Here’s What Happens on a Shitty Day

This is a story we all know, about a bad day.

Yesterday the podcast in our ears was engrossing, our train wasn’t too crowded, and our heads were full of lovely weekend plans. All our troubles were so far away.

Today we feel like a patch of cold dirt that never should’ve peeked out from under the covers. We didn’t wake up on the wrong side of the bed — it was the wrong neighborhood in the wrong city, on the wrong day of the wrong year, and we’re the wrong people for everyday life.

We feel like the narrator of that Talking Heads song: “This is not my beautiful house!” And, “My God! What have I done?!”

Today, everyone we see is as miserable as we are. Frustrated, angry, tired, desperate to get home, and unwilling to move their bag off that subway seat we want to sit down in. Does everyone have to be a jerk all at once?

On our way to work we’re struck by a thought: What if I just keep going? What if I leave behind all the crap in my cluttered apartment, get a job upstate at an ice cream shop, change my name, and let forty years slip by? Radiohead sneaks in our head: “I’m not here. This isn’t happening. I’m not here.”

‘The Nightmare’ by Henry Fuseli (1781)

But we can’t run away. We’re stuck with our life and our questions. Where does a bad day come from? There must be a cause, right?

Has some crucial chemical in the brain fizzled out like a dying ember? Or has our subconscious finally broken through the liminal barrier with a desperate flare? We wish it would stick to making weird dreams.

Or maybe our inner life is a facade, and some days we can’t hold it together, like a Muppet scrambling to get the show started. Why can’t everyone cooperate, for once?

Or perhaps consciousness is like the sky, our thoughts the clouds, and we haven’t kept up with the weather report. Caught in a freak thunderstorm without an umbrella, we try to find the place in our head that isn’t hailing. The captain comes on the internal intercom:

“Sorry for the turbulence, folks. We’re experiencing some inclement weather and it doesn’t look like it’ll clear up ’til tomorrow. In the event of an emergency your sense of humor can be used as a defense mechanism.”

When we were kids, we had this intuitive idea of little people moving inside us, operating legs and arms with levers and pulleys. The ghosts in the machine are still on the clock, but the serotonin unit is on strike, demanding overtime for the night we put them through last Friday.

“Get back to work!” we shout. “Look, brain, I know you’re in a terrible mood, but be reasonable. Can’t we strike a bargain? Give me a few hours of peace and I’ll give you all the distractions you want. Booze, TV, internet rabbit holes — whatever!”

“Don’t pretend you’re innocent,” our brain responds. “You’re me, after all!”

“No you’re me,” we reply, and we’re both confused.

‘Vampyr II’ by Edvard Munch (1895)

Life is a roller coaster, and today we’ve realized it’s at Coney Island. Is this rickety old thing safe? When was the last repair? Isn’t this the one where someone got their hair caught and died? And why didn’t we think about any of this crap before we got on?

We demand to know who’s in charge here. Who’s looking out for us? Someone advised to take it one step at a time. As Lao Tzu wrote, a thousand mile journey begins with a single step. But these steps feel like flailing through quicksand.

In her book on writing, Anne Lamott quotes E.L. Doctorow: “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Life is like that too. For long stretches on the highway of life, all we can think about is how to turn on the brights.

Finally, we stumble on a solution to a bad day. Its a miracle, and so simple: Wake up the next day. We feel better, for no apparent reason. We arrive at the office feeling caffeinated and capable. Our lives and plans and cities are reasonable and sane again. Fitter. Happier. More productive. Comfortable. Not drinking too much…

Where did the bad day go? What was the problem again? We’ll worry about it when another one comes around.

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