Recently, someone asked me how I dealt with apathy when it comes up. I’m not sure that I can really talk apathy’s role in my life and how I deal with it, without starting at the beginning. Feel free to jump to the bullet points if TL;DR.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. This is not meant to be a “do this and you’ll get a handle on your apathy, depression, and anxiety.” This is simply how I’ve dealt with it, what has helped me, and what my coping methods are. If you find that you cannot deal with this on your own, seek help.
I’ll spare you the details of my childhood, and sum up by saying: I grew up in an alcoholic home and had responsibilities at a young age that I don’t feel young children ought to have without also having a solid skill set of coping methods. Even without added responsibilities, though, it’s a very common thing for children in these situations to wind up with a savior complex, and then guilt that they cannot save those they feel they ought to be able to save – in my case, my mother and also my brother. I couldn’t make it better, I couldn’t stop things, I couldn’t do anything. (Of course not, I was a child!) I think apathy, in these situations, is a sign of being overwhelmed. In fact, I think apathy is often a sign of being overwhelmed, of being over-stimulated, to the point where one can either go stark raving mad, or one can just shut off. I shut off.
Not totally, not all the time. I loved animals. I adored my brother, even when I resented having to take care of him so much. I had a safe haven at my grandparents’ house, where I could just draw and read and write and be with my brother without having to make sure he was eating or was entertained, because my grandparents would see to that. I had friends, and we’d often escape into the woods or the library. I’ve written before, that it was like there were two of me who were living two different lives, because I have good memories of these awfully hard years, but I also have memories of hating people, hating adults, for not helping, for not making it stop, for not rescuing me and my brother(s).
Because all of this started so early – my earliest memories are of my father’s alcoholic violence – it is impossible for me to know if anxiety, which is, of this triumvirate, my biggest demon, is inherent to me or if it was a conditioned response. For practical purposes, it does not really matter. Apathy was my default response to crushing anxiety. Looking back now I can see things like, I fall upon the highly sensitive spectrum, and really one of the main coping skills I have is to avoid becoming too over-stimulated, but it wasn’t until my mid- to late twenties that I discovered that. Until I was sixteen or so, I hated people, I hated myself, I hated being alive, and I did not want to be alive. A key note here is that, I was never suicidal. There were a few times when I was pushed to the edge of murder, in my desperation, and I fantasized about killing my father. Often. In detail. I suspect that suicide was never a major contender as a coping method because if I died, who would take care of my brother? Who would be his buffer? My desire to make sure he was okay drove much of those years, and so, suicide never entered the picture. I wanted life to stop, but in that vague sort of everything just go away sense. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please, please talk to someone and get help.
A few things happened when I was sixteen. My father had been kicked out finally the year before, so there was breathing room of a sort. We adopted a dog (under nefarious circumstances, but I wouldn’t know that for years) and he attached himself to me. And, the summer of my 16th year, I met Poseidon. If you’re interested, you can read more about that here. The important bit is, my heart was open on a regular basis to this dog who would become one of my best best best friends, and I reached a point in life where I could not continue as I was. It felt as though I was the walking dead, and I broke. I wasn’t looking for a god or a spirit or a power; I wanted answers, an explanation, or an end.
I can’t talk about my dealing with apathy without talking about Poseidon, because He was and remains my number one coping method. He is the one who took all that power I gave to our species, all our special evil nature, and brought it back to the realm of the animal. He is the one who freed me from the idea that we are in any way special, which allowed me to have breathing room to figure out how to deal with these feelings. By doing this, I began with Him a long, evolving but never ending process toward healing, and then, toward building up a toolbox to help me live a functional life despite the marvelously wretched things my brain can do.
At first, He simply demanded that I be aware. He asked that I be aware of my emotional reactions, and maybe try to figure out the context of those reactions. He asked that I be aware of my reactions to other people, and He tapped into my passion as a storyteller to see if I could figure out a story that would explain why people reacted in harsh or thoughtless or cruel ways. He encouraged my study of Buddhism. Not long after, He began asking that I push my comfort zone, that I expose myself to public situations, that I allow myself to be open and seeking in select public-ish spaces. At this point, my religiousness was all internalized, and I could barely stand before His shrine in my own private home and offer incense or a candle without becoming a sobbing wreck. So, the crippling shyness had to go.
In my twenties is when I really tackled the toolbox. I had all these avoidance and survival tools that worked so well in the hostile situation growing up, that no longer served. In fact, they were making everything horrible. I’d moved in with Beth, I embraced being a devotee to Odin and a wife of Poseidon’s, I changed my life almost completely, and I should have felt better, right? I’d struggled with wanting to focus more and more on spiritual stuff, but felt torn, in my then-relationship, and I hadn’t wanted to end it, but it was more and more clear that it would be unfair to us both to continue, and it was just awful. Awful, awful, awful. If I wasn’t trying to convince Poseidon I was unlovable by being unlovable, I was trying to save Him from the mistake He was making in having anything at all to do with me, and when I wasn’t doing either of those I was trapped in a conviction that this was all a trick, and once I believed Him, the Cosmic Joke would be revealed and all would point and laugh at my expense.
At some point, apathy kicked in, and it kicked in high gear. This was about a two year struggle, and despite They’re doing Their level best to make inroads and to lay the foundation for a better coping skill set, I was only intellectually learning things. I was introduced to the idea of high sensitivity to environments, and I recognized myself as such, but it was intellectual, it didn’t carry over to real life. I intellectually knew about detaching ones’ self from one’s feelings, and that reactions based on feelings were not necessarily the way to go, because feelings are fleeting. I didn’t care so much about putting these things into practice, because it didn’t matter, because I didn’t deserve any thing, and certainly not to feel okay and certainly not happiness or even contentment or, like, a stable mind.
This period of depression and apathy did not end until I sought medical help. I reached a point where I was going to work, coming home, and sleeping. I had some other medical stuff going on, but I didn’t even care about trying to figure those things out until I was getting medical help for the depression. I didn’t seek help out on my own free will, either, or not entirely, because, you know, you’re supposed to be able to do this on your own, and also, you do not talk to people about these things. Right?
It was a combination of Beth’s support and also a horrid incident in which I watched a child almost get hit by a car (he didn’t) without really feeling anything at all – except, later, horror at my lack of reaction. He was crossing the street. I saw the car coming, I saw him stepping out and not seeing the car, and I did not care. It did not matter.
So, yeah. Drugs. They can kind of be awesome. I did not stay on the drugs (and arguably maybe I ought to have) because I lost insurance, but by then I had coping methods in practice that I was more or less okay. To be clear: depression is not the ruler of my triumvirate of mental issues; anxiety is, and apathy is my default response to anxiety (or even just being over-stimulated). My emotional state is what I refer to as my baseline blue. I am rarely what I could describe as “happy”. I am most of the time content. I don’t actually trust “happy” and in my worldview, it’s a dangerous goal. Contentment is better. It’s less disappointing when it slips away, it’s easier to achieve, it’s just more realistic. I have moments of joy – there’s nothing quite like a good book, a cup of tea, and small animals sharing the bed with me – but through the roof happy is an uncommon emotional response that I actually avoid because of its over-stimulating properties.
How do I keep myself from slipping into apathy on a regular basis?
- I know my limits. One of the triggers of apathy for me is over-stimulation, and so this means I need to keep myself from becoming overwhelmed. At first glance, this seems like a no brainer, right? Don’t do things I don’t like doing, don’t agree to things I don’t want to do, makes sure I have enough decompression time, etc. Except, it’s not just a matter of things I don’t like doing. There are things that I enjoy that I need to make sure I don’t do. I’ve learned through trail and error. I can’t browse indiscriminately at bookstores or libraries. Same thing with yarn stores and thrift stores and, well, all stores. I need to know what I’m going for and stick to my list. I also have a three-chore limit when dealing with errands, and that’s pushing it. I do my utmost best to make sure that I either have time to come home between errands, or I move those errands around. An example: I’m the courier for Beth Wodandis Designs, and sometimes I have to visit the Post Office on days when I also have to grocery shop. That is the limit of what I can do for that day, and often, instead of doing both on the same day, I’ll space them out. While I love having days off from the day job during which I can simply stay home, piling up errands all onto one day is a recipe for disaster, and even if some of those errands are ones I enjoy (going to the library) I have to be mindful of overwhelming myself.
- I accept that sometimes I live in a bubble. There are stretches of time during which I ignore the plight of the world. I adhere to the “think globally, act locally” adage, but often – and especially when the impulse toward apathy is strong – I think locally, and locally in this case tends to be the four walls of my house. I strip my practice back to basics, and I disengage from the wider world. I spend time with Poseidon, I drop almost all outward devotional activities, I pray and I meditate and I read a lot of fiction that nourishes my spirit and my imagination.
- I honor the fact that, while I’ve made progress with regards to my dislike for my species, being around people is overwhelming. I’m not anti-social, but I’m extremely selective about the situations I’ll put myself into – and I’m okay with that. I’ll never be an activist that is changing the world on the front lines, and I’m okay with that. I’m a homebody. I don’t want to be out in nature, most of the time. Most of the time, I want to be home, with my family. I do take walks and I do spend time by the river, but that’s not every day, it’s not even every week. I don’t travel about the area for fun. I snuggle Corbie and the cats for fun. Home is my sanctuary, and I love my home.
- I don’t judge myself. This I couldn’t have achieved without Poseidon, and without the fear of the Cosmic Joke, or my complete conviction of unworth. I realize that the standards I hold myself to I wouldn’t dream of holding anyone else to, and I admit that I believe everyone has inherent worth, simply because they are. I realized this, and still I could not shake this conviction of unworth – so I gave it to Poseidon. I decided that, since He is Poseidon and He is bigger, knows more, sees more, since He is (as He put it) a grown-up god who can make up His own mind about things, that He must see something I don’t, and that I would trust Him over myself in this. It sounds easy on paper. It is easier now, with over ten years of practice doing it behind me, but it takes that practice to make it easier, and it’s never exactly easy.
- I live a semi-secluded life. The majority of my interactions with people are either at my day job or online. We don’t have many friends who live close to us, and we don’t seek making friends with people who live close to us. For myself, the space that online communication creates is exactly what I need, for the most part. The people who are part of my family are people who understand and honor that, who know that I need to make phone dates, who know that I won’t answer the phone usually unless it’s planned, and who may not understand, exactly, but at least accept that’s how it is.
- I avoid unnecessary drama. I don’t play social games, and I have no patience for them, and the friendships I cultivate tend to be drama free. Say what you mean, mean what you say, and speak up if you have a concern or a problem. Don’t let it fester. Because of this, the friendships I have with my chosen family are the sorts where, we can go months without talking, and we don’t take it personally. My brother is probably the best example of this. He is arguably one of my favorite people ever. When we do talk, we talk a lot, and his friends are amused by the fact that while he is also not much of a phone person, it’s understood that when I call, he’s going to take the call, be excited about the call, and also, will be on the phone for at least an hour. But we’ll also go months and months without talking, and neither of us feel slighted.
This could have been a faster, more streamline process if I’d been willing to seek therapy. I’m lucky in that I have a few friends who are in the medical field, and a friend who shared skills she picked up by going to therapy herself. I have a natural inclination for over thinking (hello again, anxiety) and I harnessed that power to study on my own the ways that people deal with anxiety, and also to self-examine my own responses to things. I like to know why things are as they are, and this helped fuel my studying.
I don’t want apathy in my life. Apathy kills my writing, and it makes it harder to connect with my gods. These two things are, even when I don’t care about apathy harming me, are what I fall back on time and again. They are the drive to keep apathy from taking root.
When it sneaks in before I catch it? I scale everything back to basics. I retreat. I give myself permission to do this, and I do not judge myself because of it. Judging myself only makes it worse, and I still have to climb out of it.
There is a reason why I cannot stand the proclamation that our gods are not therapists, and this is it. Poseidon was very much my first and most powerful therapist, and I will be damned if I pretend otherwise. Our gods are whatever the fuck They decide to be, to us, and They are the ones who get to decide what They will be, along with us. I will not discount the help Poseidon gave me. I won’t pretend that I am not who I am, because of Him. I won’t pretend that my health, my ability to function as a person, my ability to be compassionate and kind to others, isn’t His doing.
What works for one person may not work for everyone. Cultivating one’s life toward one’s need is a hard, long process that not everyone can do to the same extent. The trick is to find what works for you, and to stick to it. I could not have done any of this without medication to get me to a stable place, from which I was able to build my coping toolbox. I accept that there will be bad days that are brought about by good things. Things that I’ll choose to do knowing that I’ll likely be a wreck afterwards – and I plan for being a wreck. I accept that while I wish I could be excited about things (writing projects! Visits! Ideas!!) that mostly they come with a crushing sense of anxiety, and that I’ll need to put blinders on to some degree in order to keep moving forward.
My biggest tool against apathy is keeping my anxiety in check. Some might see this as being a slave to my anxiety; I think of it more as knowing and honoring my limits, and being okay with them.