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Live laugh languish
I'm not sick, but I'm not well
I’m Jillian Anthony, and this is Cruel Summer Book Club, a newsletter about change, heartbreak and healing. Thanks for being here.
Guys, I feel shitty.
And it’s not because I got the second Moderna shot yesterday. I have a sore arm and what feels like a moderate hangover, but I’m fine.
I’ve been down the last few weeks—and most of 2021. I know what depression feels like, and I know this feeling is not that. But this rut still feels awful. I’m sleeping too much. Trying to escape my reality. Wallowing. I feel stuuuuuuuck, uncertain about how exactly to get where I want to go. And I’m so frustrated at how long it’s taking me to rebuild my life.
I’m proud of the way I lived 2020. My plan in January was to quit my job in summer and travel Europe for the last six months of the year; by April, the pandemic and a layoff set Plan B into motion, and I moved out of New York City and traveled solo to some of the most stunning places on earth for three months. My 2020 decisions felt purposeful, centered around rest, spending time alone and traveling into the unknown. When I returned from my roadtrip, I felt invincible, swollen with hope.
That feeling’s been gone for months now. 2021 has felt so aimless. This year is a third of the way over (!) and I feel I’ve accomplished very little. I feel like all the spaghetti I’m throwing at the wall isn’t sticking, like I’m a bratty kid kicking dirt in a circle around a sandbox, whining. It feels shameful.
I know this down time is fleeting. I know I’m going to be working again soon enough, and for the rest of my life—but I want to be working again now. I’ve never been someone who thrives with too much time on her hands. The glacial pace of my life is driving me crazy.
The worst part is, I’m self-sabotaging. Through months of self-reflection and creative work, I’ve identified my greatest dreams. But so far, they’ve paralyzed me. This is my oldest, most violent habit: Procrastinate myself to death until I’m convinced I’m lazy and talentless. But I’m neither of those things. I’m afraid.
Last week, I read a New York Times article by psychologist Adam Grant that perfectly articulated how I’ve been feeling.
Grant writes about our collective blah:
At first, I didn’t recognize the symptoms that we all had in common. Friends mentioned that they were having trouble concentrating. Colleagues reported that even with vaccines on the horizon, they weren’t excited about 2021. A family member was staying up late to watch “National Treasure” again even though she knows the movie by heart. And instead of bouncing out of bed at 6 a.m., I was lying there until 7, playing Words with Friends.
It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.
Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.
Ah, languishing! It me.
I oversleep. I watch Happy Endings over and over. My willpower is nonexistent and it’s impossible to stick to healthy habits, especially new ones. I’m not excited for my near future, even though I’m now fully vaccinated and soon moving to a new city. I’m more prone to negative thought spirals than I have been since last spring. I apply to jobs that don’t go anywhere. I feel bad about my body. I just feel BAD.
Ever since I read this, I’ve seen it all over Twitter, a chorus of people recognizing themselves in one word, saying, “Aha!” We’re all languishing, and it sucks.
When I shared the definition of languishing on Instagram and asked if anyone else identified with it, I got several enthusiastic replies. It’s good to know we’re in this together.
Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.
And there it is, the reason why languishing matters, why I can’t keep sitting around in my morose, dull cocoon. Languishing now might lead to serious depression or other mental health issues later. I know how to take care of myself when I’m low, which is focus on the basics: clean eating, exercise, journaling, therapy, and most of all, self-compassion. As I’m writing this, a voice reminds me (begs me, really) to be gentle. Do anything that doesn’t make it worse.
Grant writes that an antidote to languishing can be “flow,” or immersing yourself deep into a project you care about so you feel something again. Find solace in uninterrupted time (something I’m struggling with) and concentrate on your small wins (ugh).
This “pause” in my life has been uncomfortably long. I’ve been in various transition modes for the last two years straight, none of them outwardly good ones. But I am moving forward, and good things are happening. I keep telling people I’m a slow-moving ship—but my inner child starts to kick and scream when I see how much farther my vessel has to travel before I “arrive.”
But every single thing I’ve learned while writing here has shown me there is no arrival! We are always in transition. Change is life’s only constant. Yes, the changes I experienced over the last couple years were pretty tectonic, and it’s unlikely that I will experience change alongside the entire globe again in my lifetime. (Please, dear god, let this be true.) I’m trying to remind myself of all the good that came after (if “after” really exists) tough transitions I’ve experienced before.
As we head into a new post-pandemic reality, it’s time to rethink our understanding of mental health and well-being. “Not depressed” doesn’t mean you’re not struggling. “Not burned out” doesn’t mean you’re fired up. By acknowledging that so many of us are languishing, we can start giving voice to quiet despair and lighting a path out of the void.
I feel bad. I feel bad about myself. I’m moping. I’m stuck. I’m languishing. But I’m going to get myself out of the void, one day at a time.
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