I read Melissa Broder‘s So Sad Today (2016) last night. I have a fascination-repulsion thing going with her work. Like Ben Lerner, she reminds me of what would happen to me if a) I were (or had been) a little more willing to put myself out there socially; b) I hadn’t found a drug that works on my anxiety more or less as soon as I was diagnosed with it (granted, that was after ten years of living with it); c) I’d had less faith—meaning in this case, and for once, not religious belief but more like the ability to shrug off some of my emotions when these deny what I believe to be true. (I don’t feel like my teaching is worth doing some days, but I know it is, and so I don’t self-sabotage my way out of a job.) And both of those writers, more than any other contemporaries, are also d) good enough to make me pay attention when they describe exactly the sorts of messes I can see my other self, that other, slightly bolder and more mercurial and more charismatic version of me, making.
I am threatened by these writers because they make that other self and his mistakes uncannily close, uncannily real. The way that I experience this sense of threat is as annoyance. I find myself yelling at the books: “Put your damn phone down.” “Go outside.” “If porn makes you feel squicky, maybe stop watching it.” (If I can stay away from that stuff, anybody can. Really. Anybody.) I don’t like the moralistic, hectoring older brother that I turn into when I read these two writers, so I tend to read their books once, with grudging admiration, and then give them away. I can’t spend that much time with my doppelganger.
I will probably give away my copy of So Sad Today, but not because I’m not glad I read it. Broder describes General Anxiety Disorder with breathtaking (a sadly appropriate word) accuracy, and also the kind of insane self-consciousness that (at least for me) goes along with it, the way you can register others’ possible disapproval of you like a smell in the air. But what struck me most was a passage near the end:
I walk into the kitchen and I kiss [my husband] with an open mouth. I kiss him with an open mouth, as if he is not my husband. Or I kiss him as though he is my husband, but that the words husband and wife mean something else—not what I have perceived them to mean through my own fears.
In this moment I resolve to kiss my husband with an open mouth forever. I want to freeze him the way I see him in this instant: dark eyebrows, sexy, sleepy hair and sleepy eyes. But we can’t freeze the way that we see the people we love, as much as we would wish. I know that I will kiss my husband with a closed mouth again, at some point. I know that I will even kiss him with a closed heart.
I pray for our love. I pray that even if I kiss my husband with a closed heart, my heart opens again to him. When I desire my husband, I am grateful to desire my husband. What can we hope for in a marriage but to keep seeing things anew? With the people we love, it is so easy to stop seeing them at all.
This passage beautifully and honestly exemplifies what I meant by the word “faith,” above. (Broder and her husband are not always “faithful” in the conventional sense of the word; many of the preceding pages have described their, especially her, experiments in polyamory.) If you’re going to have any kind of a distinctive life at all, you sometimes have to ignore your internal weather, the evidence not necessarily of your senses (though sometimes those too) but of your emotions. You have to be kind when you’re irritated, because you know the person in front of you doesn’t really deserve your irritation. You have to enjoy people and things when you’re hurting, because you know that those people and things merit the attention that in your woundedness you want to withhold from them. You have to work when you’re lazy, or when you’ve despaired of the value of your work, to the best of your ability, and with as little self-condemnation as you can manage. It’s a kind of perception: notice how she keeps talking about “seeing.” (Cf. Paul’s “The substance of things not seen.”) For those of us with mental-health issues, especially anxiety, “faith” in this sense is especially necessary. General Anxiety will tell you there’s a blizzard all the time, so that when in fact it’s sunny and seventy degrees and your nephew wants to be taken to the park, you have to tell yourself, loudly, “No, actually, it’s fine, you can leave the house.” Faith is a kind of faking-it-till-you-realize-you’ve-already-made-it.
In this sense, Broder, who spends much of the book making herself sound like a person with no discipline or capacity for self-denial whatsoever, has built a marriage worth admiring: her husband, as the essay describes, suffers from a chronic illness that keeps him bedridden more and more of the time. She has shown considerable character and love (these are the same thing, in a way: character is love that has temporarily lost its vision) in sticking with him. My wife and I don’t have to face these challenges, but no marriage stays alive without at least a little grit on both sides. On May 22, we’ll have been married six years. Between my depression and anxiety and her overwork and overwhelmedness, we’ve had to kiss each other with closed hearts before, and I guarantee we’ll do it again. Very young people think of this as a kind of treason to the self, but actually it’s the opposite. It’s refusing to let today’s mood, today’s bullshit, be the final vote on what you are to each other. It’s losing the vision but caring enough about it to let it come back. I am grateful to this brilliant poet and essayist for so beautifully articulating the point.