The broken time machine

Was it 10 minutes or 10 months ago that this, the year of our lord 2018, got off to its cold, weary start? My calendar tells me it’s the latter, that we’re here again approaching the end and its concurrent new beginning, but my mind is insisting on the former, efficiently condensing nearly 365 days into a brief blink, like I experienced the whole year in the time it would take to have a coffee with one of the friends I feel too busy to see.

Earlier this year (or was it last?) I had drinks with a few coworkers, only one of whom was still in her 20s, and her early ones at that. A few beers in I managed to vocalize a feeling that had been creeping up on me for years: that after the age of 25 time flattens out, minutes and months bleeding into each other until one has the uncanny sense of looking simultaneously backward and forward, eagerly awaiting the next event while wondering, what just happened?

I’m sure everyone feels some variety of this—see the hashtag, especially popular among parents, “timepleaseslowdown”—but mental illness distorts time in its own special ways. Anxiety has a way of stealing the present, trading it in for more time spent fretting about the future, like a teacher ceaselessly reminding you of the dwindling minutes left on the recess clock.

I remember in particular a day at the beach one of these recent summers, a Saturday if i recall, late in the season. We did all the usual beach things—sunbathing, drinking surreptitiously, gazing into the infinite horizon. It should have felt timeless, but I couldn’t shake the worrying about the day’s inevitable end. My mind wouldn’t stay put. I wanted it to be on the beach, but it decided to roam incessantly into the future, the return of work and cold weather and crammed subways. I might as well not have been there.

According to a recent New York Times Magazine piece, our brains are very good at this. “Left to its own devices,” the article’s author writes, “the human brain resorts to one of its most emblematic tricks, maybe one that helped make us human in the first place. It time-travels.” This time travel apparently helped us take over the planet (this has made a lot of people very angry, but that’s for another article) and is core to human cognition. So it makes sense that it’s one of the main things that goes haywire in mental illness.

Here’s Martin Seligman, whose job as a neuroscientist is devoted to understanding what brains do when they’re happy:

While most people tend to be optimistic, those suffering from depression and anxiety have a bleak view of the future — and that in fact seems to be the chief cause of their problems, not their past traumas nor their view of the present. While traumas do have a lasting impact, most people actually emerge stronger afterward. Others continue struggling because they over-predict failure and rejection. Studies have shown depressed people are distinguished from the norm by their tendency to imagine fewer positive scenarios while overestimating future risks.

“Overestimating future risks” could possibly be the biggest understatement of my experience with anxiety, which has largely been defined by my brain’s (and gut’s) infuriating insistence that everything and everyone is out to hurt me, and that leaving the house in the morning is akin to, I don’t know, crossing Antarctica on foot, alone, without oxygen. My brain has apparently become too adept at just one part of time traveling, but has neglected its ability to plan, to “imagine positive scenarios,” which to me sounds like a way to say: to hope, to dream. If ever there were a New Year’s resolution worth having, restoring even some of that ability might be it.

Have a happy 2019, everyone. Enjoy it.

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