Updated: May 15, 2020
Chelsey and I are struggling with texts. We’re used to seeing each other every week, and as the virus continues to keep us apart, we’re relying on text messages to check in regularly. But both of us are being buried alive and losing conversation threads with each other, as everyone else is also relying on texts to keep in touch. This morning, she sent me a one-line message: “How is your brain recalibrating?”
I pause—this phrasing is a spin on our usual check in question, “how is your brain?” Chelsey is my friend who is able to cut through my usual palaver about my day or world affairs with her question about my brain. The question goes right to the heart of what I am really thinking and about my mental health. She is the friend who is unafraid to hear an expletive-filled tirade after a bad week or to call me on my shit when I fall into repetitive patterns of stock phrases such as “everything happens for a reason.”
“Okay, but how is your brain?” she’ll ask again.
The question is always uncomfortable. I should be prepared, but every time she asks, I am caught off guard. I have to confront my chronic depression and decipher which thoughts are entrenched and which might be possible avenues for escape. Chelsey helps me tease out the differences, and I always leave our get togethers feeling hopeful that there’s been some kind of breakthrough. Or, if not a breakthrough, that someone gave me the great gift of her attention to my ideas and thoughts.
The recalibration question is one that has me stumped, because it asks for the next layer and not just a retelling of what’s on my mind. It’s not questioning how I am dealing with isolation and my recent job loss. It is the “what’s next” question. And not the what’s next for income or job or meal planning. She is asking that I consider how I am thinking about what’s on my mind, and if there are any new ideas to explore. It asks for a reset, something to get me out of my current thought cycle.
The question also asks for selectivity—what will I put my attention to? What will I ignore? William James believed that our brains are in a constant state of selection. In The Principles of Psychology, he argued that “the mind chooses to suit itself and decides what particular sensation shall be held more real and valid than all the rest.” But James’s thoughts on the brain (and his own brain) does not always satisfy me. If I want more agency in how my brain processes difficult external circumstances, I have to be active in my selection of what I hold onto and of what I let go. In this selection process, though, is the real problem of choosing either all “good” or all “bad” circumstances to fit my particular narrative.
I think of the narratives of isolation, which are the narratives of the world now but set in this unusual epoch. Each particular narrative is unique to the teller, but the circumstances are similar. For example, there are the pandemic directives and how we follow them: are we mask-wearers in hardware stores, or not? There are the judgements and the sides we take: to go or not go on a social-distant hike with a friend. There are the coping methods discussions: do we bake bread, or take naps, or lock ourselves in our bathrooms for a few minutes of quiet from children and home activities? In all of these discussions there seem to be only two distinct sides—either one believes or does not. The narrative then becomes a question, wondering how we will ever all talk with one another again. The narrative of others is getting back to “normal” soon, but in my case, the narrative has become staying home with my husband and cats is preferable to Mad Max-ing my way through a grocery store.
Being left alone with my own thoughts for a while does not make me uncomfortable, but it does make me question the truth of my perceptions. This is why I’m grateful for the wise counsel of a friend who asks me hard questions and to explain what I am thinking. It forces me to consider the complexity of circumstances and perceptions in order to form a narrative that is both reflexive and reflective. And so, how are you? How is your brain? More importantly, how is your brain recalibrating?
How are you, Kim Hensley Owens?