You’ve probably heard the song “Pompeii” by Bastille. It was apparently a global hit back in 2013. But for whatever reason, it didn’t make it onto my radar until a couple of weeks ago. The first time I heard it, I thought, wow, what a great song. So upbeat. So catchy. Then, a couple of nights ago it came on, and my husband Tony, who likes learning everything about everything, asked if I knew what this song was written about. A breakup, obviously. Or depression. Something like that.
But actually, as Tony explained, it was written as a conversation between two people who were buried in the Pompeii volcano eruption.
And the walls kept tumbling down In the city that we love. Gray clouds roll over the hills Bringing darkness from above... How am I gonna be an optimist about this? How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
Here they are, their entire world being buried under layer after layer of molten rock, and they’re trying to figure out how to find the good in the situation–as if finding this good could somehow fix the unfixable.
I’ve been finding the good and attempting to fix things (both fixable and not) for as long as I can remember. I navigated my way through the gray clouds, hanging onto one silver lining after another. But it wasn’t just my own silver linings I had to find, it was everyone else’s, too.
About a decade ago, I was in grad school listening to one of my classmates present her master’s thesis. She was a child psychologist as well as a writer, and if I remember correctly, her presentation was about the power of stories in helping kids heal from traumatic life events. What I remember most was a video montage of these kids she’d worked with and the song “Defying Gravity” from Wicked playing in the background. By the end of the short video, I was sobbing (as quietly as a I could). My friend leaned over and whispered, you just feel things so deeply, don’t you?
And I thought, wait, you don’t? It was the first time I realized that not everyone felt things in the same way. That’s when I came up with the term superfeeler to try to describe the depth of my emotional experience.
It wasn’t just my own feelings that I felt so deeply, though. It was also the feelings of the people around me. Ever the optimist, I tried to see the good in this. As a writer, the ability to sense and feel the emotions of others seems to be an invaluable trait. It’s how I create characters that feel like real people. But it also makes being in the world very hard sometimes, especially when the people around me–the people I love most–are hurting.
From a very young age, I learned to be an optimist. I learned to see the good and talk about the good until people felt the good. Then, once they felt better, I could feel better, too. My optimism wasn’t just an outlook, it was a means of survival. And I got really really good at it. For over 30 years, I was able to mitigate a lot of pain.
Then, the volcano erupted. The pandemic and my grandma’s death. Rampant anxiety and OCD. Layer after layer piled on top, as I sank deeper and deeper into the darkness. How was I gonna be an optimist about this?
I tried to find the good. I really did. But I couldn’t do it. It was all too heavy. And too sad. And too dark. And too scary.
In her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert describes the creative journey as a road trip and fear as one of our road trip companions. She says you have to bring fear along because you can’t create without him. But you don’t have to let him drive. Just put him in the back seat and don’t let him touch the radio. It’s good advice especially for a writer like me. If I let fear take over my creative process, I’d probably be playing World of Warcraft right now instead of writing. (But we’ll get to that in a second.)
The thing is, I didn’t just want fear in the backseat. I wanted to lock him in the trunk along with sadness, grief, anger, jealousy, guilt, shame and all his other bad friends. In fact, I didn’t want them in my car at all. Or in my life. These feelings were too hard to control, too painful, and too heavy for this superfeeler’s heart. Which is why I tried for so many years to optimist them away. And it worked.
Until it didn’t.
I spent nearly two years stuck in my own personal Pompeii. And to borrow words from Bastille’s song once again: Many days fell away with nothing to show.
I’d gone from Mandy the strong, Mandy the fixer, Mandy the optimist to Mandy the person who could barely get out of bed and sometimes wasn’t even able to brush her teeth.
When a person changes like that, so suddenly, it’s disorienting for the people around them, especially for the people who love them most. Like Tony. He did his best to support me and be the light I couldn’t find on my own. He’d sit with me and rub my back and tell me over and over again that he loved me, as if his words were a life jacket and if I’d just strap them on, I’d float right up and out of this. But it didn’t work like that. I was stuck, and he couldn’t love me out of it. Which made him sad. Very sad. And as a superfeeler, on top of all my own stuff, I felt his sadness too–this sadness that I was causing.
It was coming up on his birthday, his second one since things had gotten dark, and I decided that, no matter what I was feeling, I was going to make it a good one for him. So that weekend, I started playing World of Warcraft (his favorite game) again with him.
In World of Warcraft, or WoW as we affectionately call it, you create a character (or multiple characters) and play with thousands of other people in this fantasy world, where you can do everything from complete quests to sew your own clothes to group up with other players and try to defeat fire-breathing dragons and giant lava monsters. In fantasy worlds, I’ve always been drawn to wizards and magic (thank you, J.K Rowling), so when it came time to choose a character to play with Tony, being a mage was a fairly obvious choice. As a mage, you get to stand away from the inner fray of battle and throw magic spells at the big baddies, which suited me perfectly. There was another type of wizard I could have chosen as well–a warlock. But warlocks use dark, shadow magic and summon demons to assist them. I already had enough darkness and demons in my life. So, mage it was. Plus, I’d played a mage in other iterations of this game, and I already knew how to play it. I wasn’t here to learn something new anyway. I was here for one reason and one reason only–to have a good time with Tony.
A birthday weekend of playing WoW turned into a week and then a month. We were having fun again. I was having fun again. And without really realizing it, I was starting to feel a little better, too.
I even made a new friend, a warlock. And as we played together, I began to notice some things. She had demons by her side yes, but they were fighting for her and even protecting her. And while she used dark spells to take on enemies, she was able to do some really amazing things with her magic–like take an enemy’s life points to heal herself and her demons. And she made these little candies she could pass out to her friends, which gave us all life points and sometimes even kept us from dying.
It was darkness and demons, but in the best possible way. So, one Saturday evening about a month ago, I decided to make a warlock for myself. Now, I play my warlock Mandemonium more than I do my mage. (That’s me with my protection demon in the picture above.)
I’ve spent so long fighting against the darkness–the fear, the sadness, all the other “bad” feelings I wanted to lock in my trunk. But what if I’ve been thinking about them all wrong? What if they aren’t really “bad” at all? What if they’re protective or healing even, like the demons and dark magic in WoW?
The sad parts, the ugly parts, broken parts, the dark parts–those are us, too. And if we’re constantly shoving them into the back seat, (or locking them in the trunk) and never letting them take the wheel, how will see where they’re trying to take us? How will we know what they’re trying to show us? How will we know what they need?
How will we know what we need? Because they are us. We are all the light, but we are all the darkness, too.
So, how am I gonna be an optimist about this?
I’m going to try to sit in the discomfort and anxiety and pain. I’m going to try to stay with it, and trust that I’ll find my way through.
Because believing in ourselves and our ability to survive–even in the midst of everything tumbling down around us (and within us)–to me, that feels like the greatest display of optimism ever.
Can blogs have epilogues? And if they can, would we call them epiblogues? (All right. Enough of that silliness.)
Earlier this week, I had all these ideas swirling around my head. Lyrics. Anxiety. Warlock. And they all seemed connected. I needed to make sense of it all, somehow. So, I sat down to write.
After my first day of writing, I still had a lot of work to do to get everything woven together like it is above, but by the time I stopped for the evening, I had already come to my final point–a redefinition of optimism.
The next morning, I woke up feeling anxious. Even though I don’t feel like I’m stuck in that perpetual darkness of the last two years anymore, the anxiety still comes. In the past, my standard reaction had always been to try to figure out why I was anxious and what I could do to get rid of it.
But on this particular morning, I remembered what I’d written the day before about sitting with the “bad” feelings and even letting them take the wheel sometimes. So, I stopped trying to understand my anxiety or push it away. Instead, I just kind of lay there in bed with it. I honored its presence. I accepted its validity. I listened. And you know what it said?
I got no answers. No direction. But the tension I felt when it first showed up had loosened. So, I got up and brushed my teeth.