“How to be Miserable” during a pandemic
today at 9:54 am
I’ve written about this book before here. It’s a book that changed my life. You hear a lot about positivity and gratitude, both valuable and honorable qualities. But, they’re qualities that have a dark side. When I’m not in a positive state of mind or not in tune with positivity, I feel guilty, even ashamed.
I live in luxury compared to most of the world’s population. Even within the context of the US my life is above average in terms of income and privilege. I have a job I love, a family whom I love and who loves me, I have two cars, ample food, and a wardrobe I enjoy wearing. I’m creative and have access to the materials I need to be creative.
I’m healthy, if not always living a healthy lifestyle. And, I’m particularly aware of this good thing. I’ve seen so much suffering and so much dying since becoming a member of the cancer community. To be miserable and to be healthy seems sacrilege.
But, depression and anxiety don’t listen to this kind of thinking. Not in my life anyway. I toil away in sadness many days, so nervous that I can’t focus. During this pandemic, things have been so much harder. There’s nothing like social isolation to magnify depression and anxiety.
So, why focus on how to be more miserable? It’s a bizarre but amazing phenomenon.
Randy J. Paterson, PhD, director of Changeways Clinic, wrote How to be Miserable because of working with a support group of clinically depressed people, with whom he just couldn’t make progress. They couldn’t turn their eyes to gratitude and positivity. In frustration, he asked the group, “OK, so you don’t know how to feel better, tell me about how to feel worse.”
The group responded prolifically and ended the session in something close to gratitude. They ended up laughing and enjoying the process of crafting ideas about how to feel worse. They included things like this: don’t exercise, isolate yourself, ruminate on bad things, punish yourself, procrastinate, compare yourself to others.
In the process of thinking about how to be more miserable, it became exquisitely clear that they knew deeply how to not be miserable. In counseling and other situations I’m often told to do something good for myself. Treat myself to a good day or a good experience. When I’m told this I frequently draw a blank. I just can’t think of anything that would be a treat.
Many years ago, we had a community manager at ChicagoNow, Jimmy Greenfield, who hosted blogapalooza nights. He’d give us a prompt at exactly 9 p.m. and at exactly 10 p.m. we were to post our blog. It was encouragement to write and to publish. It was also an opportunity to see how our view of the world compared to others in the group.
One night the prompt was, “Tell me about a perfect day. You can do anything you want, realistic or not.” I wrote about how angry the prompt made me, how bereft I felt in the face of it. A perfect day, imagined or otherwise, just didn’t exist for me at that time. My whole world was cancer and grief. The reality of that overwhelmed me and made it impossible for me to even imagine life without the suffering.
That part of me has been healing and growing. I can now tell you about what a perfect day would include: sunshine, sitting outdoors with a good cup of coffee, talking to a friend, laughing, riding my bike, meditating. So many things occur to me now.
In any case, there have been times during the pandemic when I’ve felt so weighed down by my reality that I can’t imagine a time when I felt light. I want to cook, but I need to go to the store and every time I visit a grocery store I am anxious and often end up having a panic attack. Cooking has been polluted by the experience of securing the food.
It occurred to me today that thinking in terms of how to be miserable during a pandemic might be a better way to think about things. Here are a few things I came up with.
- Obsessively read the news, keeping track of how many cases of COVID-19 are around me, noting how many have died, and reading about how poorly the *president is *leading during this time.
- Listen to my neighbors socializing with friends in their backyard and think about how dangerous their behavior is.
- Pay attention to protesters against sheltering in place and others who disavow science and health mandates.
- Sit in one place for hours and watch one Netflix show after another.
- Binge eat chocolate and cookies.
- Ignore my dog who wants to play.
- Stay up all night so that I feel terrible the next day
- Ruminate about the supply chain and about how we might face food shortages.
- Ruminate about anything.
- Keep track of my failures and dwell on them.
- Criticize the one person I have the privilege of seeing every day, my husband.
- Note every dust bunny and clump of hair on the floor, every aspect of my home maintenance that has declined.
- Complain as much as possible about everything. This is especially helpful if I’m complaining about things over which I have absolutely no control.
This is way too easy, but I think you get the idea. Within each way to be miserable is a key to feeling less miserable. For instance, my home page when I open up Safari has been the Washington Post. Every time I open up Safari to check my email or work on my classes, I’m smacked in the face with bad news, even dire news. I finally realized that this is something over which I have complete control. I changed my home page to my email, which is the main source I consult in order to do my job.
This isn’t to say that I don’t check the news. I think it’s important to be informed. But, now I intentionally navigate to my news sources and read them ONCE per day.
I still go to my spot on the couch and watch Netflix, but I’m trying now to be more intentional. I watch one episode of a show I love and then get up and do something else. Really, it can be anything. The key for me is to not spend six hours or more in one spot doing one thing. Literally, that’s how much time I was spending on the couch and I was developing shoulder and back pain because of it.
Other parts of this are harder for me. I’m a ruminator from way back. As long as I can remember, I’ve lived in my head. I’m one of those people who has the perfect response to every situation……..days later after the situation is long over. If I dwell long enough on what I should have said or crafting the perfect, snappy response, I end up feeling less than.
As I edit this and get ready to hit “publish,” I confess that the past few days have been hard. I’ve been in a bad place. But just reading this reminds me that I can take action. I can help myself and care for myself. I can do some things to feel less miserable.
Like me, you probably dislike all of the ads on this page. They pop up unexpectedly, sometimes cover text, start playing videos and clutter the post itself. I have no control over any aspect of the ads, from content to form to placement to number. I am sorry that they have taken over our blogs on ChicagoNow and I appreciate that you continue to read.
Do me a favor? Click my “like” button and join our Facebook community.
If you’d like to know first-hand when I have a new post, type your email address in the box and click the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.