Self-Honesty: I Don’t Care

“I don’t have time.”

This is one of the many phrases that English-speakers have developed for saying “no” without actually saying “no”. For whatever reason, we as a society have agreed that a simple, “No thanks” is too flippant — borderline aggressive, even — and requires a further explanation that implies, “I would, if only…”

“Sorry, I already have plans that night.”
“I can’t — I haven’t slept well and feel like shit.”

The worst part is when we internalize this idea and start lying to ourselves about why we’re not doing things we say we want to do. My personal lie, for many years, has been “I don’t have time.”

I want to get better at drawing, but I don’t have time.
I’d love to record more Christmas music, but I don’t have time.
I want to read this stack of books, but I don’t have time.

There’s a resentment that comes from believing reality is structured specifically to prevent me from engaging in everything that catches my fancy. Time is a finite resource, but my fascination is boundless! Surely the greatest tragedy in life is that I won’t be able to watch everything available on Netflix in my lifetime.

Recently, I learned a magical incantation that reshaped reality to my benefit: “I don’t care.”

Look at this stack of books… eh, I don’t care.
I keep hearing that I should watch Orange is the New Black… I don’t care.
I still haven’t tried all of the games I acquired through Humble Bundle… I don’t care.

Revolutionary, I know.

Like “no, thanks,” the phrase “I don’t care” seems to have negative connotations. I get it — it can feel judgmental when someone shrugs and admits they don’t care for something you feel strongly about. It’s certainly not a phrase I’m about to deploy against other people.

But, when I use it on myself, it cuts through the nonsense and shows me where I’ve been lying to myself. Sometimes, saying “I don’t care” rings false. Over the summer, I tried to tell myself I didn’t care about working on my drawing skills. It backfired — I realized I do care; I care enough that for the last six months I’ve made time to draw almost every day.

However, I was getting stressed out about the fact that I wasn’t writing music. I love writing music! It’s amazing! One of my favorite things! Why was that particular interest gathering dust if I loved it so much? Cautiously, I tried out my incantation: I don’t care about making music.

It rang mostly true, but I had to amend it to “I don’t care about making music right now.”

That felt great. It felt like giving myself permission to focus on something I was excited about without feeling guilty for not doing everything that I was interested in.

On top of the mental improvement, learning to say, “I don’t care” has made it possible to delete a ton of stuff from my Netflix queue.

Adventures in Mental Illness: Indecision

This scene has played out hundreds, possibly thousands, of times throughout my life. Between 2006 and 2013, however, it was especially frequent.

It’s been a long day, and I’m glad to take off my shoes and flop facedown on the bed for ten or fifteen minutes while I wait for my wife to finish making dinner. Today she took one look at my face and made the executive decision to delay food and let me sleep for an hour.

When I drag myself out of bed, I feel… not better, but less noisy. Instead of flooding my consciousness with detailed memories of all my failures, my brain has settled on two or three to play in a loop. After I eat, if I’m lucky, I’ll be focused on a single failure that will drive me to do something creative.

“Failure” is not entirely accurate because it implies that I tried to do something and wasn’t successful. The things that my brain likes to throw in my face are the times when I wanted to try something, but didn’t. Like when I was researching fiction magazines and found one that seemed like a perfect fit for something I’d written. I read their submission guidelines over and over. I revised my story a few times. Then, I never actually submitted it.

Tonight, I will write something.

Tomorrow night, however, I’ll be dwelling on five things while my food digests. I didn’t move out of state to play music with my friends. I defaulted to an easy degree. I didn’t maintain my friendships. I don’t practice my guitar enough. I never figured out how to work with watercolor pencils.

When that happens, I don’t act. I sit on the couch, marathoning old Power Rangers episodes, wishing someone else will tell me what to do because I can’t do it all. It’s too much. I suck. And now I’ve wasted another perfectly good evening.

Thankfully, this hasn’t happened to the same degree since I’ve been on medication. In fact, the experience is barely comparable. Now, when I find myself struggling to figure out what to do with my free time, it feels like I have a ton of opportunities to do cool new things. Guilt doesn’t enter the equation — I might note that my guitar skills are getting rusty, but I’m really excited about the progress I’m making with my drawing. My poor blog has been neglected, but this story idea is so fun to work on! I’ll get around to the other stuff eventually, sure, but I want to ride this wave as long as I can.

Meatbag Maintenance

Traditionally, I am not good at taking care of myself. 

In high school, I crashed at a friend’s house one night and he located some grapefruits for breakfast. We’d been having a conversation about how much I like sugar, so I started piling it on my grapefruit half — probably six or eight spoonfuls. My friend was aghast. “There’s no way you’re eating that. That’s disgusting.”

I ate it.  

Now, I was trying to be funny that day, but it’s a pretty good summary of my attitude toward my overall health. It’s not that I never tried to exercise or eat healthy, I just didn’t try very hard.

I didn’t realize how my habits were affecting me until I started changing them. When I added the bare minimum amount of exercise — 10 minutes of walking on a treadmill every day — and added fresh vegetables to my sugar-and-starch diet, I started having more energy. Excited at this development, I started looking for other things I could do to improve my quality of life, things to either help my overall energy level or hack my brain to do better creative work.

Eventually, through trial and error, I developed a routine: Wake up, meditate, freewrite, go to work, come home and treadmill, write, chat with my wife, sleep. It was a good routine. I don’t mean to imply that it was super rigid (i.e. I was fine to skip writing in the evening to go see a movie), but every component contributed to my overall well-being.

Then I got sick.

After a few days of watching bad movies and drinking orange juice, I tried to get back to my routine. I overslept and had to run out the door to work. When I got home, I was exhausted and went to bed early. I overslept again. To make up for it, I tried to stay up late, but was too tired to think. As I fell further and further behind on my projects, the more futile it seemed to try to resume progress on them. Everything went on hold as I binge-watched teevee shows on Netflix and whined about never getting anything done.

It would take another few years to admit that there was a problem with my brain and seek help for depression and anxiety. I’ll talk more about that journey in the future (probably a lot more), but the short version is that medication has been a godsend. It turned the volume down on the extreme negative feelings and enabled me to resume running, work on more creative projects, and give myself permission to relax and enjoy books or bad movies. When a routine gets disrupted, instead of wallowing in self-hatred, I’m able to ask what needs to change to get back on the treadmill, or finish the book I’m reading, or release more music.

And it’s a positive feedback loop. I’ve read assorted things about how exercise does good things in your brain — I notice that the more I run, the more creative ideas I have. The more ideas I have, the more I want to maximize my energy to work on them, so I eat healthier to avoid sugar crashes. Eating healthier gives me better fuel to run. The meds prevent me from beating myself up when I don’t run for two weeks, or pick up McDonald’s on the way home from work, so it’s easier to shrug it off and get back on track.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is this: Everything is connected, so when I take care of one aspect of my life, every other aspect benefits.