The Energy Monster
My seven-year-old daughter Natalie calls it “The Energy Monster.” Natalie drew a picture of it on a large piece of paper in the office of our family therapist. In the drawing the Energy Monster stands at the foot of my bedroom. This monster has big teeth, angry eyes, and either a jagged black tongue or a very strange, expressively-shaped text balloon coming out of its mouth. The monster is orange with hair cut short like mine. Encircled by orange loop-de-loops, it is in a “frenzy.”
In the picture I am brown and am lying on a yellow bed, my head on a pillow. I’m covered by a brown blanket that has been cross-sectioned like one of those children’s science or “how-things-work” books that show the inside and outside simultaneously. The blanket is pulled up to my chin, but the side of the blanket has not been drawn in, so my left side is exposed. She has drawn a shirt, pants, and shoes on me in a nod toward modesty since in truth I wear only boxer shorts to bed. Whether it is her modesty or mine she is preserving is unclear.
I am in obvious danger. The monster could pounce on me at any moment while I lie prone on the yellow bed—no chance to defend myself.
Tucked under one foot of the energy monster and drawn in red marker is a building that could be our house if our house were a three-story building instead of a ranch. Some of the orange-lined frenzy of the Energy Monster overlaps the outline of the building.
Incongruously, Natalie has scribbled a bright yellow sun in the upper right hand corner of the page. In red marker she has placed herself and her younger sister Ella cramped in the lower left hand corner beside the house. She stands there smiling while Ella has no face. In all of Natalie’s pictures she is smiling. I have always found this fact pleasing because I imagine this suggests she has a positive self view, but more likely is that all kids draw themselves smiling.
As I examine the picture more closely, I notice that Natalie is actually closer to the Energy Monster than I am. I ask her why she did that.
She points to a black line she has drawn separating the monster from her and Ella. “There wasn’t enough room,” she answers. “So I drew this line to separate us.”
Then, I ask her what is she doing.
She says she is waiting.
Waiting for what? I press.
She tells me she is waiting for the right moment to send the Energy Monster to California.
Because there it will melt, she tells me.
I agree that California seems the most likely place for the Energy Monster to go since we live on the other side of the continent in Vermont.
Then, I look at the sun in the upper right hand corner and think it’s not so inexplicable after all. I soak up the warmth of that bright yellow sun, drawn in an imperfect circle. I feel safe in its presence and let its imaginary rays restore the energy that the monster has stolen.
Natalie and I know the Energy Monster from different points of view. She knows the beast as a creature that takes her father away from her and leaves an irritable, sad person. For me, the monster is a metaphor for my depression.
When the Energy Monster is here, I can’t tell you why it has come or what route it has taken to get here. I am only conscious of its presence. I am depressed and can see no way out.
When people see me, I am told that I look listless, worn out, exhausted. My appearance is ragged. I stop shaving and brushing my teeth. I will wear the same shirt and pants for days on end. I prefer the dark and resist leaving the house, especially during the day. One summer two years ago I didn’t voluntarily leave the house for two months. During that time, I didn’t mow the lawn or attend to any yard chores.
I can easily sleep sixteen, twenty hours a day. Oftentimes I will get up in the morning to help prepare Ella for preschool and Natalie for school. Then I will drive one or both to school. At this point my wife Elise goes to work, while I return home and to bed, only to rise when it comes time to pick up the kids at the end of their day. Then I put the kids in front of the television to watch a video, and I prepare dinner. After supper I return to bed while Elise bathes the kids and gets them ready for bed. Once this is done, I read bedtime stories to one of my kids. Then I return to bed.
Combined with my enormous weariness is an insatiable hunger. When I am not sleeping, I am planning my next meal or eating it. I can eat so much it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish when one meal ends and another begins. If I must travel from one place to another, my route inevitably detours through the drive-up window of a fast food restaurant.
My therapist tells me that studies have shown that depressed people crave carbohydrates. The sugar into which the carbs convert offers a form of self-medication. The body somehow knows the person is depressed and so signals that it needs more bread, grains, potatoes and other carbohydrates. The difficulty arises in that I do not turn to a twelve-grain bread sandwich packed with roasted vegetables and sprouts, but instead gravitate toward the foods I found comforting as a child—hamburgers, French fries, grilled cheese, salami submarines.
I think of this kind of eating as grazing. I imagine myself as livestock working my way across a meadow. At other times, I remember that my grandfather told me how horses drink water until their bellies explode. I’ll look down at my bloated stomach and fear something like that can happen to me. I have no clear answer, but more importantly, I won’t stop even were the answer there.
When I’m awake, whether eating or not, I am reading. I lose myself in pulp fiction. This violent, paranoid, conspiratorial world somehow soothes the discomfort in my bones. I’m attracted to blunt, vicious, and unyielding darkness as characterized in the cover blurb of Jim Thompson’s The Alcoholics (Berkley: Black Lizard Books, 1986):
Murder wouldn’t matter now, not after his brain was already dead. He’d be better off in the ground, anywhere but where he was, strapped to a table—a mute, tortured imbecile.
Or the first paragraph of Stephen Hunter’s Dirty White Boys (NY: Random House, 1994):
Three men at McAlester State Prison had larger penises than Lamar Pye, but all were black and therefore, by Lamar’s own figuring, hardly human at all. His was the largest penis ever seen on a white man in that prison or any others in which Lamar had spent so much of his adult life. It was a monster, a snake, a ropey, veiny thing that hardly looked at all like what it is but rather like some form of rubber tubing.
The improbably raw and mean-spirited plots reinforce my sense that there is real danger and malice in my surrounding environment. I begin not simply to suspect, but to be actually convinced, that those around me wish me ill, that my family and friends do not like me, that they resent me. During one difficult period, I got it into my head that I could only drink from a glass that contained four ice cubes. Somehow I had reasoned that the proportion of ice to liquid in any sized glass was ideal with four ice cubes. It didn’t seem to matter what size the ice cubes were—or how much liquid was poured into the glass. I was just focused on the four ice cubes. Whenever Elise did me the favor of offering to get me a drink, she would inevitably forget my rigid four-ice-cube dictum. She would put two or three or even five ice cubes in my glass. While I can now admit that I had neglected to remind her of my beverage policy, in the moment I would become inflamed and would then accuse her of trying to displace the exquisite balance I had achieved in my environment.
Simultaneously, I am certain that I have harmed my family in some deeply important way and so deserve their abandonment. As I sit here at my desk, I can tell you these thoughts are as absurd as you might think. Of course, I know that they aren’t true, and even when I’m depressed there’s a part of me that knows this. Still, it feels that way. And through some weird alchemy that I’m still untangling, in this state feelings are facts.
It used to be that I believed the Energy Monster to be supernatural. That it followed laws beyond nature. That was why the Energy Monster could descend upon me out of the blue. It was as if I really did wake up on the wrong side of the bed, but all four sides were wrong. Then, just as miraculously, the beast would vanish in a cloud of mystery.
With the work I’ve done in hospital programs and intensive therapy, and the new kinds of medications available for clinically depressed people, I’ve come to understand that this is not the case. The monster is anchored in very real biological and psychological circumstances. The most effective treatment I’ve had has been in what is called a partial hospitalization program that I would attend from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. This program was organized around the tenets of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I attended the program twice over the course of a year. The focus of my work there was to identify and become conscious of habits of thinking that would distort my reading of situations. I learned how these cognitive distortions prepared me for and then propelled me into depression. My therapist and I have continued to work on these techniques, and I have seen real progress in my ability to function and, even, enjoy life.
Nevertheless, this new understanding is not a cure-all. In this way I am not like many who get situationally depressed or experience a period of depression in their lives and fully recover. I think of my friend Susan who suffered depression for many years, but has recovered without a relapse with the help of Zoloft. I look at Elise who recently lost her job. This event sent her into a deep depression, which lasted several weeks. Her feelings passed eventually—however. They were situational. When the situation changed, the depression lifted.
That my depression does not follow one of these patterns has caused me much distress over the years. In fact, for my entire life. As a child I used to sit in church and listen to people testify about one affliction or another. They would describe how their faith in the Lord and prayer had lifted their need for alcohol or their lustings after another’s wife or husband. Then, we would sing a hymn that underscored how they were lost and now they were found by the Lord. As I listened to these miracles, I’d wish that it could happen to me. Then I would pray for my pain to be lifted as well, but it never happened. For years I wondered if I were bad or evil in some way I couldn’t identify because I could not be saved.
I felt my affliction was more primal. Its roots were not in the New Testament, but rather in ancient mythology. I was dammed much like Sisyphus who was forced to roll a boulder up one of two hills, and each time he reached the top, the boulder would roll back down and Sisyphus would have to start anew. In my worst moments, I imagined myself allied with Prometheus who was chained to a rock, where his liver was eaten daily by a vulture, and grew back nightly, only to be eaten again the following day.
At times, I still characterize my depression in epic proportions, but Natalie’s drawing has tempered this inflation of feeling. It shows me the “cartoonish” texture of my dramas. Like a slasher movie, all of these narratives are from the victim’s point of view where the monster is some hideous, unknown entity that is out to do me harm.
For this reason, I keep the picture tacked on the bulletin board in my office. When I talk on the phone or pause for a moment, my eyes rest on the drawing. As I look at it now, I’m reminded of what I’ve learned.
This beast has very distinct and recognizable travel plans. The Energy Monster never simply arrives unannounced. Instead, I can see it books its flight from California well in advance. This Monster is frugal. It wants the best package it can get—meaning it wants me to pay as dear a price as can be extracted.
The Energy Monster will start packing its bags whenever I begin to feel isolated. If Elise and I have an argument or disagreement that is not easily resolvable, I can feel my anxiety level increase. The first signs might be that I dream that night of losing her in some catastrophic way—a car accident, an earthquake, cancer. The first ten years of my marriage I would do anything not to come into conflict with Elise. I used to brag to my friends that Elise and I never fought. I can see this pathology now as my unconscious effort to thwart the Energy Monster. It’s a simple syllogism: if Elise and I don’t fight, I won’t be anxious. Therefore, I won’t become depressed.
Over the years, I went to great lengths to keep myself out of situations that held potential conflict. I used to joke that I lived by the Boy Scout Code: Safety First. My sensory perceptions became finely tuned for any static in my environment. At a magazine job I had when I was in my early twenties, my boss was particularly irascible. Before I took the position to be his assistant, he had gone through three people in six months.
In some ways I view that job experience as my training ground. I learned to be very skilled at modulating his moods. Elise, who worked for the same magazine, used to joke that everyone thought I was on Valium because I handled him so well. In truth, I was so calm because I was exhausted. All my attention was focused on keeping this man happy. When he was upset or angry, I would find some way to change his mood. I might go out and buy him ice cream. Or I might share a particularly delicious piece of office gossip. Usually, I simply acted like a devoted puppy. When he was in a good mood, I worked hard to protect it. I would deflect all bad news. I would hold potentially combustive phone messages aside until I could find a safe way to pass them along.
In that small office we shared at the end of a hall, I learned to be an exquisite listening device. Much like the seismometer that geologists use, I was an instrument that received and measured the environmental conditions for conflict. Often, I could do this long distance over the phone. Sometimes, I’d use this skill like a psychic to predict potential conflict that lay in the future. Then, I would strenuously avoid those situations. I can remember at the time never wanting to be in the same room with two friends who did not like each other. I couldn’t tolerate their enmity even though their dislike had nothing to do with me. Deep down, I felt that I was not only responsible for their conflict, but also responsible for resolving something that could not be resolved by me. The only logical response then was simply to avoid their company.
As it was bound to, this exquisite instrument failed. As I grew older, I had to modify it repeatedly until it was more like a Rube Goldberg contraption than the instrument I had originally constructed. I developed such sensitivity to any shift in environmental conditions that I became immobilized. The infinitesimal nuances and shifts of emotional energy in a room were too complex to process and then to form into an appropriate response.
As I lie in bed, the Energy Monster threatening me has come to represent this condition so clearly. I am enormously grateful to Natalie for her inspired drawing. It has given me a starting point from which to trace the monster’s journey backward. I can see now that it begins as a ticket of doubt in need of a customer. I then cash the doubt in with an experience, such as an ambiguous response from a friend that might leave me feeling unsettled. Like everyone, I sometimes invite a friend for dinner or to go to a movie and that friend can’t do it. The next time I call with an invitation, that friend might be busy that night as well for any number of legitimate reasons. Without prompting, however, I’ll find a way to blame myself and characterize the decline as cold rejection. With a sense of desperation I’ll sort through my memory of the most recent encounters with this friend and identify numerous instances where I “probably” offended them. The consequences of my offending behavior have only one conclusion: As a result of my utter repulsiveness, my friend no longer wants to get together. The reasons are clearly self-evident.
My choice of career as a writer has offered a unique opportunity to cash in on this doubt as well. Often, when I mail a manuscript to an editor, I do not hear from them for months. Instead of calling to check on the editor’s progress through my work, I create worst case scenarios: the editor is much too embarrassed or repulsed by the amateurishness, or the bald stupidity, of my efforts to feel it deserves a response. Ka-ching! The ticket has been purchased at full fare.
At this point the monster is ready to travel. It approaches slowly. At first it’s a speck on the horizon. As I accumulate more experiences that reinforce my sense of inadequacy, the monster nears. It is as if the monster is now in a car, or a bus, traveling along a winding road and gaining speed with each pang of doubt. With the monster approaching, I can feel my tentative hold on my own sense of adequacy, even legitimacy, begin to loosen. Here, the monster picks up speed. He aims for my unprotected confidence and flattens it on the pavement. I survive, if it can be called survival, with only that wretched, yet intractable, organ of the spirit, worthlessness.
Out of this diminished state, my feelings of hopelessness emerge. Effortlessly, I globalize even further and conclude: whatever hopes I might have for my life are foolish, delusional. My being can then be reduced to a neat syllogism. I am unloved and unlovable. Therefore, I cannot exist. This simple logic would have sent Descartes to the asylum. These thoughts are mine. Therefore, I cannot exist.
* * *
Today, I think about tolerating a certain level of discomfort. I do this by operating at a deliberate pace that allows me to name and acknowledge my feelings as they arise. That way these feelings cannot spiral out of control unnoticed. One trick has been to avoid multi-tasking because trying to juggle several things at once distracts me from what I am feeling. Then these unrecognized feelings can easily transform into thoughts of disaster. I remind myself, instead, to stay connected with myself and others. I try to touch Elise a couple of times a day. Putting my hand on her shoulder or giving her a hug reminds me that I am loved. At the same time I’ve found exercise essential to my well-being. When I am conscious of my breath and the movement of my body, I feel physically stronger, and from this actual strength I sense myself as more capable of managing what lies beyond.
I joke with Elise that the Energy Monster has bought a condo in California. He’s setting down roots there and won’t want to come back. As I spin this narrative, I shift the paradigm of being Depression’s victim just a little. My encounter with the monster I now view from its perspective as well as my own. He has a real home and real needs. Much like the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, my monster is normalized through this process. It no longer resides within the traditional horror story model—me a victim of its possession. Instead, I have come to see my circumstances from the monster’s perspective, where I can discover the kind of sustenance it needs to survive alone in California.
I’ve come to learn much about my monster and our consanguinity. My daughter’s drawing keeps me alert to discovering more about him so that some day, in the future, I can have the presence of mind to know when my feelings are myth—belonging therefore to the Monster—and when they are “mine.” I must do this because what I’ve read about depression and what I’ve been told by my psychiatrist and my therapist is that the likelihood of the monster returning is high. I am not like my friend Susan or my wife Elise, or even the parishioners of my childhood. I cannot be relieved of its presence for eternity. I can just hope that the intervals between its return are longer and that its stays are shorter and less intense. I just hope … I can only hope.
© Laban Carrick Hill