September 18, 2001
The Why-Bothers


Tell me if this sounds at all familiar:

The world is about to come to an end ... so what's the point of getting out of bed this morning? What's the point of making plans/paying my bills/dropping off my dry cleaning/buying that Year 2002 calendar? Why eat? Why sleep? Why go to work? Why think ahead to a future that's probably not going to happen?

Why even bother?

This is an insidious emotional condition known as "The Why-Bothers" ... and there is a lot of it going around right now.

I should know. I'm among the afflicted.

It's been almost twenty years since my first outbreak of The WB's, but I've never forgotten how terrifying -- and how debilitating -- it can be, the first time it happens to you. In my case it was the early 1980's, and I was a young mother deeply and permanently traumatized by a made-for-TV movie called "The Day After." Those of you old enough to remember that movie may also recall the media furor surrounding it. The hoopla began long before the show even aired: viewers were warned, weeks in advance, that this movie -- which graphically depicted the onset and aftermath of nuclear war -- would be too disturbing for more "sensitive viewers." They even set up toll-free hotlines, staffed by professional grief counselors, for viewers to call after they watched the movie. I figured this was just a clever network marketing ploy, designed to jack up ratings. Furthermore, I figured that *I* was emotionally-sophisticated enough to handle a silly made-for-TV movie, forcryingoutloud. So I tuned in that evening, along with the rest of the country.

I was wrecked for weeks afterward.

Seriously. I completely stopped planning for the future for a while, after I watched that movie. Mostly I just sat around the house, holding my babies in my arms and crying. I didn't eat and I didn't sleep and I didn't leave the house at all if I could possibly help it, not even to walk across the street and check the mail in the afternoons. In retrospect, I think that postpartum depression may have been a contributing factor: I had two daughters in diapers, and I was stretched perilously thin, emotionally and physically. I think also the fact that I had no one to talk to -- in those days I didn't even have a phone -- PLUS the fact that I was prone to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs -- greatly exacerbated the problem. But regardless of what caused my emotional malaise (and the non-ways I attempted to *deal* with it), the fact is that it was one of the darkest, most devastating things I've ever lived through.

Eventually life went back to normal. Sort of. It never completely went back to the way it used to be -- I was changed forever by that glimpse of a future devoid of tomorrows -- but eventually I was able to function again. I could get through a day of housework and babies without the chilly sense of foreboding and futility, following me around everywhere I went.  I've had other attacks of The Why-Bothers since then -- most notably during The Gulf War, and then again during a cancer scare in the mid-90's -- but none of those episodes even came close to the terror and the helplessness I felt during 'The Day After-Aftermath.'

Until now, that is.

If there is anything good I can say about my previous experiences with The Why-Bothers -- and believe me, I'm reaching here: it's like trying to come up with something "good" about terminal disease -- it's that at least I'm better-prepared, this time around. I know what to expect ... I know what to do ... and, more importantly, I know what not to do.

I know not to insulate myself, for one thing.

There is a tendency, when one is in the grip of The Why-Bothers, to withdraw from the world around us. We want to unplug. We want to close the curtains and lock the doors and barricade ourselves against the world. We figure No news is good news ... or, at least, 'No news' won't cause me to wake up in the middle of the night, shrieking in terror. This is a mistake. Information is power, and understanding the forces at work here, both good and evil, is one defense against powerlessness.

On the other hand, going too far in the other direction -- paying so much attention to the news that you lose sight of everything else -- can be just as dangerous.

So I'm learning how to walk the fine line between information and insulation. I read the newspaper every day, although I'm purposely avoiding the Letters To The Editor section. I have a tendency to subconsciously adopt other peoples' viewpoints as my own, sometimes -- that's how I wound up flunking 10th grade debate class -- and right now I think it's extremely important that the things I say/the opinions I express be my own, not me parroting someone else's rhetoric and ideology. So I read everything right now except for the Op/Ed page. I'm careful about other forms of media, too. I watch the news on TV  --  in the mornings when I'm getting ready for work, and then again for a while in the evenings -- but I do not allow the TV to run continuously when we're at home. (David would let it run unchecked 24/7, I think, if I weren't there to turn it off occasionally.)  At work I keep the radio playing in the background at all times, but I avoid talk-radio or all-news stations, preferring to keep the dial set to safely innocuous KFOG-FM. I figure that they'll keep me informed of the stuff I need to be informed of ... and in the meantime, I can listen to Mark Knopfler some more. Online, I have news alerts set up all over the place, programmed to pop up on my monitor and let me know if something *big* happens in TicTac or here in the Bay Area or elsewhere in the world. I've got AIM running all the time now, too, mainly so my kids and my friends can i.m. me. I read a handful of other online journalers (at least, those that are updating regularly) ... I read a couple of message boards (with filters set to block the relentlessly incendiary/unapologetically ignorant) ... I maintain *FootNotes* (as much as my schedule/energy level/carpal tunnel syndrome will permit) ... and I read and respond to my e-mail (as long as it isn't another offer to enlarge my penis by three inches in just eleven days).

This is the balance of information inflow/outflow that is keeping me sane right now.

There are other things I'm doing to cope with The Why-Bothers. For instance, I'm talking to people like crazy: my husband, my co-workers, people in the elevator, the check-out clerk at Long's Drugs ... anyone who'll listen, basically. This goes against every fiber of my Loner Chick being, of course. But it prevents me from becoming too inwardly-focused.

Plus -- and this is the most important thing, I think -- I'm trying to remain as forward-thinking as possible. Until the terrorist attacks occurred, I'd been toying with the idea of not going to TicTac for Christmas this year. (David and I have never spent a Christmas together: not in all the time we've been a couple. I thought it was only right that we spend our first *married Christmas* in the same Zip Code.)  But now I not only plan to go to TicTac for the holidays, the same as I always do -- and yes I'll probably gulp be flying -- but I'm already Christmas-shopping. And I'm doing a lot of other stuff that assumes there will be a tomorrow. I'm job-hunting. I'm renewing my membership with the NAESAA. I'm sticking to the diet. I'm ordering new checks from the bank. I'm dropping off my broken engagement ring at Zale's tonight after work. (While I'm at it, I think I'll have them resize it again. I'd like to think I'm going to be wearing it for another 40 or 50 years.)

The Why-Bothers are still here ... and they're a lot darker and more insidious, this time around. This time it wasn't a made-for-TV movie or an imagined lumpy spot in my breast that prompted them: it was something a whole lot bigger and nastier. Maybe this is all wasted energy, The Why-Bothers say to me in the middle of the night, when I'm laying in bed longing for dreamless sleep. Maybe I'm an idiot, and the world really IS going to end tomorrow, after all. (Or maybe the world will be just fine, but *I* will finally get hit by the #51 on the corner of Broadway and 12th Street while I'm walking to Sears on my lunch hour.)  Maybe everything I'm doing and thinking and saying is all just a big stoopid waste of time. There was no tomorrow for those people in the towers and in the Pentagon and aboard the doomed airliners. Maybe there won't be a tomorrow for us, either.

But then again ... maybe there will be.

Maybe there will be.

That's the thought that keeps me going these days. And until I know for certain otherwise ... I believe I'll keep operating under that assumption.

You never fully recover from The Why-Bothers. Not completely. In a way it's like alcoholism: you can admit that you have a problem, and you can take steps to overcome the problem, and you can work to change the behaviors that make the problem recur ... but you never completely "get over" it. You just learn to cope with it.

One day -- and one tomorrow -- at a time.

throw a rock