“Did You Get Better Later?” You Asked
One of my very best friends turned 30 yesterday.
The friendship you have with your very best friends isn’t like the kind you have with merely okay friends. You don’t necessarily like everything they do, but you know them well enough to understand why they are the way they are, to recognise the tracks their lives have laid down and the ways in which they trace your own. They have seen you at your least functional moments, and led, followed, or gotten out of the way as you needed. That’s why you do the same for them, even when it doesn’t make a damn lick of sense to anybody else. You and your friend know how to do that for each other and they don’t; if the trick could be captured entirely in words, we’d have had world peace and universal harmony long, long ago. But it can’t be, so that’s what friends are for.
My friend and I both know what it’s like to go through tremendous stress alone. The barriers that walled him off from his support network were made of concrete. The ones that kept me from mine were made of physical distance and my husband Len’s craving for privacy about his chronic illness, some measure of control over the side effects of living in a seizure-wracked body. But prolonged isolation is prolonged isolation, and its effects on social animals are profound, whether the isolation is externally or self-imposed. We know about that.
We know what it’s like to remember being able to solve a problem about-this-hard, to grumble that it shouldn’t be that difficult, we’ve worked through much harder shit before. Come to think of it, we remember being able to think a couple steps ahead. When was it that we lost the ability to focus on more than just the-thing-in-front-of-us? Except it’s not really focus, because if it were focus, we’d be getting something done with it. Dopaminergics can focus the attention-beam back down to the laser-precision we remember, but at a cost. When that cost is more than our monkey-brain tradeoff-calculating engine is willing or able to afford, we still remember what it felt like to be able to focus the laser through sheer willpower alone — but now it’s as if the collimating lens is gone and there’s nothing to focus with. Yet we can’t stop trying, because trying is still integral to who we are, even after a brain insult far graver than we’re willing to admit or allow it to be.
Here are two things to remember.
First, remembering what it felt like to be able to do something is key to finding your way back to being able to do it again. It doesn’t tell you which turns to take, but it does point you in the overall direction.
Second, the lens really is still there.
I can’t tell my friend anything about the road from where he is right now back to the cognitive state he remembers, other than that it exists. I can only tell him about what mine was like. But he’s the kind of guy who sees patterns in things, which is another quality we share, so I’ll interpret that broadly, and perhaps he’ll even see something I missed. There was a lot of trial and error. If there is any general advice in this sort of situation, that is it. Don’t bump into walls so hard you break yourself apart, robot turtle, but for the love of Thor, keep bumping.
The following advice is specific to what worked for me. Your mileage may vary. There is no warranty for the advice, to the extent permitted by applicable law. The advice is provided “as is” without warranty of any kind, either expressed or implied, including, but not limited to, the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose. The entire risk as to the quality and performance of the advice is with you. Should the advice prove defective, you assume the cost of all necessary servicing, repair or correction.
Eat. Try to make it at least twice a day if you can, but if you only have it in you to manage one square per, start with that and work up as your executive function capacity re-expands. Your brain is made of protein and fat, and even if “you are what you eat” is bullshit, it’s a well-established enough refrain to make a good reminder, and you’re not the kind of guy to look a gift meme in the mouth.
Get sunlight when you can, and vitamin D when you can’t. I have never wanted to die more than during the 9-or-so months I spent not knowing I had severe hypovitaminosis D. Len was also sunlight-averse, and we’ll never know whether or how much a lack of vitamin D contributed to the despair that eventually killed him. I know he hated not being able to think, and lord knows I couldn’t get up the energy to pursue one thought to the next until I started supplementing my way through the half-year that is the Belgian cloudy season. B12 seems to help with alertness (especially when waking up) and the worst thing that’ll happen if you megadose it is you’ll pee chartreuse, plus the cherry-flavoured chewables of the most bioavailable form (methylcobalamin) taste like goddamn candy.
Get exercise. Weightlifting was what did it for me, but anything where your gains are measurable to you in some way that you can recognise is good enough, whether that’s projectiles in the bullseye, basket or pocket, distance traveled (horizontally, vertically, or both), pitches hit, tricks performed and mastered, or increasingly heavier shit lifted repeatedly. Climb buildings and throw boomerangs off the roof like motherfucking Batman if that’s what it takes to make you feel alive again, but get your body moving and your brain will get its shit in gear if for no other reason than to keep you from running into things or dropping stuff, and it’s getting its shit in gear that your brain has to get used to again. At first, you have to force it. Exercise provides a million tiny opportunities to force fast-brain decisions, so if you can get slow-brain to overcome the effort hurdle of actually putting in the work, there are cognitive gains that come along with the physical ones. The physical gains are also something you can look back on and see how far you’ve come; you can think of them as a kind of calendar, in that way.
Bribe yourself. Forcing your brain to start making decisions again is only one tool in your belt. Len and I were once at dinner with my old manager, Andy Peek from the bioinformatics group at IDT, nerding out about the many chemical varieties of sugars and the wide variety of metabolic pathways they participate in. “They’re like drugs,” Len concluded. “No, it’s better,” said Andy, his eyes twinkling. “They’re drug delivery devices.” Dextrose, the right-handed isomer of glucose, is one of your brain’s primary sources of energy, and truck stops &c sell it cheaply in convenient tablet form, sized such that my brain recognises the glucose-bolus from one of them as a reward. I live in Belgium, so chocolate is my go-to reward, but I am not too proud to admit that in other places I have carroted myself to the grocery store with the knowledge that there were Slurpees there and internal permission to have one.
When you catch yourself kicking yourself for not being able to grind through a problem that was easy three years ago that you can’t even begin to decompose now, do these three things: 1) stop kicking, 2) stop grinding, and 3) take a goddamn nap. My current project is trying to figure out how to make sleep the most interesting thing I can possibly do, when I’m in that state. I feel it for weeks, now, if I pull an all-nighter, and it took embarrassingly many nights of failing to pull off a miracle before sunrise to consider trying a night’s sleep instead. Spoiler alert: the night’s sleep works a lot better as far as miracles are concerned. I made that mistake and I hope you don’t have to.
Remember the classics. They’re called classics for a reason: because they spoke to the human condition when they were written and they still speak to it now. Emerson is indispensable here, and so is William Blake. Stories about long journeys are especially good here: Don Quixote, the Odyssey, the Anabasis of Xenophon. Anything classic you read before The Insult — read it again. Because they’re familiar, re-reading them points the way back toward the cognitive state that was able to appreciate them the first time. You’re literally retreading a familiar path and knowing the place for the first time. But pick up ones you missed the first time, too.
If you’ve stopped reading novels, start again. If novels are too much work right now, read short stories, but a narrative is just another kind of machine, and the more complex of one you can hold in your mind, the more complex machines you will be able to conceive of generally. All the H.G. Wells in the world is waiting for you. Also, if you can’t read for long periods anymore, consider ergonomics and your glasses prescription. It turned out I was having trouble seeing up close because my glasses were too strong. How you sit also matters.
Everything in this parody that isn’t cringingly naive probably still holds.
Speaking of people who aren’t Kurt Vonnegut.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s last novel Timequake, published in 1997, the entire population of planet Earth passively relives the years 1991–2001 thanks to the titular time distortion. Although conscious, they watch their bodies motor through ten years of making the exact same choices, decisions, mistakes, and guesses they made exactly ten years prior. Will as they might, they cannot exercise that will. Many people spiral down into apathy that they cannot even communicate.
Suddenly ten years ends.
The first person to realise, amid the crashing of cars no longer under the control of motor neuron signals backmasked by ten years, that autonomy has returned is science fiction author Kilgore Trout, because this is a Kurt Vonnegut novel so of course he is. Everyone else is wandering around like philosophical zombies while Trout exhorts them fruitlessly to notice that free will exists again and also some buildings are catching fire. He grows desperate, hurls verbal spaghetti at the wall, he cries out: “You’ve been very sick! Now you’re well again. You’ve been very sick! Now you’re well again.”
One by one, the people respond. They are, in fact, well again, in no small part because this is a novel by one of the greatest magical realists of the 20th century and miraculous things like that can happen in that kind of story. In time, it evolves into a mantra:
You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do.
It isn’t all better, but the worst of the sickness — the thing that eventually kills social animals, if prolonged too badly — is over. There’s a lot of work to do, and at first, most of it is shit you’ll want to kick yourself for once having known how to do without thinking about it. Now you get to think about it — and do it. Think about it and do it, think about it and do it, over and over again like a martial arts kata or Learn Python the Hard Way. The fluency you had before came from effort you’ve forgotten, perhaps because it didn’t feel like effort at the time. It takes effort, but less effort than it took to find it the first time, to find that fluency again.
And you won’t be working alone. Which, again with the social-animal thing, is probably the most important part.
These last few years have been cold ones. I don’t know if that’s just something that’s happened to the lives we’re in, or if everyone’s felt the chill that settles into your bones when what you used to think of as thoughts and actions have become like those of Eliot’s Hollow Men:
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion
But it is true that we are what we repeatedly do, as the philosopher said. Like any hacker knows, the thing to do when something blocks a force is to ferret out the few ways in which that force isn’t blocked, then exploit the hell out of the leverage those ways provide you. The end of all your exploitation is getting better, this time, and it is through training that, like the classics, you will come to know the subject matter for the first time once again.
I’m not much farther along than you are, but I can tell you, the shades are a lot brighter around this corner up here.
We’ve got a good decade to build, my friend.