mental health

Another Elegy

Potential feels by definition to be an absence, paradoxically substantial and fathomless. How can the promise of something that hasn’t even manifested be so weighty? It’s living with something alive inside you that’s buried and gasping to see the light.

What happens to a dream deferred?

     Does it dry up

     like a raisin in the sun?

     Or fester like a sore—

     And then run?

     Does it stink like rotten meat?

     Or crust and sugar over—

     like a syrupy sweet?


     Maybe it just sags

     like a heavy load.


Or does it explode?

                        —Langston Hughes, “Harlem”

Loss of potential is my biggest fear. I’m a white 90s kid—born special, with a sense that I had something so unique to offer the world that I would probably change it forever. I was born with a universe of gifts, and one by one, unexplored and unused, they’ve atrophied, synapses efficiently pruned.

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I’m the child of a man who probably thought of himself a poet—a poet who never wrote any poetry that he shared with the world, or with me. What does it mean to be poetical? Beauty, depth, eternity all seem to be implied. I have a vague sense that he believed he was a poet, that his life was poetry. Overall, a pretty adaptive way to frame one’s experiences. Profundity is ascribed to errors and false starts, without the painful, boring, frustrating process of rewriting and polishing. One can stand stolidly behind all of the poor choices. Everything becomes tragically beautiful, and seems to gesture toward something profound and permanent.

I hate that I see Profound Tragedy in his life. It seems unfair that I can still be seduced into romanticizing his failures while being crushed by the existential responsibility, the horror of knowing that I am only what I do. There is no cosmic or earthly reward to myself or anyone else for good intentions, no punishments for my neurotic failures. My values are my actions; my actions are my values.


I’m haunted by a sense that like me, he probably felt he was special. I certainly thought of him and think of him that way. He was extra sensitive, too sensitive for this world: “too weird to live, too rare to die” (Hunter S. Thompson). Like me, he dreamed of a Waldenesque existence, transcendent of the mundane rituals of capitalism and mass culture. Yet his failure to commit fully either to the quotidian necessities of our lives, or the quixotic habits he idolized, was his life’s great tragedy. This romantic intuition that it was his sensitivity and vulnerability that rendered him impotent is absurd and self-defeating.

My dad was never a person to me; he only ever lived in my imagination. And now he lives on in my worst fears, my self-destructive thoughts and actions, and the great sense that I have so much to give. The simultaneous knowledge that even those poets who give us so much can never give us enough. “Enough” is a word like “potential”—defined by promise that, as soon as it is realized, is revealed to be immaterial and inadequate. The people who accomplished the artistic feats that most haunt my psyche are still gone, and even mostly forgotten. Sylvia Plath captures my current angst completely, and I will let her have the last word:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

The Free Association Scrambled Egg Solution!

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Meme by the author; Photo by Andrea Tummons on Unsplash

Dread going to work? Money problems keeping you awake at night? Turning to booze and junk food to ease the “barely there” knowledge of your own mortality? Here’s a fun exercise to tamp down the existential dread of daily life!


If you’re like me, some days your brain feels like scrambled eggs. Oddly colored, unappetizing—eggs run into cheese run into butter, each indiscernible from the next, and mushy.


If you’re like me, sometimes lists help. And not the get-organized, To Do kind of lists. My day is full of those, as I’m sure yours is, and they only seem to make my egg-brains more scrambled. That’s why free association lists are the best kind. Here is my list of words that, when I paused for a moment, I found swinging on the braches in my head:








Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash



Well, maybe that was cathartic enough in itself. Make your list, pat yourself on the back (go on, do it!), and turn on the TV (that seductive siren of sedating solace, O Holy, Soporific Sanctuary!)




Distract your brain by letting it chew on itself, like an anxious dog licking its own tail raw!


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Photo: Alphonse Mucha, 1902, Courtesy of the Dhawan Collection


INSPIRED – This seems like a weird word to be bopping around my brain chambers today. It’s such a hopeful, idealistic word. When did I last feel inspired? Maybe at an art museum recently, seeing IRL posters by Alphonse Mucha.

It inspired me to pine for a tattoo I can’t afford (

Feeling inspired is something I long for, something that, when I look right at it, I see is mostly missing from my daily life. The more I think about it, the more I feel like I don’t even know what the word means. To me it seems to imply action, production. Perhaps this is why this word was so quickly followed by…



HAUNTED – Again, I had no idea this word was on my mind. It feels like a counterpoint to Inspired. Routine, boredom, repetition, isolation, all rattling around this human body and mind that seem built to experience life and be inspired. I guess I can see how that might make one feel haunted.

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A deliciously histrionic Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

The list seems to degenerate from there into adjectives to describe my feelings about my job. Always good to be reminded that anxiety about my job isn’t just intruding on my unconscious every night in my dreams, but also in my subconscious waking mind, always right below the surface.

The Free Association Scrambled Egg Solution! Patent Pending.

Hammer Meet Nail


Photo by the author; line drawing by J.C. Barberis

Today was my fourth session with a new therapist. Mostly I told her about my job and what I don’t like about it. She wanted to talk about the origin of my feelings of anger toward my boss and the insecurities I feel at work. What is the original experience being triggered when seemingly unbearable feelings of vulnerability and humiliation arise in relation to a capricious superior? I’m an adult child of an alcoholic. I know the origin of these feelings.

There’s a line in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt spoken by Tina Fey’s character, a psychiatrist talking about her own alcoholism, to the effect that, “It’s called compartmentalizing, and it’s not a problem, because I know the words to describe it.” I know many big words to describe my mental experiences, patterns, and hang-ups. Few or none of these words have been helpful in claiming my agency and accountability as a whole person.

In my experience, there are definite limits to the usefulness of psychodynamic talk therapy. I know that I get homicidal and hopeless when my boss speaks to me a certain way because my father installed the buttons being pushed. Knowing this does not help me. Rehashing the origins of these feelings does not alleviate them. Sinking back into emotions I felt as a child does not temper or help me manage these same emotions when they turn up uninvited in the present.

I’m a defender of Freud. I have a portrait of him in my home. What I’ve read of his work I’ve found fascinating. But there’s a reason he’s taken more seriously by literary critics than modern psychologists. He is super interested in the formation of our psychic landscapes. In my understanding, his approach to therapy is about uncovering the impulses we unconsciously abide by, and understanding the connections between our past and present experiences. The case studies I’ve read feel novelistic—more voyeuristic than empathetic or hopeful.

Today, psychodynamic therapists revive his theories and excise his name; the intent is to resolve internal conflicts by identifying underlying tensions or conflicting impulses. I worked with a psychodynamic therapist for two years at one time, and rarely found hope there. Revisiting that approach today left me feeling violated. I can see how this approach could be helpful to someone who has spent minimal time exploring their mind and motives. But for me, someone struggling with daily hopelessness, thoughts of suicide, a decade plus of therapy under my belt, and barely going through the motions of daily life, asking, “What is the origin of these feelings?” seems about as helpful as asking someone with a severe gunshot wound, “Why do you think he shot you?”

I can’t afford to quit this therapist. I need to keep my job, I need to keep my sanity. I need a sounding board and I need to feel some sense of hope. I will have to tell this new therapist how looking for answers in the past feels for me.

It’s hard to ask for what I want in therapy. Not because I’m afraid to speak up, but because I feel sure the therapist won’t be able to provide it. It’s like asking your lover what you want in bed. It can be sexy and exciting if you feel confident they are able and willing to meet your needs. But you never want to say, “Could you just be 6 inches taller and make me love you again?”


Photo by Adam Sherez on Unsplash

Therapists are only human, and if they have a hammer, you better pray you’re a nail. But if, like me, you’re a screw, it’s easy to feel screwed. What am I looking for in therapy? From a therapist? I have had one categorically great experience in therapy, and I want to feel gratitude for that. But with the loss of that therapist still fresh, what made that experience so productive now feels indefinable, elusive, and the memory of it seems to fade daily. I have to remind myself that I have the tools I need, and more than anything, my challenge is to feel confident enough to use them.