Does Grief Make You Stupid?
Updated: Apr 18, 2019
Last week I bought a new car, a copper-colored compact SUV that I have affectionately nicknamed "Georgia." In the past, I have always driven tiny compact cars: good on gas, fun to zip around in, easy to park, unassuming. These days, however, I find myself commuting an hour each way to work and back on small and winding midwest state highways riddled with potholes and deer. For winter driving, the compact cars just weren't cutting it.
It is February now and the ground is covered in ice and snow. Everywhere I look, people are shuffling down the sidewalks with their faces swaddled by scarves iced over where their dewey breath has frozen on the fabric, errant tire tracks marking the places where cars have slid around corners and into ditches. Winter driving is an extreme sport. I was lucky: I first learned to drive during the winter when I was 15. We lived way out in the hilly country on a small farm in Wisconsin, the kind of place where we had to plow our own roads, 45 minutes from a grocery store. Out there I learned the fundamentals of driving in the snow: take turns through snow banks with some speed built up so you don't get stuck, turn the A/C on with hot air blowing to defrost your windshield, never ever ever hit the brakes while you are turning, and perhaps most importantly (and in the words of the wise Mr. Kanye West) "you need to pump your brakes and drive slow, homie."
Growing up, my family had close friends and relatives splattered across the country: a weird brown Jackson Pollock painting. I remember once having a conversation with a friend who lived in San Antonio about the one time he remembered there being an inch or two of snow in Texas. Everybody panicked. Schools closed. The snow melted right away, but it didn't matter: the people who were dumb enough to drive in it fishtailed all over the place and there were so. many. accidents.
"I don't know how you can drive in the snow," he said. "You just shouldn't. It's dangerous."
"It is," I said. "But you learn how to do it the right way. You don't really have a choice."
Earlier today, while sliding down the highway in my trusty Georgia, I couldn't help but feel a bit of pride in how well I was doing. Barely any fishtailing. Pumping those brakes, driving nice and slow (you never know, homie/might meet some hoes, homie). And I didn't even have to think about it. It is muscle memory for me.
In the last several years, the idea of muscle memory has become a frequent topic of discussion for me and some of my friends. We've all recently entered our 30's and we now say things like "back when I used to wonder about whether I could do things..." or "I can just buy a car now and it's weird," or "I kind of stopped giving a shit about what other people are doing." It seems like we have largely stopped asking for permission to just do us and I'm not really even sure how that happened. I don't have to prepare myself for what someone might think of my lipstick choices. I don't have to prepare to be judged if I want to clap back at the UBER driver for making us walk across a frozen pond in -10 degree weather to get to the pickup point instead of just picking us up at the door after the Trevor Noah show. I know how to be me now. I know how to feel my feels now. I know how to navigate in my body now. I know what to expect when I'm happy, when I'm depressed, when I'm stressed, when I'm disappointed. I have become muscle memory and it makes me feel safe.
This is the reason my last breakup shook me so badly. I have this breakup protocol, you see: I know what to expect when I'm expecting to be dumped. I know that I need to schedule all of my free time with activities otherwise I will wallow alone in my apartment and spiral down into the depths of memory, playing and replaying old conversations, thinking and rethinking through every move, over and over again, conclusions and questions overlapping and mixing until I'm not even sure what happened anymore and I'm crushed under the weight of my own fabricated and answerless questions. I know that I can't get stoned. It will make the anxiety worse. I know that I will feel the gut-punch every few minutes at first, every time something reminds me that "this is really happening." I know I will wake up breathless.
Only this last time, those things didn't apply.
After this last breakup, I didn't spiral down into wallowing and despair. I got mad. Like, really fucking mad. I remember telling a friend of mine that I wished my ex would find himself in a situation where his innermost shames and guilts and doubts and insecurities would be on display before his peers and that for some reason, they would laugh in his face. It sounds stupid now, but for me in the moment, it was a pretty dark thought. I'm not usually vindictive or mean-hearted. Quite the opposite, in fact. I'm normally enthusiastic, outgoing, bubbly, optimistic, hopeful, and empathetic. This for me was a scary and unfamiliar feeling. I had no muscle memory of it.
I think when you're a kid with a young and stretchy brain, you learn to naturalize new and unfamiliar feelings, develop coping strategies without even realizing that you're doing it. Likewise, when you're an adult who regularly stretches your creative, intellectual, problem solving, and abstract brain mechanisms, you retain the ability to gracefully handle unexpected situations, but I had lost that skill somehow, and it was scary.
I've always been very smart, naturally talented, high achieving with very little effort, pedantic. I've been teaching at a university since I was 27 and in my first several years, I was constantly developing new courses, finding new and exciting literature to read and teach, weeviling my way into literary circles at conferences, writing and publishing and entering contests, workshopping and traveling. I had an expansive vocabulary. I prided myself on my ability to articulate the most abstract thoughts with precision and nuance and innovative word choices. I was trying. Really trying. And loving it. But then after 4 or 5 years, I found I didn't need to do that so much anymore. I had gotten the hang of this whole teaching thing. I had a very respectable number of publications under my belt and all the lesson plans I needed were already developed and neatly filed in manila folders on my bookshelves. I started running on muscle memory, stopped learning new things, stopped reading. For the first time in my life, I wanted to just revel in a stability I had never experienced before.
Prior to teaching, I was switching jobs frequently, bouncing between being a student and working and figuring out what the hell I wanted to do with my life. I moved from apartment to apartment every six months or so. I racked up the frequent flyer miles during a year when I was living in Wisconsin but working in Nebraska (don't ask). Stability was not a thing I knew and it felt good. Really good. I got a taste of it and I still can’t believe how easy it was to fall into a comfortable rut and lose and forget all of the things that made my life exciting.
So when this "moment" (by moment I mean "several months") of unfamiliar and intense anger and rage rotted its way through my body, my brain wasn't flexible enough to handle it anymore and I didn't know what to do.
So I shut it down. I was slipping around on the road, things were turning and changing, and I hit the god damn brakes. I broke a fundamental rule of winter driving.
I actively pushed it away. I absolutely refused to listen to any music or watch any shows or have any conversations that even remotely reminded me of _______. I stopped eating certain foods. I would not journal. I avoided particular areas of the city. And in those inevitable moments when something random in the world pierced my mind-shield and let his face back into my brain movie, the anger came with it and I would seethe until I cried.
The breakup happened three and a half months ago. I have spent the time since actively avoiding it, pretending it didn't happen, trying not to think about it, distracting myself with podcasts and sex with random Tinder men. It worked for a while, but lately I've been noticing that my brain is doing some weird things. I forget things all the time. Yesterday I forgot my question while I was asking it. I've been walking into rooms and forgetting why, losing things that should be kept safe, blowing off meetings. In class today, I couldn't think of the word 'psychiatrist' and had to ask my students what the word for brain doctor was.
Now, I'm a charming and charismatic person when I want to be and I can usually pass these things off as quirky scatter-brained #professorlife anomalies, but the truth is that they're not. I don't feel as sharp as I used to. I've lost a good chunk of my fun vocab words (RE: 'brain doctor'). Turning off my brain has become muscle memory and I'm scared that my brain is going to atrophy.
Here is a list of possible alternate culprits:
1. being over 30 (my friends say things like "we're so OLD now!" all the time)
2. not eating enough vegetables
3. teaching too many classes for not enough money
4. being a liberal millennial in the Trump era
5. re-reading Harry Potter instead of discovering new books
7. brain tumor
*****I would be happy if any of these items were to blame because I still don't want to think about him***
I'm scared that grief has made me stupid. I'm scared that taking this break will only push off the inevitable reckoning hurtling toward me like a comet toward a T-Rex. I'm scared that if I push myself too hard to get better and work harder and try more and care more, I'll burn out and tax my adrenal system and go into another period of depressive derealization/depersonalization like I did when I was 22...I'll write about that in a different post.
Ultimately, I'm not sure it really matters. I only have two choices:
1. continue being alive
I'm not suicidal, so I guess I'll continue going to work every day, trusting that this body, which has carried me through every other period of unfamiliarity and fear, will do so again through this one. I don't trust that time will necessarily heal everything (RE: I still think about exes from a decade ago and get sad sometimes), but I do trust that some things will always remain constant.
List of constants:
1. SUV's waste more gas than compact cars
2. people in Texas don't know how to drive in the snow
3. Kanye was better pre-Kim
4. never ever ever hit the brakes while you're turning on icy roads
5. no matter what, I'm still excited to have a new car named Georgia