There is a cliche that has been haunting me, in the background of my thoughts, always out of focus but ever present. Like a ghost with its own unique story, but stirring in you a deep dread and a hyper vigilance for apparition-lookin’-things. If you’re intent on conveying a unique idea to an audience then you must be prejudiced against cliches. Cliche’s reduce emphasis and thus inhibit empathy—and if the idea you’re trying to convey is your own personal pain, there is an even greater need for clarity in your descriptions.
Most people have a sort of general empathy running in the background of their lives at all times, and cliche’s are only really compatible with drawing out that kind of general empathy. But when we’re trying to convey the experience of our pain to someone else we want to draw out a more invested, particular kind of empathy. We reason by association, and cliches make us think of problems less seriously – partly because we associate them with their stigma (dramatic, cheap, attention-seeking), and partly because we are desensitized to them. We hear cliche’s all the time, and in all sorts of contexts. People don’t always think about the words or phrases they use, or intend them when they use them. Cliche’s are a shining example of that. Yet for all their misuse, they still don’t encapsulate the kind of piercing pain a person feels after being told they have cancer, or that their child has died.
The words you use to describe your idea become the information others use to experience what you are describing; an approximation of what you’re experiencing, the better you describe the idea, the easier it is to empathize with your experience. For instance, if you use a cliche to describe your pain to someone, hoping they will empathize with you, it will more often than not have the opposite effect; perhaps some really kind people will fake interest, but you’re not going to get the kind of response you want. Cliche’s are over-used (we are desensitized to them), and don’t contain the unique details that make the story of your pain your story. If empathizing is ‘putting yourself in someone elses shoes’ then language is the ‘map’ that gets you to those shoes. When you write about your pain, you are writing for a sympathetic audience, an audience that already has the incentive to put on your shoes. It’s important to remember that even the most perfect empathetic experience is still an approximation of your experience; no one other than you can know all of the details of your life, how you think, or how you respond to difficult situations. They’re experiencing your pain as if they were you. It’s easy to become trapped in the idea that what’s obvious to you should be obvious to others; ‘It’s cancer, obviously it sucks’. You want to generalize your description enough so that other people can identify with it, but be specific enough so that they can feel what you feel.
Yet still this cliche keeps hounding me. Whenever I feel lonely, or think about what life would be like if only, it sniffs me out; like it’s leading derision and apathy to me, and the fate I dread. This cliche resembles my need, but because it’s a cliche, it promises my ruin.
I am lonely when I’m alone – usually at night, and usually after I take a certain medication to stay awake. Recently, scientists have shown in mouse studies that the absence of the chemical messenger serotonin does not cause depression. This must be a conflicting breakthrough for people with depression. The medication I take to help me sleep is a stimulant. Used primarily to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (which I happen to have), methylphenidate is often used to treat chronic fatigue. It works by increasing the availability of another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Dopamine is not my friend. I would love to correct the source of my fatigue, but since I cannot I’m left treating the symptoms – and treating them poorly. I can’t decide which I’d rather have: the fatigue, or the sadness. Both are overwhelming, both prevent me from doing the things I love – like writing, reading and studying – and both make me miserable to be around. Which means most of the time I look for little reasons to compromise. If I’m with other people, I’ll treat the fatigue. If I’m alone after a relatively productive day, I’ll cope with the fatigue. The problem is that I don’t have the freedom to sleep whenever I want anymore. My back problems are so bad that I cannot sleep more than 6 hours, anymore and I wake in agony – like that’s all my body can take, and its passing the responsibility of dealing with the pain off to my conscious mind.The sleep causes the pain, and the pain disrupts the sleep. Which sort of forces my hand when I’m choosing which to treat, the fatigue or the sadness the treatment creates. My pain supports my pain, it seems.
I’m lonely when I’m alone even when I don’t take those certain medications. Love serves a function beyond just making us feel good. Like the relationship I have with sleep and pain, love improves lives, and improved lives enjoy more love. My loneliness stems from not having the ‘feeling good’ part of love, and also the functions of love that make life easier, practically. There’s this great idea that you can be lonely in a room with someone else. I want that. To have the freedom of isolation but the rewards of social contact. There’s something so intoxicating about making another person laugh. A few laughs an hour could sustain me, definitely.