Zombiism and Other Common Misconceptions

I am not a zombie.

I say this with absolute assurance because I haven’t developed a taste for human brains and no one has taken a wack at me with a blunt object.  Also, I have not begun to walk around stiffly, dazed and moaning, and my eyes have not begun to roll awkwardly in that hello-I’m-undead way–all tell-tale zombie signs.  Having recently watched Sean of the Dead, I consider myself perfectly capable of making this determination; however, I will defer to my friend Susan, whose expertise in such matters far exceed my own.

A zombie I am not, but I may be moving ever closer to life as a Vulcan, courtesy of a little pill I like to call Propanolol.  It’s the beta blocker I take to keep my heart-rate down, and much needed, too.  That was the hyperthyroidism symptom that gave me the most trouble.  I had gotten used to the frequent feeling of my heart pounding rapidly enough to move my entire upper body when I had been sitting still and even worse when I had been doing something.  Stairs were the worst kind of Kryptonite for me; I would get to my class on the third floor of the Administration Building and have to catch my breath before I could start teaching.  Twice, I made myself sick with moderate exercise.  But I traded all that in–and good riddance, too–for a little, robin-egg-blue pill that makes life both easier and harder at the same time.

Physically, it’s a life-saver.  Really–if my heart were to go on pumping too fast, it would cause major problems.  These days, I can walk across campus and go up three flights of stairs without feeling like my heart is trying to get free of my chest and make a break for it.  I can take Spur for walks and exercise on my rowing machine.  I don’t sit, trying to be completely still, willing myself to take deep, slow breaths, hoping my heart-rate will come down.  I can do most everything that I want to.

But there are side-effects to the Propanolol, which are pretty minimal and definitely livable.  I knew in advance–the e.r. doctor who prescribed them warned me.  “Do you have a depressed sort of personality?” he asked, and I almost laughed, “No.” “Well, you might while you’re on these.”  As he walked out of the room and I thought about the full scope of what that might mean–not just feeling down, but being generally more depressed–I looked at my mom and said, “Well, if it makes me any more unemotional than I already am, I’ll practically be a Vulcan.”  I smiled, yet another attempt at humor that she was not amused by that day.

I took the doctor’s warning seriously, but I didn’t expect to happen.  And at first I didn’t notice it.  I was recovering from illness, dehydration, and lack of food, so the symptoms were masked for a while.  But eventually I began to realize that I should have stopped feeling tired and unmotivated all the time.  That my brain should have gone back to the sharpness I’m accustomed to.  As I was contemplating this one day, it dawned on me that I was experiencing the “depressed personality” the doctor had warned me about.

It’s particularly noticeable in the tired feeling that seems to gather most intensely around my eyes, perhaps due to the mild pupil dilation caused by the medicine.  I am learning that feeling worn out does not mean that I am, and shouldn’t stop me from doing things that I want to, like exercising, reading, or spending time with people.  Exercising is easier in the morning, during those few hours in which I feel a bit fresher.  However, on the positive side, I’m also more willing to exercise in the drowsy afternoon than I used to be because I’m not any more worn out if I do exercise than if I don’t.  When I’m out with my friends, I begin to turn into a pumpkin around 9:30, though I feel it coming long before that.  It’s a bit harder to sit through office hours feeling like I could doze off at any moment, and it’s a lot harder to focus on what I need to do.  Sometimes I make it through whole chunks of the day in a somnambulant sort of way, with a fuzzy, dream-like memory for whatever events have taken place.  I usually rely on my sharp, instant recall pretty heavily, but these days, I rely on my iPhone calendar and notes to myself.

I would be pretty disappointed about my dip in brain function, except that I don’t really get disappointed these days.  Or nervous.  Or stressed.  Or excited.  I have become, largely, emotionally numb.  Now, I’ve never been the kind of person who is ruled by her emotions.  I’m not particularly prone to moodiness, and I almost never make emotional decisions or purchases, or say things I’ll regret later because of an emotional outburst.  So, imagine my surprise when I discovered how hard it is to function on a day-to-day basis without emotions as I am used to experiencing them.

Now, don’t get me wrong–it’s fantastic for a perfectionist like myself to be able to under-plan for class and not feel anxious out about it, to look at a stack of grading and not feel stressed out about it, to not get through my to-do list because I was reading instead and not feel bad about it.  I feel like my students are responding really well to me this semester, better than ever before, and I’m pretty sure that part of that is how relaxed I am.

But, on the other hand, I’m accustomed to letting my emotions do all the heavy lifting when it comes to self-motivation.  Just the other day, I told my erstwhile thesis director how glad I am not to be tackling that kind of project or even a seminar paper this semester because I have no idea how I would get through it without the emotional drive.  As it is, I’m already behind on grading and have a hard time getting my class planned.  And I can’t feel anything to make myself be more disciplined.  So, I’ve started doing what any good academic would do: I’m trying to think my way to motivation.  It’s not as easy, especially since my brain can be unreliable, and it’s not as efficient or effective, but it is at least more peaceful.

Beyond trying to keep myself on track with tasks, though, I lack motivation for things because I don’t feel any passion for them.  People ask me if I love teaching and I tell them that I do, not because I feel it these days, but because I know that, somewhere buried underneath this stupor, I do feel that way.  I go over the things I love about teaching in my head like a set of facts, answers to a test.  You may have heard me say some of these things, perhaps even with conviction, but there’s not really any warmth behind them.  I just say the words, acknowledging the truth of them intellectually but unable to find the emotion to support the thought.  It’s the same with horses.  When people ask if I’m still riding, I don’t tell them that the last time I rode was months ago, that I like to see my horses and pet them, but riding seems like too much work for something I may not even be able to really enjoy.  So I just say yes, because I know I still love to ride and still want to, even if I don’t feel it right now.

It’s a bizarre experience to be an objective expresser of one’s own emotions.  I think of Mr. Spock’s great line, “Curious,” always said as if the thing is not actually curious at all, which seems to fit my experience of emotional numbness perfectly.

One thing I can say for this experience, though, is that it’s given me a new perspective on what others go through when they are on medications with this effect.  If you had asked me before if I knew that some medications had the effect of making people feel like zombies, I would have said yes, of course.  If you had told me that you were on such a medication, I would have nodded my head sympathetically and scrunched my face up just so, and said, “Oh,” in that drawn-out, I-understand sort of way.

But I wouldn’t have understood, because I couldn’t have.  Because even as I said it, I would have been processing it through my emotions while my sharp brain took in a massive, intricately detailed amount of data about the conversation for a rapid, near-perfect recall if needed again soon.  I would have tried to imagine how it must feel, and my emotional processor would have told me lies bred from misinformation.  I wouldn’t have known that you were probably feeling lonely for your own personality in the strange, hollow way you feel things like loneliness. Or that several times a week, sometimes everyday, you would catch yourself feeling a little blue for no reason, and then you would have to fight the urge to let an actual, genuine emotion take hold of you because you refuse to be sucked into drug-induced depression.  Or how hard it was to pretend to be excited about things that you want to actually be excited about in that barren sort of way you want things.  Or the struggle it is to fill out grad school applications for a plan you know you’ll be passionate about again someday.  Or how you just want to read and write all the time because somehow the flat pages and crooked letters of the written word allows the feelings that are kept at bay, just below your own full perception, to find their way to the surface and seem real again, and present, however limited and short-lived.

And I wouldn’t have understood your difficulty in explaining all this to people around you to give some account for the uncharacteristic, zombie-like stoicism that you sometimes can’t pretend away.  But now I do.

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4 thoughts on “Zombiism and Other Common Misconceptions

  1. Thank you for sharing. I’m glad you’re feeling better, but I’m sorry it has come at such a price. I can’t claim to understand all of what you describe, but one thing I found especially poignant: “lonely for your own personality.” This one I know, and it really sucks. 😦

    I pray you won’t have to continue to take the steamroller for too much longer.

    You should like, totally try LSD dude. It like completely amps up your emotions and stuff, man. One stamp and you’ll be like…whoooaaaa. 😉

    (Sorry, that was best hippie impression.)

  2. Shanna — this is a wonderful post. It sounds like it’s been a huge learning and adapting process, and I hope it all turns out well. Thanks for this glimpse into your experience, even if, as you say, no one else can really “know.”

  3. I had to ask Jon what a Vulcan is, but I really loved reading this. Very well written and transparent (transparency is my favorite).

    Did you ever see the Friends where Ross had to take a tranquilizer because of his rage over the theft of his sandwich? I love the deadpan way he says, “On account of my rage.” With no outward sign of rage. I was going to quote it to you earlier this week when you said something about your lack of emotion, but too many people were around for me to feel comfortable quoting Friends.

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