On most days, I don’t feel like doing anything. This non-feeling taken to the extreme, can also mean I may not feel like living. Everything including breathing itself can feel like a chore. I am not sure if this is the objective truth, because I have learnt that my feelings can be unreliable. It is just the brain and the nervous system generating its own thing.
Some people have impaired reward systems wired in their brain. The typical person may feel pleasure and/or satisfaction when they do things. I think I feel very little of it. It takes a lot for me to feel pleasure, so when I was younger I was unconsciously addicted to intensity in various forms. Till now I am still addicted to eating, because unlike most things eating makes me feel very clear signals.
Living with my partner has made me realise how life can actually be if you have a working nervous system. She possesses a strong intrinsic motivation because the act of making itself gives her joy, life, and fulfilment. It is so strong that there is zero doubt in what she wants to do. She doesn’t wait for inspiration because the desire to make something just bubbles non-stop out of her. I’ve lived with her for almost 7 years, and there is not a single moment I recall her saying that she doesn’t feel like making. She is usually thwarted by illness or fatigue – her issue is that she doesn’t know when to stop.
I do go through periods of hyperfocus when I am obsessed with what I am doing. But they are far and few in between, and like feelings they are unreliable. Yet there is an unconscious association of that hyperfocus with interest – if I am not hyperfocused on something it means I am not interested.
But again my brain is unreliable. It has its own life. Reading neuroscience, buddhism and psychology can explain this scientifically. But personally it is obvious that I am not my mind or my nervous system because I can go through personality changes simply based on the time of my cycle. The mere shifting of hormones can determine whether I feel like life is worth living. It can just be a difference of one day. Yesterday I can be bursting with life, the next day I feel like I am filled with sewage. Caffeine can give me a temporary burst of aliveness, lack of sleep can make me feel like death. If the supposed I change my mind about life every other day, then does the person who exists in me like or dislike living? Does this person exist? Or am I just the outcome of a dysfunctional neurological system?
I don’t really know how to deal with this unreliability. Sometimes I live with strict habits and routines because then I do things without the decisiveness of feelings. Yet they can be suffocating, and cause me to be inflexible. This inflexibility can be life-saving especially when I am descending into despair and I need a rigid system to allow me to hold on to something. Other times it deprives me of creative opportunities and makes me miss the forest for the trees. But if I let myself go entirely unchecked it is very likely I’ll slump into an empty existence because my default mode is just ruminating into sadness.
My partner asked me if I love drawing. She thought I was crazy about drawing because I was drawing a lot. I told her no, or at least I think no, because to me I draw not because I desire to draw, but I tell myself it is beneficial for me to draw. I wouldn’t say drawing gives me pleasure, at least not yet – but it gives me a break from my dysfunctional mind. I do like seeing how something can form out of nothing with the movement of my hands and the filter of my brain. I like how I can tell my hand to draw a line and it follows the instruction without fuss or complications. The line may not be what I envisioned of course, it could be extremely crooked when what I really wanted was a straight line. But it is still an output of a line, instead of vast nothingness, walls of frustration or some deep dark blackhole.
In other parts of my life, I tell my brain I wish to do something. But it is usually futile, because I cannot overcome the paralysis of my brain. Sometimes my feelings of despair are too overwhelming so I sit there weighed down by the heaviness of my sadness. Other times I feel so numb that I freeze. On hindsight, that’s why I like uncomplicated things like running. I don’t have to feel anything to run. It is just putting one foot after another. Just like drawing. One line after another. I may not feel pleasure, but I feel like I am in my body.
But the starts can still be difficult before they become an ingrained habit. So I started imagining a remote control where I send an instruction and something occurs, like “go cook”. I mean technically that’s how everyone works, we want to do something and we go do it. The difference is I usually don’t want to do anything. And I can’t do it even if I wanted to (here is a comic that suggests a possible theory). I am not sure why, but I find that it helps if I think of it as I am a third party controlling a character versus me just being myself. It is like playing a role-playing game: I am controlling a character on the screen with a game controller – if we set the character to automatically act with its own programming it may go berserk. The programming may be flawed and perhaps it has accumulated negative learnings, but a clear and concise instruction can override these things.
I am not sure if this sounds unhealthy, but in a way it is like an abstracted version of meditation where we impartially observe our thoughts like a third party – except I am impartially observing my thoughts and realising they are usually crap, so I am overriding those thoughts with what I think are better courses of action. It is being able to stand outside of the narrow confines of my emotions and my body and not over-identifying with them, especially because I know they have accumulated negative programming over the years.
Essentially, I need an extra step in between having an intention to do something and actually doing it. I have to abstract myself into something I can put at a observational distance. Instead of thinking: let’s do something, I imagine I am manipulating some control that sends a signal to this person to do something. It is like all those times we do something not because we want to do it, but because some authoritative figure – parent, teacher, mentor, boss – tell us to do it, except now we could say that in a way I am actually parenting myself. That attempt to have this objective distance puts me in a very different mindset, like a switch in context.
Of course this assumes the person who is manipulating that control is capable of making good enough decisions. I don’t pretend to know what is best for myself, I am still finding my way and experimenting. But this helps me do things I don’t necessarily feel like doing or want to do, but I know they are beneficial for me in the long run. I am hoping that some of the positivity and experiences I am getting from these almost coerced actions will slowly rewire the dysfunctional programming I have – like how a parent believes they are doing their best for their child by making the child do certain things. I just hope I don’t become my own asian parent, and that I am playing my character like the stardew valley experience where it is fun and nourishing, not some dystopian version of The Sims where I burn out my own character by over-achieving.
And there are the usual caveats. Many people are unable to overcome their executive dysfunction no matter how hard they try and what they can imagine. It took me a lifetime of work to get here, that I can even see and nudge myself as a third person. Some days are simply unbearable no matter how much I try. But I have had years of experience in forming habits and routines due to my chronic illness, and they were all accumulative to this point. That it is possible to do something simply because it is time to do it, and not rely on a source of motivation or inspiration. But it is still extremely difficult for me, and impossible for others. I guess I need to acknowledge my luck that I am still able to attempt some things.
It is all part of an experimental process I guess. There will be mistakes, and I will hopefully learn from those. I would rather make mistakes trying new things than to run on my dysfunctional autopilot mode. I have been a very unhappy person, and I dare not wish for happiness. But I do hope to experience as much of the world and my self in this one short life.