I had another weird moment of realization when R asked me the other day how serious my depression really was and followed up by asking “are there still things that bring you joy or are even those feelings subdued?”

[cw: discussion of anxiety and depression, but nothing that heavy this time]

My first reaction to that was like... “still” things that bring me joy? I was going over my hobbies in my head like... am I supposed to feel joy when I do these things? The main ways I spend my free time (besides like, dicking around on the internet) are playing violin and piano, and writing. I enjoy playing piano, in that it takes my mind off my problems and I feel peaceful and calm while I play, at least most of the time.

Violin is a mixed bag—it's often physically uncomfortable because I'm tense when I play (my form is Not great). I also used to play violin when I was young, dropped it for nearly a decade, and picked it up again a few years ago, so I'm still re-learning a good tone. I don't think it sounds very good when I play, most of the time. I find it frustrating. It's occasionally rewarding, but I play more because if I keep going, it'll be fun in like a decade, than because I actually enjoy it.

Writing though... The wording of R's question made me realize that a lot of the time, especially lately, I meta-enjoy writing without actually enjoying it. I don't write when I feel like writing—I usually write on a schedule, sometimes literally with a wordcounter running so I know when I've written enough and I'm “allowed” to stop. I hardcore adopted the NaNoWriMo method of novel writing. I averaged over 2k words/day when I wrote my last novel, some of that while working full time.

I enjoyed writing this new novel when I started it, but revising it has been pure tedium. I'm at the point where I've started to hate what I wrote—I've read it too much, I know all of its flaws, the pacing feels weird, I hate my voice, et cetera—and I dread opening the document back up because I have to face those problems not knowing whether I'll be able to fix them. I'm very focused on publishing this novel, in part because of pressure from my parents... I almost see it as a second job. Which is probably not super healthy, because I already work full time.

Since I had that conversation with him I haven't touched the novel. I haven't even opened Scrivener. This might be the longest I've gone without writing in the past six months, besides the week-or-two break I took between writing the first draft of this novel and going back to revise it (which I forced myself to take because I knew that would make revision easier). I don't know how to feel about that. It's a relief to not have it hanging over my head when I come home. I can just relax with friends on discord or play music without wondering if I'll get any revising done today, because I know I won't.

At the same time, like I said, I meta-enjoy writing a LOT. I have an identity as a writer, I've been a writer since I was in elementary school, and I do get satisfaction out of it, sometimes—I definitely enjoyed writing the 120k combined words of fanfic I've written and published in the past year or so, and I love getting comments/feedback on my work. I am satisfied by finishing a long piece of writing even if the process of writing it is unpleasant. I want to be a Person That Writes really bad, badly enough to spend an hour or more daily on writing that I only find actually fun in the moment maybe one day in five.

It's not that I get zero joy, ever, out of these hobbies, because I do enjoy them! I feel joyful when I play a piano piece at tempo for the first time and start to be able to put emotion and dynamics into it; I feel joy when I improve a passage in one of the violin pieces I'm working on; I feel joy when writing a fun scene in one of my novels, while daydreaming and brainstorming about my characters, and I even sometimes feel joy while revising.

The issue is that joy isn't the actual reason I do these things. I see the joy I get out of this stuff as completely insignificant. The reason I write is to get better at writing, and eventually get published (and prove my dad wrong that I'll never publish anything) and perhaps make money off of it. The reason I play violin is that I feel I'm an inadequate and bad violinist and I feel obligated to practice until I'm good. I play piano because I think it's important to make progress in my free time and work towards goals, not because I actually enjoy it. I do enjoy it, but that's just a footnote to my actual motivations. So I don't go about them in ways that will make me happy, I go about them in ways that will produce results or improvement, and that's how I usually think about these activities.

This all probably has something to do with my hyperproductive, perfectionist attitude towards academics bleeding over into my free time (honestly it was probably not a great sign when, after I started scheduling all my schoolwork in ½ hour intervals, I also started scheduling writing and piano practice during my “leisure” time). I also think things started going out of whack when I graduated from college, because while I was in school I lived in a house with close friends who frequently pulled me away from obligation-hobbies like writing to play a fun round of Mario Kart or hang out with them and their friends while they smoked—when I think about feeling actual joy, the most recent times that come to mind are times when I was hanging out with them.

So I have a lot of questions I've been turning over regarding this like—do “normal” people feel joy most days? And should I expect to be like “normal” people in this regard, giving that I'm fairly low-affect naturally and generally only have three everyday emotions: anxiety, mild mania, and nothing? How much time am I supposed to spend doing things I actually want to do, and when should I take care of obligations—how can I find balance there without turning my free time into obligation time by obligation-ifying all my hobbies, OR turning my obligation time into free time and letting important things slide? What if I find out that the stuff that brings me joy is something I don't find meta-enjoyable—something I enjoy, but don't enjoy enjoying—like playing meaningless video games or screwing around on social media? (I went through a special interest a few days ago where I spent hours each day very joyfully playing Risk of Rain—I would never be able to relax enough to do that now.) I bet I would feel joy if I took a dance class, but how can I justify spending money on that when I could save it to donate to charity/use it to foster animals/spend it on friends instead?

All probably good stuff to add to the long list of things I should go over with my therapist next week.