established at my job. My manager is consistently talking about how I'm a candidate for promotion. I've been going through the motions at work, but I still perform well enough.

For a few months, I was getting more extroverted, making friends at work, going on more dates, going to the gym four times a week, and really enjoying my life. I felt like I was attractive, interesting, lovable, and heading into an incredibly difficult surgery that would have long term dividends for my relationship with myself. I think that's what now makes my old idea of death terrifying.

I think I need to figure out a way I can explore this and find some kind of cosmic meaning, but I'm also still carrying a bunch of stuff I picked up from the internet's New Atheism phase. I don't know where consciousness comes from exactly, but I get that thought and memory occur physically within the brain. Atheist romanticizing of death (following their assumption that death is simply a permanent loss of consciousness) isn't helping me anymore. It no longer feels like a merciful rest from the struggle of life, and instead like a cruel erasure of not just my ability to experience things, but also the ability to remember the good times and human connections I'm making now. And while before I'd laugh off the end of this universe in trillions of years as far away, the fact that I'd not be conscious of time passing after my death makes trillions of years not seem long at all.

I'm reading Mere Christianity and a few books written from a modern progressive protestant view, because that was my background growing up. I'm considering joining a Unitarian church and looking into Buddhism as well. I can imagine consciousness or qualia being some fluid element that passes between parts of the universe, so reincarnation sounds somewhat plausible but without anything like past life regression.

This period has also deeply amplified the grief I feel for a relative who was like a second mom to me in my teen years. She'd passed away three months ago, and at the time, I was fairly accepting of it. She was very old and was on hospice care for over a year. My mother strongly advised me not to come out to her, as she worried it'd make her anxious, and it made it harder for me to keep in touch with her as I lost the ability to pass as my pre-transition self. Sometimes at work, I'll imagine her voice and end up crying in the bathroom. I practically never cried before in my adult life. I also find myself crying over existentialism in general now.

I've discussed this twice with my therapist. They're convinced that this is a matter of pre-surgery anxiety. They might be right, but from a material standpoint I'm still bound to die and unless astronomy is wrong, the universe will end. So it's hard to totally dismiss these anxieties. They're now advising I follow an ACT technique of experiencing the uncomfortable feelings and not forcing myself to feel something else but instead trying to gently transition. I'm trying but I don't think it's working. She was dismissive of my attempts to find religion or a spiritual mindset.

A friend of mine has some LSD tabs and would eagerly share them. I've done a small amounts of LSD before and it was a really positive experience, and I'm wondering if perhaps the acid would help me move on. It's hard for me not to see this as a good option at this point, but I'm afraid of the risk of a bad trip.

I realize I'm rambling and this has gone on forever. I'm lost and I'm scared and exhausted. What are some books or things I could do or changes I could make to move on and live a meaningful life? It's been a really hard month and I don't know if waiting it out is working.

PS: Background
  • I just turned 30 and have been watching the calendar for months counting down to my surgery in anticipation. I'm feeling keenly aware of the passage of time lately.
  • I was religious as a protestant up until the very end of high school, where internet atheism got to me. That summer, I had an existential crisis about simulation theory and dropped out of college in about a year and a half, then I adopted a sort of christian worldview based around thinking a computer couldn't emulate consciousness. Then I started dating an atheist for several years and became the kind of agnostic who doesn't believe in God but is open to evidence.
  • I have been on antidepressants my whole adult life. I've been only diagnosed with depression, an autism spectrum disorder, and gender dysphoria. Hormones might be making these big feelings harder. Although the dissociation might be coming back.
posted by MuppetNavy to Religion & Philosophy (45 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
This sounds awful on so many levels, and I'm sorry you have to go through it.

I can't really say much except to hope you can find a new therapist. I would really feel awful if someone was dismissive of any legal, reasonable ideas in a situation like yours.
posted by Alensin at 10:25 PM on March 17 [6 favorites]


Existential crises are creatures of our thoughts. They have only as much power over us as we're willing to allow them.

from a material standpoint I'm still bound to die and unless astronomy is wrong, the universe will end. So it's hard to totally dismiss these anxieties.

It is possible to contemplate both the prospect of one's own end and that of the universe with complete equanimity and no anxiety whatsoever. It is possible to do this without any sliver of denial or distraction. One can not only imagine Sisyphus happy, one can imagine oneself as a Sisyphus who has learned to live within the constraints that one genuinely cannot remove and become content with the freedoms that are available, which are plentifully apparent if one stops looking for them in the wrong places.

The universe is under no obligation whatsoever to behave in ways that make human beings comfortable either physically or intellectually. Behaving as if it did is the same kind of rookie mistake as refusing, over and over and over again, to learn not to touch the hot stove. Anybody who truly believes that they do have a handle on the grand scheme of things is living in wilful, blinkered denial. The only way to maintain that state is via the constant seeking of distractions.

Thinking about the future is useful only to the extent that it lets us choose good things to work towards. Thinking about the past is useful only to the extent that it lets us make better choices when similar circumstances recur.

If freedom from existential angst is your goal, you won't find it in contemplation of past or future. You will find it by learning to redirect your attention to the present moment whenever you choose to do so. This is a specific skill. It takes a great deal of practice to get good at it. Persistent rumination is evidence of insufficient time spent performing that practice.

You can handle the truth. Keep at the therapy.

Do not do acid unless all of the following are true:

(a) you'll be doing it with somebody you would trust with your life;
(b) somebody who won't be tripping, who you would also trust with your life, will accompany the trippers in case straight-person skills are urgently required;
(c) you'll be doing it somewhere tranquil and beautiful;
(d) you'll be doing it to find out what happens when you do, rather than pinning hopes on it of fixing something;
(e) you are capable of genuine enjoyment when contemplating your own absurdity.
posted by flabdablet at 10:50 PM on March 17 [38 favorites]


Have you tried any of the classic literature of the psychedelic era, such as Be Here Now or The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are?
I haven't read either one in years but your question brought them up in my mind.

Or somewhat more recently, why you want a physicist to speak at your funeral?

I was about to say "slim chance of a bad trip from a book" but it sounds as if simulation "theory" (which from my point of view is just another religion) sent you on a pretty bad trip all those years ago. So I pre-emptively withdraw that. Books, words, ideas, can make you trip.

With that in mind, maybe try feeding your head with some physics or biology or chemistry or linguistics or really anything about how things work. Sure there is a heat death of the universe coming right up, but meanwhile there is the fact that things work at all. That's pretty amazing! (Personally I'm a big fan of the PBS Spacetime series on YouTube - I mean, what, mass is an emergent property? you gotta be kidding me! - but we're different people and possibly have different interests.)

All that aside: you have grief over the death of a major person in your life and that is a physical process. Like, of course you're crying in the bathroom! After my dad died I had unexpected crying jags (usually while driving, so add "inconvenient" and "unsafe" to that) for a long time. A lot longer than three months. Thus I would like to suggest the possibility that your existential crisis is not making the grief worse, but the other way around... well, and around and around for a good ol' spiral of despair.

This internet stranger is sorry for your loss.
posted by inexorably_forward at 11:23 PM on March 17 [6 favorites]


They're now advising I follow an ACT technique of experiencing the uncomfortable feelings and not forcing myself to feel something else but instead trying to gently transition ... She was dismissive of my attempts to find religion or a spiritual mindset ... What are some books ...

Here are some reading suggestions, all available online, that come to mind: George Saunders's "Escape from Spiderhead" and Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain" because they're stories that touch on themes similar to the Chiang story (the mechanics of consciousness and the finitude of existence) and basically agree yet look at things differently; Rose Macaulay's Pleasure of Ruins because she takes on another theme present in Chiang's story (wandering among the traces of those now gone) and looks at it differently; and Meister Eckhart's "Eternal Birth" and Thich Nhat Hanh's The Sun My Heart because you're looking for Christian or Buddhist options palatable to an existentialist that may help with accepting some things and gently moving on to other thoughts. Truthfully, I'm not sure more reading is the best path to take--what would probably work for me would be, like, diving into a totally new hobby or digging into an old one I haven't messed with in a long time. But I sympathize with your situation and with wanting to think your way through it.
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:50 PM on March 17 [3 favorites]


Truthfully, I'm not sure more reading is the best path to take

I agree with this. Generally when people have been spending unhealthy amounts of time in their heads, doing something more focused on the parts of themselves outside their skulls proves to be a more productive use of time.
posted by flabdablet at 11:55 PM on March 17 [14 favorites]


In my experience, anxiety and other things like that operate on two levels. On one level, there's the content, the thing one is worrying about. On another level, there's one's mental state, the fact that one is worrying about it.

For instance, suppose someone worried about food poisoning whenever he went out to eat at a restaurant. Suppose he looked up the restaurant's food safety inspection scores, researched the kinds of foods least likely to have excessive bacteria, and quizzed servers about the kitchen's food handling practices.

On the one hand, this guy has a valid concern. It's totally true that people sometimes get food poisoning from restaurants. Nobody can truly dismiss his concerns because there is a chance.

On another, this person is clearly suffering from anxiety or OCD or something similar that is making his life far tougher than it needs to be. If he managed to improve his mental health, then he might be able to navigate eating out, even without forgetting everything he knows, without the worry. "Sure, I guess that's theoretically a risk." (Shrug.) Similarly, you said that in the past, "my own death felt like 'eh, I won't be around to worry about it.'" The external facts (e.g., of your inevitable death) did not change, but they just didn't really weigh on you before.

Sometimes engaging in the content helps. Especially when there's not much that can be done about one's mental health, sometimes it's the only option, and sometimes it works well enough. Maybe you'll find an answer this way.

On the other hand, in my experience, strategies that address one's mental state more directly often work like magic to erase rumination that was very hard to slog through otherwise, like suddenly getting airlifted out of the swamp.

My question for you is, is there more that you could be doing to call for that helicopter rescue, i.e., to improve your mental health? I don't mean to be dismissive of the question, but I'm concerned that you're feeling like "I'm lost and I'm scared and exhausted." You are dealing with a confluence of stressors (grief and the surgery). You're experiencing symptoms (existential angst) that once accompanied an episode so severe that you flunked out of college. You mention that you're doing a lot to maintain a healthy lifestyle, so you're really doing your part. I would stay far away from psychedelics at this unstable moment; that's just my opinion. Have you talked to your psychiatrist? Could you be explicit with your therapist that the strategies they suggested aren't working?

I hope you can find some relief from feeling this way. It sounds really hard.
posted by salvia at 12:15 AM on March 18 [3 favorites]


I've "understood" existence on LSD but then I lost my understanding. Then I did that a few more times. Then I quit being a software engineer and became a therapist (but not yours.) Along the way, I read all those books you read and those that others are recommending. Also, I've had bad trips. Also, I'm probably twice your age. The therapist in me would like to take your pain away but I know I can't do that--certainly not in AskMe.

And yet, having been some of the places you're stuck in, I feel like there must be something I could tell you. Probably the most important thing I can say is that you're not alone. My engineer self knows that the kind of meaning you're looking for is not intellectual. It would be nice to have, say, C. S. Lewis's point of view, but he can't give it to you. If I could give you my point of view, I'd tell you that, like all programs have bugs, all understandings have misunderstandings. You can't solve the problem the way you're going about it. Religious people talk about surrender as if that were something it was easy to do, but the first step is to stop trying to solve it. The solution contains your feeling of lack of solution. That is, you already have it but it's disguised as the problem you're trying to solve. You want the problem to go away when it's actually what you're looking for. I know that's probably not helpful but the only thing that really helps is love. And we can only approximate that.

I feel my answer is insufficient but I can accept my failure even as I hate failing you. That kind of acceptance is the surrender I mentioned. I'm tempted to delete all this but I'll leave it in case it makes you feel less alone.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:01 AM on March 18 [36 favorites]


I've "understood" existence on LSD but then I lost my understanding.

I've had valuable insights while under the influence of LSD that I retain to this day. I've also had hundreds of overwhelmingly self-evident insights while in a state of psychosis, and that is how I know how it feels to have a complete and fully certain understanding of the grand scheme of things.

The fact that every single knowing I acquired from every single one of those psychosis-driven grand epiphanies crumbled to dust when re-examined subsequent to recovery is how I know that the certainty of total insight, where all is bliss and everything makes perfect sense, is no more than a feeling and is in particular not a reliable guide to how the world actually works. Rather, it acts as such a compelling incentive to pull up the mental drawbridge and disappear inside one's own skull that one's attention never risks being drawn to contradictory evidence.

Every epiphany deserves cross-checking. The good ones will stand up to unlimited amounts of it. Understanding things requires persistent and rigorous effort. The useful understandings and masteries are always incomplete, and there are no short cuts. There is simply no way for a limited human brain to comprehend everything to which its attention might be drawn; to seek to do so is quite literally to seek insanity.

If you can learn to deconstruct so-called Big Questions and dismiss them as incoherent due to their unsupportable and/or contradictory underlying assumptions, rather than chasing your tail pursuing answers that will never actually be satisfactory precisely because the questions are broken, you will save yourself a hell of a lot of angst.
posted by flabdablet at 4:38 AM on March 18 [8 favorites]


I don't have anything in the short term except some book recommendations and therapy. For the long term you should look into secular Buddhism. It's just philosophy and training (meditation) to give you a different outlook on life. The only thing you need to believe is that it's helped other people and it can help you.

The super summary is that humans are really good at making themselves unhappy. We mostly do this by telling ourselves stories about how we how X will make us happy. X might be a new body or lover or new car or a million dollars. But if we get what we want we very quickly start telling ourselves new stories and we're miserable again.

The solution is to stop wanting things and be happy with what you have. Meditation is a good way to learn that and train yourself in related skills that can improve your experience of life.

Not wanting things is often interpreted as passive but it isn't. You can and will, want things but you can learn not to be attached to specific results. So if you want a new car because it would be useful that's great, go shopping, just know that it's not going to make you happy or change your life. That comes from your outlook on life, not from anything outside yourself.

The books are, Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield and Advice not Given by Mark Epstein. I also like Buddhism without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor but the language is a bit more convoluted. If you read about Buddhism already then it might be good for you.

Good luck


PS. You mentioned LSD which I've not done but I've heard that can go either way. Really great mind expanding trips and trips to the depths of hell. If you're already in a dark place maybe don't roll those dice.
posted by Awfki at 5:01 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]


Do not do acid unless all of the following are true:

(a) you'll be doing it with somebody you would trust with your life;
(b) somebody who won't be tripping, who you would also trust with your life, will accompany the trippers in case straight-person skills are urgently required;
(c) you'll be doing it somewhere tranquil and beautiful;
(d) you'll be doing it to find out what happens when you do, rather than pinning hopes on it of fixing something;
(e) you are capable of genuine enjoyment when contemplating your own absurdity.
posted by flabdablet at 7:50 AM on March 18 [5 favorites +] [!]


Please, please consider this advice solid gold.

I didn't follow any of these precepts; LSD did end up leading to the resolution of my existential crisis, but only after it triggered a weeks-long psychotic episode, led to 2 spells in psychiatric care and then over a year heavily medicated recovering from the fallout. There were moments back then when I didn't think I could, or wanted to, carry on...

I did get through it, with endless family support and a total, complete change in all aspects of my life; I still have moments, 15 years on, when I'm under stress and that unbreakable circle of nihilism pops back into my mind, but I can now acknowledge it, wait for it gyrate a few times and then gently persuade it to vanish back up its own fundament.

The biggest things which helped me re-calibrate the way I thought were hard physical work, outside in nature, mindfulness meditation, and making myself pay as much and as valued attention to poetry and song lyrics as I did to reading on philosophy, science and religion.

I wish you the very best in your struggle to find the first steps out of this place you're in. Whatever else, do not underestimate your capacity to apply your very obvious, innate gift of intense reasoning power to making all manner of things blossom in your life in the future.
posted by protorp at 6:13 AM on March 18 [4 favorites]


Hey, I've read the first two of those Wobbuffet! I actually did cope for a bit by starting a large crochet project, and it came out well, but now I see that blanket and I just kinda feel angry at it. That I finished it. That even 22 balls of yarn crocheted while I watched TV could go away.

I think what bothers me deep down is the impermanence of people and experience. I logged into a queer chatroom, and immediate got sad and logged out. I'd formed relationships with everyone there, and even came to get a reputation as annoying but pitiable because I'd anxiously ruminate on trans stuff. And now all I can think about is that everyone there someday will lose all sensation or memory of themselves. I know some find comfort in that, especially from the economic justice standpoint, or the idea that people who suffer won't suffer forever. But it makes it hard for me to find meaning now. Even though some people imagine it as a type of hell, I'd be very happy to find out that the universe just repeats itself exactly the same every time it ends, as then my experience and feelings and actions, and especially their impacts would have some permanence, and feel meaningful as I make them. In terms of what I want now, I guess it's to not feel like this. In terms of what I want for the rest of my life, I can't say. I want meaning I can build to that makes me happy, but it seems like meaning is hard to make while I keep assuming the material world is all there is.

And I guess even though it's hard for me to picture anything but the most abstract kind of God, I think magical thinking is to some degree required to function. I understand how neurons work and I get they're big enough that they behave as predictable machines governed by Newtonian physics. From that perspective, my will is only free in that nobody else can completely control my mind. But I behave as if I can think for myself rather than just acting out chemical impulses.

I think I will hold off on the LSD. My previous experience was very good, and I had a vision I found helpful with regards to my surgery anxieties, but it is a really big gamble given I'd just be doing it with a good friend who's not really a psychedelic guide.
posted by MuppetNavy at 6:22 AM on March 18 [3 favorites]


YMMV, but re-reading your question, given you asked for books, I thought it worth adding on the offchance that Little Gidding by T.S. Eliot, the last of his Four Quartets, was one of the main pieces of "reading in a different direction" that helped me turn my head around.
posted by protorp at 6:22 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]


What stands out to me reading what you've written is an overwhelming sense of loss -- the very recent death of your second-mom, the future end of the universe, the balls of yarn that went away to become your crocheted blanket, of the time-limited nature of your own lifespan. If you were my friend and we were talking, I would gently ask you if this is what your grieving process looks like. Did, perhaps, the loss of your second-mom trigger or amplify these thoughts?

I don't have any books to recommend but perhaps it would be helpful to read about the process of grief. If it feels OK to you and you want to engage with your therapist again, can you ask them to sit with you while you cry and really feel your sadness about your second-mom's death?

And, above all, please be as gentle and as loving with yourself as possible.
posted by mcduff at 6:36 AM on March 18 [5 favorites]


I started feeling like this about two months after she died. I couldn't go to her funeral and my mom tells me it was awful, because all the relatives there are deeply conservative Trump supporters. I'm not out to them and even when I offered to bind my chest and tie back my hair, my mom said it'd be a bad idea. She was probably right, but I loved her.

Reading the Ted Chiang story was definitely the trigger. Like, suddenly my feelings about my second mom went from "At least she's not in pain anymore" to what they are now, and my surgery feelings went from "what if it doesn't heal right or I lose sensation or can't have sex anymore?" to "What if the general anesthetic creates a disjoint consciousness and the me I know of is dead and some qualia doppelganger wakes up, since anesthetic creates a different state in the brain than sleep?" I also went down a rabbit hole of wondering whether the moments right before death matter more than any other moment.
posted by MuppetNavy at 6:48 AM on March 18


I recommend Carlos Castaneda's books.
He has fallen out of favor, but don't let that prevent you from giving his books a fair reading.
posted by JohnR at 6:57 AM on March 18


I have experienced what you describe, several times in my life, and there are periods when it is a low thrum permeating my days, never fully there, but never entirely gone.

One of my first memories is of being 4 or 5, walking hand in hand with my granddad past a big shop window, all empty and covered in dust, with just a couple of wooden dolls in one corner, an old man and an old woman holding hands, covered in the same layer of dust as the rest of the empty display. They looked melancholy, and I remember this pain tearing through me, through my chest and my tummy, it felt like it’s liquefying my innards.

My grandad never knew, he even had a poem he recited each time we passed the display that added to my feeling (I think it was the only poem he knew, he always said it in a proud voice that jarred with my feelings). I felt very lonely, not just personally, but like loneliness is the fate of the universe.

This was just the first of several such episodes, and it is during the last one, as an adult, that I find a way of dealing with it without at the very least contemplating harming myself to jump-start moving out of the feeling.

***

Existential crises are creatures of our thoughts. They have only as much power over us as we’re willing to allow them.

While this may be true, for me, in those states, it is an utterly irrelevant sort of truth. Whenever I spoke to others around me during those times, wht was on offer was some variation on this sentiment or (fewer instances), people trying to sell me on their own version of god. Personally, I didn’t find it helpful; in fact, it exacerbated the problem, since it only served to compound the loneliness of meaninglessness. It seems you’re getting similar reactions from people around you?

What ended up helping me – not in an overnight way, just slowly tilting the balance towards a new kind of existential flow – is an insight along the lines of what Obscure Reference describes above:

The solution contains your feeling of lack of solution. That is, you already have it but it's disguised as the problem you're trying to solve. You want the problem to go away when it's actually what you're looking for.

I’ve come to see this radical “unbearable uncertainty of being” as my kind of spirituality. Like you, I grew up Christian, kind of lost my faith and then had this process of loss of faith shaped by two consecutive boyfriends. Initially, this felt heady, and in itself meaning-giving (I think primarily because I was passionate about it and the avenues it opened). In time, atheism seemed less and less like a force of good (it doesn’t help that I grew up in an atheist dictatorship in which the faithful were routinely imprisoned, tortured, and murdered), it seemed as open to misogyny, homophobia, etc. as the religion I had been part of, and, philosophically, as full of … aporias, as it were, even if they were slightly better hidden from sight. It’s proponents seemed as wily at avoiding confronting contradictions as the most dogmatic of scholastics and utterly uninterested in engaging with their own assumptions.

In contrast to both, I realized that uncertainty is baked into how my mind works and how I engage with and behave in the world (I sometimes find it hilarious that I am a member of Metafilter, which bursts at the seams with certainties). I also think that there is no way anyone can have absolute certainty about, well, a lot of things, but certainly (!) not about this kind of question, to the point that uncertainty is my one certainty.

And this has been my saving. Not the INSIGHT of uncertainty, the intellectual realization thereof (though this has smoothed the way), but the EXPERIENCE of uncertainty, like (I think?) Obscure Reference mentions above. For myself, when I allow myself to FALL INTO the experience, there is almost sensual pleasure to be had (a weird kind of pleasure, like the kid of mind orgasm that you can experience listening to music or reading poetry – BTW re. protorp’s link to Eliot, he does the same for me at times as a gateway to that experience). A book that helped me take the step INTO the experience is How to be an Agnostic.

Every epiphany deserves cross-checking. The good ones will stand up to unlimited amounts of it. Understanding things requires persistent and rigorous effort.


This presupposes that epiphanies are propositional, like, if you were a good enough wordsmith, you could describe the content of that epiphany in words, exhaustively, and in a way that you can then check via rigorous effort; it also requires that they offer up a prepositional and exhaustive understanding of being. In my experience, this isn’t even remotely what they feel like (though I’ll have to add that my epiphanies have never come from substances – so maybe there is something quite different going on between various epiphanies). They also don’t feel emotional, they don’t feel intellectual, they don’t feel logical, and they certainly don’t feel total. They feel like a … feeling of complete rightness glimpsed from the corner of my eye. In keeping with my agnosticism, in terms of how they make me feel inside/ about myself, they feel like I am simultaneously huge, all-encompassing and a minuscule part of all there is (this smallness, however, is not the smallness of insignificance and humility, it is a smallness of rightness); I feel like I simultaneously understood everything and nothing whatsoever, and like I’m an unboundaried part of the universe/ everything AS WELL as like I’ve never been more vividly myself.

***

I have also found that I sometimes need to supplement these various insights by vigorously tending to my, shall I call it spark of life, will to live, joie de vivre – that thing that prevents you from just lying down to die, whatever you call it.

For me, this is particularly true when I either experience a longer period of personal troubles/ uncertainties or when the world at large does (as is currently happening all over the world). I’ll probably do it now, after having read the other answers you got here.

Tending to your vital spark (!?) can be done in many ways – the important thing is that it connects you in ways that feel ‘right’ (not just good – fundamentally right). For some people this connection is social (this one hardly ever works for me), for others it is via nature, sometimes it’s using your body, like, just walking and really attending to it, listening to music, etc, etc, etc, the list is endless. What really helps me is if I focus on a microscopic scale, since the woes you describe happen in view of the macroscopic (you wouldn’t have the same type of questions if you didn’t know that stuff beyond the here and now exists). I focus, say, on how bark on a tree feels if I touch it with the palmside of my fingers vs the tip, if I brush against it vs if I press my flesh into it, or I focus on how the sole of my feet feels as it stretches and bends with each step, or my lumbar region as I straighten and then flop, etc. Smells are good for me as well, particularly now that spring is here. This gives me the feeling of harmonious lived destiny with a lot of unknowns, which I am good with; in fact, it sets me free in ways I haven’t felt since I was a child.
posted by doggod at 7:21 AM on March 18 [7 favorites]


I think what bothers me deep down is the impermanence of people and experience.

That ceased to be bothersome for me once I had become quite convinced that (a) no part of reality whatsoever has actual permanence (b) even though that is so, beauty is still beauty and the pursuit of beauty is still worthwhile (c) the more skilled I can become at paying attention to the present moment, the more beauty I am likely to encounter and the less the impermanence of all things will be cause for grief.

And now all I can think about is that everyone there someday will lose all sensation or memory of themselves. I know some find comfort in that, especially from the economic justice standpoint, or the idea that people who suffer won't suffer forever.

I would probably get horribly bogged down and sad as well if I were to spend that much time in the future.

Your future as you now perceive it is limited by your own habits, experiences and imagination. Your past is limited by your own experiences and recall. Your present moment is limited only by the speed of light, the age of the universe and your capacity to pay attention to it; by comparison with the future and the past it is vast. If freedom from angst is to be found, it follows that the present moment is the appropriate place to look for it.

But it makes it hard for me to find meaning now.

That difficulty evaporated for me when I relaxed the constraint on the kind of meaning I was looking for. I gave up on trying to find a meaning for life-the-universe-and-everything after becoming convinced that meaning exists only inside my own mind, which is a place that's just not big enough for everything to fit inside. Instead, I concentrate on (a) not actually requiring that beauty has to have meaning in order to be both beautiful and worthwhile and (b) deliberately and judiciously limiting my search for meaning to those small aspects of being alive for which understanding their meaning actually helps.

I'd be very happy to find out that the universe just repeats itself exactly the same every time it ends, as then my experience and feelings and actions, and especially their impacts would have some permanence, and feel meaningful as I make them.

It's pretty easy to convince yourself that this is in fact the case, if you want to do that. The M. Night Shyalaman twist is, of course, that if the do-over is indistinguishable in every respect from the do-first, then if what you're actually looking for from a repeating-universe model is a feeling of permanence you won't get it. If the universe is endlessly and exactly repeating then the next round does not in any useful sense follow the present round, it is the present round, and every observation about impermanence remains exactly as correct as always.

The flip side of that twist is that everything that has been will always have been whether anybody remembers it or not or even whether anybody even noticed it or not; and everything that actually will happen was always going to happen whether anybody predicted it or even cared about it or not; and you can fairly easily come around to thinking of this as a kind of permanence that doesn't rely in the slightest in whether the universe is endlessly repeating or endlessly different or a one-shot. Que sera sera is an idea worth ruminating on.

In terms of what I want now, I guess it's to not feel like this. In terms of what I want for the rest of my life, I can't say.

Wanting not to feel like how you feel right now is perfectly understandable given that you're having a foul time of it right now, but unfortunately it is not a thing that it is possible to do. We all of us feel how we feel right now and there is not anything at all that can be done about that.

What we can do is notice what we're thinking right now, and analyze how what we're thinking right now is connected to what we're feeling right now, and learn to recognize and interrupt patterns of thought that we have come to recognize as having a track record of leaving us feeling worse than we started off. The most difficult part of this is the noticing part, because strong feelings are such a compelling distraction from that noticing. This is why insight meditation is such a useful skill-building practice.

The other thing we can do, which is complementary to the first thing, is to understand that we are not built as thinking creatures who feel; from a brain architecture point of view we are feeling creatures who think. Understanding this properly will result in giving ourselves permission to feel whatever it is that we feel without beating ourselves up for having those feelings or impotently trying to wish them away tra la la we can't hear you and this, in turn, will make feeling awful things no more awful and no more lengthy than it absolutely needs to be.

I firmly believe that this second thing is the most important part to hold onto while grieving. Grief is really complicated, and it comes with all kinds of thoughts, and many of those thoughts release floods and torrents of feeling. This is inconvenient as all hell, so it's really tempting to try to shut grieving thoughts down by desperately seeking distractions from them like rumination and philosophy. But until they've been worked through and dealt with the bastards will just keep coming back, and they will keep bringing their associated feelings back with them.

Better, it seems to me, to make time to grieve and go regularly to sit somewhere private, preferably outdoors with trees or ocean or both, and just do nothing but grieve. Grieving is a bodily need as much as eating and shitting are. We don't try to not eat or not shit for months on end for no better reason than that doing so is inconvenient, and I don't think we should give grieving any less respect than either of those.

I want meaning I can build to that makes me happy, but it seems like meaning is hard to make while I keep assuming the material world is all there is.

I recommend de-prioritizing the meaning and aiming straight for the happiness. It's completely feasible to have either without the other, and you can't really get happiness wrong. About the only error it's possible to make with respect to happiness is to believe that it ought to be permanent. Live well, be kind, seek beauty, and let happiness and wonder and grief and loss and understanding come when it's their time.

Best of luck for the surgery. I hope it goes well and helps get you to where you need to be.
posted by flabdablet at 7:30 AM on March 18 [7 favorites]


I'm sorry that you're going through this. I tend toward anxiety, and periodically question what the point of things is and sometimes it's easier to put things in context than others.

I also tend toward analytical thinking. In undergrad, I was assigned reading the Tao Te Ching (specifically the Stephen Mitchell translation with the brown-pink cover) and that has helped me to regain my sense of equilibrium on multiple occasions. Akin to the suggestions above about Buddhism and meditating, reading passages serves as a reminder that my pain is coming from my tension, my fight against what is. By remembering to do and let go of wanting to control of what happens, I can continue to do and be all of the range of human emotions instead of trapping myself in the one.
posted by past unusual at 7:42 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]


This presupposes that epiphanies are propositional, like, if you were a good enough wordsmith, you could describe the content of that epiphany in words, exhaustively, and in a way that you can then check via rigorous effort

It suffices to check whether parts of what has forcefully revealed itself as incontrovertibly true can be put into words and if so, whether anything in those words is demonstrably untrue and/or incoherent and/or nonsensical.

The fundamental experience of epiphany is indeed wordless and incomparably beautiful and fully worthwhile in and of itself, and I am nothing but glad for every single one of mine. But there's a genuine risk that a pack of useless nonsense that can indeed be put into words will get tangled up in and attached to the experience of epiphany and it's that nonsense, not the experience itself, that it's more than helpful to peel away and discard from such memory of it as one might be lucky enough to retain.

It seems to me that it's a failure to do that peeling-away - that process of teasing apart truth from beauty - that ends up at Time Cube and the physics of circlons and, perhaps less obviously, some of the traditional religious beliefs about the nature of the divine.
posted by flabdablet at 8:01 AM on March 18


My take on the whole issue of death vs. deep-time meaning is a bit different. I benefit from and am witness to multiple forms of multi-generational abuse. In the long game, the experiences of my grandmother (top on my mind) as survivor and perpetrator of abuse is fuel for my community action, and hopefully will be rendered unrecognizable as Maya does what Maya does, it transforms. That's comforting for me. My purpose right now in the universe game is to nudge that into a less painful direction rather than continue that cycle. It doesn't make sense to me that while my grandmother's physical body is transforming into dust, fungi, and prokaryota that her hot mess of love, fear, longing, and spite is eternal and beyond transformation.

The liberation of all things isn't just an eschatological description of billions of years from now, it's a call to action for the things living now.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 9:04 AM on March 18 [6 favorites]


I appreciate the remarks that I should live in the moment. I will look into meditation. I've tried prayer, just in case something happens. What I miss most is that this dread has replaced boredom, which I'm realizing is a mood that really helps me plan my day and live my best life. Like I said above, it's hard for me to concentrate on work, have sex, enjoy food. And often, that desire comes from boredom.
posted by MuppetNavy at 9:35 AM on March 18


Good things don't disappear after death. Your blanket will warm someone for many years. The pleasure it gives will ease that person, help them to rest and gain the energy to be kind, to do their work and affect other lives around them in positive ways. The people they treat well will in turn spread their own kindness and energy.
This that I read long ago has stuck with me, though I'm not religious -
Only God can give us credit for harsh words unspoken, temptations resisted, the patience and gentleness little noticed and long forgotten by those around us. God knows our wounds and sorrows, the scars on our hearts from wanting to do more and do better.
The good we do lives on, whether we know it or not.
You may find some positivity to help you on the Pronoia site.
posted by Enid Lareg at 11:05 AM on March 18


What I miss most is that this dread has replaced boredom, which I'm realizing is a mood that really helps me plan my day and live my best life.

There's a shortcut you might be able to use, then! Try to convince yourself that existential dread is first and foremost just tedious.
posted by flabdablet at 11:09 AM on March 18 [2 favorites]


If it helps, picture Jean-Paul Sartre turning up in your kitchen and insisting on explaining the inevitability of existential nausea to you while filling your house with the stench of all of yesterday's Gitanes.
posted by flabdablet at 11:13 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]


And I agree with you that boredom is criminally underrated.
posted by flabdablet at 11:16 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]


Just a minute, HOLD THE PHONE.

You had a very significant relationship with a "second mother" because your actual mother told you your second mother couldn't handle an essential truth about your nature and existence. And this same mother told you you shouldn't attend your second mother's funeral because your very nature and existence would upset biased and stupid people?

I realize this is a bit off your question but you are questioning the permanence of people and relationships and even yourself...do you not think that perhaps this is because your mother, who is supposed to be (culturally) the person most invested in your being brought into existence and continued glorious life being you in all that joy and connection with others...has been treating something essential about you like a dirty secret?

And that interfered with your key relationship with someone who is now dead?

I don't think this is an existential crisis, I think it's a grief and parent crisis.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:26 AM on March 18 [2 favorites]


I try not to see it that way. But it's an undercurrent, yes.

Also, I'm scared about my surgery. I don't know if it's a source of this dread, or if the dread is a threat to my recovery.

For clarification, I'm getting vaginoplasty. It's not a trivial surgery. My new vagina will hurt badly for the first month or so. There will be discharge requiring me to wear pads and put leakproof pads on my bedding. I will need to dilate it with a medical dildo for 30 minutes four times a day. Even if it looks good (my surgeon's website has some nice before and after pics), it'll probably be upsetting to look at while it's healing. I need to send my nonrefundable deposit really soon. I wish I knew what nonsense my brain was up to. If I delay this surgery, I'll have a lot to explain to my mom and coworkers and a bunch of stuff I've ordered and reserved including hotel rooms and a recovery bed and breakfast. I have no idea how much I can get refunded.

I've wanted different genitals to some degree since I was 13. But I'm scared I'm not strong enough and I hate that my brain just so happened to see our universe in a terrifying way at the worst time.
posted by MuppetNavy at 11:38 AM on March 18


To clarify, my second mom was my second mom in that she helped take care of me and my sister for really long stretches of time right after my father died and my mother was grieving. But she kept coming back, even after my mom was doing better. She really cared about me and my sister, and we weren't normal or easy kids. My sister is autistic and I was always prone to depression. She was so very good. She would have understood but I imagine she'd be scared for me. The biggest irony is that being denied to her funeral is the most direct transphobia I've ever experienced. Nobody ever shouted me out of a bathroom. A creep followed me and said threatening things only once. I've only been maliciously sirred maybe less than 10 times. For a trans woman, especially a trans woman who transitioned after the earliest parts of adulthood, I'm super lucky. But still, it distanced me from her while she was alive and denied me the ritual to say goodbye. And when I told my mom that I'm having trouble with grief, she said that I shouldn't be too sad because she must really be loving heaven. And I came out to her as an agnostic, lamenting that I can't just believe.

I cried the hardest I ever have as an adult typing that. Thank you everyone for the help. I don't think this is resolved but I have some catharsis.
posted by MuppetNavy at 12:15 PM on March 18 [6 favorites]


There's a large carton of internet hugs on offer over here if you'd care to avail yourself of a few.
posted by flabdablet at 12:30 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]


I'm really sorry you're going through this. You're clearly an intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive person who doesn't deserve these feelings of dread and anxiety. As you and others have noted, it seems pretty likely that what you're feeling is a confluence of many factors. Your grief enhances your stress, your stress enhances your anxiety, your upcoming surgery enhances your anxiety, your anxiety enhances your existential dread, your existential dread enhances your stress and anxiety. It's a terrible feedback cycle to be caught in.

I believe that as you have time to process your grief, and as you confront and make it through this major life event that is upcoming for you with your surgery, the material facts of your life will get better and make it easier for you to develop a healthier outlook on the things that currently give you a feeling of dread. However, I think it's important to recognize that the feelings you have are valid, no matter their source. In my opinion, there's nothing fundamentally irrational about reacting to the knowledge of a finite universe with dread. But neither is there anything particularly more rational about that than reacting with a sense of mystical awe. These are both valid reactions to the circumstance of existence. Accepting that these are both logically valid means on the one hand, you don't need to punish yourself for currently feeling the former, while on the other hand, you can recognize the possibility of accepting the latter instead.

I have no idea what will work for you to help you process this, but I can offer an alternative perspectives on the nature of time that may help you reinterpret your feelings about the finite nature of existence in a different way. This will certainly not help with any of the other significant life stressors you're facing, and it may not help with your more abstract existential crisis, but I offer it in the hope that it might do some good.

In modern relativity, there is a concept called the worldline, the geometric shape that an object occupies in a spacetime graph. As (proper) time proceeds, we can point to a particular point along the worldline as being "where" the object is, but in fact a complete description of the object requires the entire worldline. Imagine a system of multiple interacting objects, and you can imagine them as a series of worldlines, braided and bouncing around each other. The universe, and everything in it, is then a fantastically complex geometrical structure of worldlines bent around each other according to physical laws. Time is simply one aspect of the shape of the universe, one that we experience only locally as part of the shape of our own personal braid of being.

The future that science predicts is just the shape of the universe in spacetime in a region far distant from our own. Our experience of the passage of time is of one of change, ephemerality, but this is because we are creatures embedded within the structure of the universe itself. In the temporal sense we experience, yes, the past is gone, and the future is inevitable. But in the larger sense of the existence of the universe, the past, the present, and the future are all part of a single unified whole, which is, quite literally, timeless. Everyone who has ever lived, and who will ever live, remain bound together in that eternal geometry.

I don't know if this perspective will help you. It helps me, so I offer it in hopes it will give you some comfort. My condolences for your loss, and my best wishes for your upcoming surgery. I think you'll find you're stronger than you think.
posted by biogeo at 12:43 PM on March 18 [7 favorites]


If you find that the perspective offered by biogeo is at all interesting or helpful and you'd like some fiction to go along with your philosophy, check out Alan Moore's Jerusalem. It's a novel that explores the implications of that idea, and he wrote it pretty explicitly to provide comfort for someone who feels the way you do. I found it useful.
posted by Ragged Richard at 2:21 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure if I can offer anything comforting about what happens after the end of a person's life, since that's a mystery and not one I'm fully comfortable with either, but maybe I can maybe help with the idea that the universe is "impermanent."

The way I understand it, physicists don't see the universe itself as experiencing time; moving through events sequentially is a purely conscious phenomenon. I believe the current thinking on the nature of the universe is that it's more like an object, and all of the events that happened or will happen in it are qualities of that object. So the "beginning" and "end" of the universe are sort of like the "beginning" and "end" of a tape measure. You COULD start at one inch and count down to the end, but the first inch will still be where you left it even while you're focusing on the second or the third inch. Because we're conscious, we have this incredibly weird and specific experience of moving a little camera of awareness over a tiny slice of those events in a single location, as if they stopped existing when we stopped looking at them. But that's just our perspective. The things that happen will always exist; it's just our ability to look at them that's conditional and limited and shrouded in various mysteries. So I think it is less like the universe is urgently ticking away and will one day be over, and more like it's an enormous thing that we have a limited capacity to explore through a lens we experience as time.
posted by space snail at 2:48 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]


I felt better after the cry, but I'm feeling the dread flood back in. I took a personal day from work and I've been trying to work from home but it's a real struggle to concentrate at all. I have to do tricky debugging work today. I'm glad my coworkers didn't see me ugly cry, at least.

I don't get how I was okay for so long and then started thriving even with the same concept of death. Maybe time didn't feel real or I had a protective shade of dissociative gender disorder to save me from these feelings. I really wish I could just believe in the same God my mother believes in.

Space Snail, I find that interesting but I'm not sure if I get if it's a literal argument or just a model? Doesn't entropy and time's arrow essentially mean a moment doesn't happen twice?
posted by MuppetNavy at 2:56 PM on March 18


I think the idea is that there's still a finite set of events where the "after" ones are dependent on the "before" ones, but it's less like the universe itself has a "now" that it is experiencing along with us and more like the universe has an existence independent of our consciousnesses, as a sort of flipbook containing those frames.

As to whether it's real or a model, I'm not sure, but I feel like it's rational to believe that if space and time are interconnected, then the past is still SOMEWHERE, even if it's not in a place that conscious beings can directly re-experience unless our mental lives turn out to be on loop.
posted by space snail at 3:50 PM on March 18


If I delay this surgery, I'll have a lot to explain to my mom and coworkers and a bunch of stuff I've ordered and reserved including hotel rooms and a recovery bed and breakfast. I have no idea how much I can get refunded.

Oh sweetheart, maybe this is not a good time for your surgery. This sounds like super duper serious surgery that you should absolutely have when you are ready to have it. Maybe now is not the time. You don't actually owe anyone an explanation. Not your mom. Not your coworkers. Not your therapist. Not your doctor. You are the boss of you. Should you decide to reschedule and should that be possible, you can simply tell people it turned out to be a bad time for surgery–or tell them you prefer not to discuss it and then don't.

Articles about stress always list a bunch of things that are super stressful. At or near the top is the death of a loved one. Major surgery is another. You have a lot going on. Maybe the best way to take care of yourself, at this moment, is to postpone the surgery so you can take care of yourself now in a way that will allow you to accumulate greater emotional resources. Those resources that may let you recuperate after the future surgery with greater energy, more self-love, less grief.

Life happens and things change. It is okay to make different arrangements if you can afford to and if you need to do that to take care of yourself. Maybe that isn't practical but postponement might be worth exploring since you are in such a dark place at the moment. This is just one thought. Sometimes I forget I am allowed to change my mind. So are you.

Also, I asked about how to find meaning a while back. Some of the answers might interest you. Since I was about 10, it has made me sad that people die and never come back (as far as I can tell). I am not anti-religion nor spirituality, those things just don't work for me. But if they end up working for you, that would be awesome. I am so sorry that your life is so hard right now.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:22 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]


Bella Donna, I will consider that. I was partly freaked out by a Facebook post from a trans woman in my support group who was struggling with pain, as well as dysphoria from her eating disorder and the high calorie post op diet.

I won't decide tonight, but I'll give myself permission to consider it.
posted by MuppetNavy at 6:08 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]


> Truthfully, I'm not sure more reading is the best path to take

I haven't seen anyone suggest reading something that doesn't address the big questions. When I'm in my own head too much, I turn to realism. Stories about regular people living their lives with its everyday pain & joy calms me the fuck down & helps me feel less alienated from society. Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue, Jonathan Lethem's The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Pynchon's "easy" books Inherent Vice and Vineland.
posted by ASCII Costanza head at 8:24 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]


I find that interesting but I'm not sure if I get if it's a literal argument or just a model?

Be very cautious with words like "just" and "mere". They punch well above their weight.

Any attempt by any human being to come to some kind of conceptual understanding of the nature of all that is must necessarily involve making some kind of model, because that's what understanding is. All of us run multiple different kinds of model at the same time. Cognitive dissonance is what happens when our models result in conflicting or incompatible predictions and it becomes hard to know which to use for what.

I'm very fond of the block universe model that biogeo and space snail have outlined above, and I find that it is a useful counter to existential dread and a helpful aid to regaining a sense of perspective in times of stress. But it really is difficult to reconcile that model with the direct experience of being in time; there's an unavoidable tension between the personal experience of motion and change and the way the block universe model embraces, extends and extinguishes the entire notion of both.

I think each of us has got a default and not particularly closely examined worldview that we kind of grow organically as we live, and that we display a strong tendency to behave as if that default worldview is reality in some way that deliberately constructed models like the block universe could not possibly be. But I've had a lot of value over the years from deliberately cultivating the position that my own worldview is indeed nothing more than (as opposed to "merely") a working collection of models, none of which can in and of itself of represent more than a very limited collection of truths about a reality that surpasses all attempts to capture it and remains fully capable of providing an unending supply of astonishment and wonder.

As I see it, no model of reality could ever capture the whole thing in all its grandeur; there simply isn't room inside the human skull for that, what with any given human skull being such an unimaginably tiny part of all that is and was and will be.

This approach considerably reduces the cognitive dissonance I experience when attempting to wedge motion and change into a block universe worldview that transcends both. The block universe model is simply not a useful one to employ when answering questions about motion and change. It is a useful one to employ when thinking about reality as a whole rather than about any particular detail of it; there's a comforting chunky stability to the thing that's missing from more elaborate variants like the growing block universe or flat denials like presentism. Using a model that doesn't cause cognitive dissonance when it bumps against General Relativity is good as well.

The idea that one's own default worldview doesn't deserve special conceptual privileges simply because it is the default, plus the parable of the blind men and the elephant for dealing with furious arguments about which kind of ontology is actually correct, go a long way toward being able to approach the project of being alive with an appropriate degree of equanimity.

Doesn't entropy and time's arrow essentially mean a moment doesn't happen twice?

Moments not happening twice is completely compatible with the block universe model if one takes the view that one's own progress through the block is willy-nilly and one-way and that worldlines for entities capable of conscious experience contain no loops.
posted by flabdablet at 9:40 PM on March 18 [5 favorites]


I just want to reiterate my earlier comment that what you're going through sounds like a psychological crisis that calls for a therapist and/or psychiatrist at least as much as Internet philosophers. I don't mean this dismissively. You just have a lot going on in your life, very real and important things, and those can have an impact on your mental health. In my opinion, any day someone stays home from work so their coworkers don't see them cry is also a day when they should call their therapist for an emergency appointment. I hope you're reaching out for support from people like this IRL.
posted by salvia at 9:57 PM on March 19 [3 favorites]


I'm doing much better today. I'm keeping in touch with my therapist. And I'm talking to friends, going to support group. I've been reading Man's Search for Meaning and I'm working to adopt the axiom that if something happened, it matters. I also started playing video games instead of abusing weed, which seems to be really good for getting unstuck.
posted by MuppetNavy at 1:32 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


Have you read about stoicism? It is coming at life from the opposite direction in a way, but the practice of focusing on what you can control could maybe be helpful.

I personally find getting out into nature to be rejuvenating. I am reminded that while humans suck (my personal sticking issue), life will continue to go on, with or without us.

And yes video games can be really helpful -- they are great for getting one to focus on the present. Seek out those sorts of activities (this is one thing that nature does for me. ooh, look at this interesting looking leaf. what is that bug? I wonder what that bird is saying. etc).
posted by evening at 5:25 PM on March 20


Hey, just wanted to say that I've been checking back here over the past few days, partly due to my wanting to digest the wealth of great information others have posted, but also due to concern. You have been often in my thoughts since I first read this thread, so it's great to read your latest and hear that there's been at least a positive day swing around. I hope they keep coming like this for you more often, as often as possible.
posted by protorp at 3:22 AM on March 21


It's still not perfect. Last night had some difficult moments. But I made the most of the evening and tried to focus on doing some things I enjoy on top of the routine. I bought a slice of this crazy chocolate crepe and sour cream filling cake from a Russian bakery I almost never go to, I cleaned the kitchen floor, I took out the recycling, I sat around for two hours applying a beauty treatment (Baby Foot, it's a weird chemical foot peel). I think it helps to live my life a bit to remind me why it's good to engage in life itself rather than ruminate about what's beyond it. And I also remembered how much I really like photography and treasure photographic history, and how that's a really satisfying artform given my current anxiety. It's about making permanence out of bouncing beams of light, something so common and ephemeral made meaningful. I'm thinking I might take some old rolls of film I've been sitting on for about a year and a half to one of the last photolabs in my city to get developed.

I also came up with a nice little daydream, imagining the last "day" of the universe, in a deep future where all that's left are a bunch of advanced intelligences living off the waste radiation of black holes and iron stars, ticking off their tiniest bits of experience dozens of years at a time as they run out of energy, recognizing the end is near. And imagining that these networked minds throw a party, to celebrate the miracle of existence and remember all those who existed before them.

I started reading Advice Not Given last night, and talked with some trans friends about my surgery. One good friend suggested that if anything, my fear of oblivion means I'm in a good place to endure pain, which might be specious logic but she's generally pretty wise.

Stoicism's always kind of been weird to me as someone with casual knowledge and as a person who really treasures meaning. I value the idea of shifting focus to what can be changed, but it also kind of worries me with regards to what that means for dramatic political action when our society tells us all we're quite limited individuals. And to be honest, the bit about grieving your wife the same way you'd grieve losing a cup pissed me off when I first read it, but I recognize that's taking a small piece of a work to condemn the whole thing. I guess like all philosophies, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I'll give it more attention!
posted by MuppetNavy at 7:01 AM on March 21 [2 favorites]


All this intellectualization that we do! And we're surprised that it doesn't work, or has big holes in it.

"I'm scared I'm not strong enough and I hate that my brain just so happened to see our universe in a terrifying way at the worst time."

It's not your brain that saw the universe this way -- it's YOU. (who? -- exactly). And just happened to NOW? WHUT?

I see one level as the specific grief level -- grief about the "second mother" but also grief about the surgery. As much as you want the new genitals, you are being messed around with in your most sensitive area! (well except for your feelings, that is). In that way I agree with your therapist. I don't think she's trivializing your existential crisis by stressing that your actual body is about to undergo some serious messing-around-with.

But then -- on another, deeper level -- the one that appeared in college. If I were your therapist, which I'm obviously not, I'd want to know a LOT more about your relationships, and not just with your mother(s). You talk about how sex isn't enjoyable, but you talk about sex as if you're having it with yourself (is that what you mean? I don't think so).

We have an invisible partner here, or partners. Are your relationships mostly invisible, in some sense? (you also talk about yourself in regard to that online group you're in in a way that makes you seem a bit "less than" the others (am I wrong here?) But then, later on, actual "friends" appear that you're talking to (GOOD!)

You pretty casually state way back that you've been diagnosed with something on the autism spectrum (you also say that your sister is diagnosed with autism so I'm a little confused here). You know that autism is primarily a disorder of relationship to others, right?

All this talk about the future dissolution we're all going to experience, with loss of consciousness -- yes, all in the FUTURE.

Donald Winnicott (famous psychoanalyst) said (famous quote alert): "Tell me what you fear and I will tell you what has happened to you."

So -- what happened to you that makes you fear for your life so frequently and intensely, even when you're NOT about to have life-changing surgery?

I think maybe you need to sit and feel stuff that is NOT about the future. Who knows what's going to happen in the future? When you compare these theories, it's as if you're saying, "hm, if I pick this one, then THIS will happen in the future, whereas if I pick that one, then this OTHER thing will happen in the future"! as if it's a menu you get to choose from.

You don't know what's going to happen in the future in any grand sense (really; I love science but still -- from the standpoint of consciousness, NOBODY KNOWS.)

What you might WANT to know more about, though, is YOU. What happened, what you were afraid of, what fears came to pass, what fears did not, where you're at now.

I think all this existential stuff is at best a metaphor and at worst a smokescreen. If we want to be Buddhist about it (and perhaps we do!), it's just more EGO yammering away at you. The Buddhists, though, aren't all that concerned with the CONTENT of the yammering, so when you get into their books, it becomes more about, "Here's why all that yammering is driving your crazy, so STOP, be here now, repeat a meaningless mantra instead, follow your breath, it's not all that complicated, etc."

The psychoanalysts say, "yeah, it's ego, but we CARE what you're a wreck ABOUT. So tell us some CONTENT and we'll analyze it."

Both approaches can be helpful! but the important part of BOTH is AWARENESS of what you're really going through, and, I repeat, I think the very rarified, philosophical stuff you get into is NOT REALLY WHAT IT'S ABOUT. I don't know you, but what I think it's about is probably an extreme sense of alienation and aloneness (which is different from loneliness, but maybe you're feeling a whole bunch of that too.) (Free-associating on the subject of your surgery, I just had a memory of when my son, who was about 10 or 11, was having some not-life-threatening surgery as well, and we went to the hospital with him, and he put on the blue "gown" and the cap on his head and the paper booties, and the nurse said good-bye to him and held his hand and they walked away from us into the operating area where parents couldn't go, and I had the most horrible feeling, a feeling I'd never before had in my life, which was something like, "OH MY GOD. For all that we do for him, take care of him, and adore him, he is ALONE now, we are giving him to STRANGERS to CUT him and we have to TRUST that he's going to come back conscious and in one piece" (note: he did). A feeling that he, like everybody else, is ALONE.

THIS, this aloneness, is what I get from you the most as you post your responses. There is some way in which, mother notwithstanding, friends notwithstanding, you must feel very very alone in the world, and THAT is what this fear of losing consciousness is all about. That, ultimately, there is nobody really there. Maybe I'm full of shit? I dunno.

I wonder if there is anyone you can tell that you are SCARED SHITLESS about your surgery and about your LIFE. And maybe cry about it. (I think a lot of anxiety is about holding in stuff that really wants to just burst out in despair and heartbreak.) You've started to do this HERE and I"m glad. Can you do this with your mother or must you protect her from your feelings? (as you had to protect the Trump supporters from your gender identification)

Can you freak out with/to your friends?

Obscure Reference said the answer is ultimately love, and I agree with him, and I think maybe what he meant was not some abstract love, but somebody you can hug and squeeze and sob to, and feel that they really really get it and feel for you.

I don't know you but I really DO feel for you and, reading all these posts, I think there are a lot of us who do. I think you must have gone through a LOT in your life, and it hurt and it still hurts. I really do wish you the best.

One more thing: I wouldn't toss out your therapist (people on MetaFilter have a having of telling people to fire their therapists if their therapists aren't acting precisely in the ways that we want them to act). I get the feeling that you have a connection to your therapist. I would suggest that you try to feel stuff in her presence as much as you can. It doesn't sound so terribly reductionistic to me that she's telling you, "well jesus! of course you're terrified with this surgery coming up!" -- although we now that's not the whole story.

TL;DR I guess.
posted by DMelanogaster at 3:43 PM on March 23


I also came up with a nice little daydream, imagining the last "day" of the universe, in a deep future where all that's left are a bunch of advanced intelligences living off the waste radiation of black holes and iron stars, ticking off their tiniest bits of experience dozens of years at a time as they run out of energy, recognizing the end is near. And imagining that these networked minds throw a party, to celebrate the miracle of existence and remember all those who existed before them.
I love this! Thank you for sharing it.
posted by inexorably_forward at 3:38 AM on March 24


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