My Existential Doctor Herb, Part 17 by Brian Polk w/ Art by Mark Mothersbaugh & S. Putnik

Untitled – February 6, 2004 By Mark Mothersbaugh

My Existential Doctor Herb, Part 17
By Brian Polk
Published Issue 096, December 2021

“Can I ask you a blunt question?” I ask my existential doctor, Herb, who nods. “You know what you’re talking about, right? You’re not totally full of shit?”

Herb thinks about it for a minute. “I’m pretty sure I’m not full of shit.” He has enough self-deprecating humor to make the statement funny. I knew this about him, which is why I felt okay about phrasing the question as such.

“So I have been your patient for the better part of four years, or so. And hitherto now, I have only been interested in my place in the world and the meaning of life, and all that. But now I’m about to really test your therapy-providing credentials. I’m looking inward, Herb.”

“Oh shit,” he says. 

“Yeah, I don’t like it either,” I tell him. “So here’s the deal: I think I hate myself.”

“Can you blame yourself?” he asks. 

I laugh. “Well no, I guess not.” 

He is actually onto something here. The older I get, the more I realize I have, shall we say, “qualities” that many other people might rightly consider obnoxious at best. I can be bloviating, opinionated, snobbish, loutish. I think I’m right about everything, and I don’t always give others the chance to explain differing points of view. (So I guess, one might add “dismissive” to that list of imperfections.) Plus, I can have a cruel sense of humor that many people find off-putting — mainly because the aforementioned people are not as funny as I am and just can’t think of good comebacks, but that’s just my opinion on the matter. (I suppose you could add “arrogant” to that list as well.)

“So why do you think you hate yourself?” says Herb.

“At night when I’m in bed, I just won’t let myself sleep. I can feel myself start to drift off. But at the point where I would normally exit consciousness and enter sleep, I jerk myself awake on purpose — either with a thought or with a physical twitch.”

“Why do you do that?”

“That’s what I’m saying — because I hate myself. Why else would I do it?”

Herb puts his clipboard down and furrows his brow as he searches for the right words. “It’s because you’re in a negative feedback loop,” he says. “It’s called ‘conditioned arousal.’ Basically, your brain has learned that lying in your bed at night is a perfect opportunity not to sleep. It’s as though you had a few bad nights sleeping, and now your brain has made that association — bed equals bad; bed equals awake.”

His explanation sounds pretty therapy-ish, as though he had some clinical experience as an actual psychologist at some point. I’m impressed. 

“I can tell by that look on your face that you’re impressed,” says Herb. 

I nod. “Yeah, maybe you do know what you’re talking about,” I say. “So what do I do?”

He chuckles to himself. “Nothing really,” he assures me. “I mean, there is something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that can be geared specifically towards insomnia. But then you’d have to really clean up your bad sleeping habits.”

“Clean up bad sleeping habits? What does that even mean?”

“A clinician will get you to set a stone-clad bedtime and wake-up time that you would have to adhere to every day. They’d tell you to avoid screens, alcohol and caffeine before bed. They’ll tell you not to stay up late or sleep in on your days off …”

“So basically, I’ll have to tailor nearly every aspect of my lifestyle around sleeping. No booze, no late night shows, no sleeping in after being up until 5 a.m. listening to old records with old friends. Hell, no travelling. That doesn’t sound like something I could maintain.” 

“I knew you wouldn’t find it enticing,” he says. “There’s another aspect to this. You also have anxiety, and you need to be aware of that fact before you can address your insomnia.”

I look at him with an expression that I hope delivers the message, Anxiety you say? So what the fuck else is new?

“You sit there and brood at night,” he continues. “You tune yourself into a frequency of fear and doubt. You’re afraid that you won’t get enough sleep to function at 100 percent the next day. And then you cast doubt on your abilities to function at 80 percent, say — even though you’d be fine. It’s a one-two punch. One: everything is coming apart at the seams. Two: you will be totally ruined because of it. One: forces bigger than you are conspiring to bring you down. Two: you’re not resilient enough to do anything about it. One: fear. Two: doubt. One: dread. Two: lack of confidence. And repeat.”

I’m nodding along to his words. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

“But wait, there’s more,” he says with a smile. “You spend an awful lot of time trying to uncover and understand your existential place in this world. You think a lot about what this all means. You’re always picking apart your life and analyzing every aspect of living. Now, there’s no doubt in my mind that you do a lot of this pondering at night. And I know from listening to you talk over the last several years that you have a great deal of respect for your deep ponderings of existential purpose. Well, at some point you equated the search for existential purpose — which is a grand, all-encompassing thought process — with more mundane problems, like not being able to get enough sleep to pretend you give two shits about your job. And then you conflated the two. So now when you try to lie down and relax, you tense up, because subconsciously you’re trying to solve the mystery of life — an unsolvable conundrum by its very nature. It couldn’t be solved in a single night, even if you gave your most valiant effort. So now you’re lying there, and you already failed before you even began. But it’s not fair. You’re not being fair to yourself. There have been great philosophers before you who only scratched the surface about the nature of existence. And putting that on your shoulders night after night is wearing you down and keeping you up. Pardon my language, but you need to give yourself a fucking break.”

I sit in silence as a feeling of relief washes over me. It’s liberating when someone tells you there might be an end to your seemingly endless problems. 

“Earlier you said you must hate yourself for keeping yourself up,” he continues. “And that’s true. You do hate yourself, but it’s for a really foolish reason. You don’t know the unknowable — big deal. No one does. And you’re a part of that. You are a part of the unknowing unknowable. It’s bigger than just you. So stop isolating yourself. Stop berating yourself for being isolated. And for the love of the universe, stop doing all of this when you’re just trying to get a good night’s sleep.”

I nod. Herb then instructs me to lie down on his couch and relax. At first I am hesitant; I don’t relax well. But since we have about a half hour left in the session, I put my head back and close my eyes. 

“Take some deep breaths,” he continues. “Your first instinct will be to think that you’re not the kind of person who can relax. This isn’t true. Everyone can and everyone should relax. Second, you’re going to tell yourself that you don’t deserve sleep, or you couldn’t sleep even if you did deserve it. But that’s not true either. Third, you may just not be tired, but don’t dwell on that even if it’s true.”

“Then what should I think about?”

He tells me to think about fond childhood memories, good times with friends and loved ones, the events in life that don’t make me hate everything. He probably keeps talking, but I end up falling asleep on his couch as I remember sledding with my friends in the old neighborhood. 

When our time is up, he claps his hands once. “Times up,” he says. 

For the first time in a long time, I don’t feel bad. I don’t really feel rested, but I’m not full of anxiety either. He asks me how I feel. “Okay,” I say, rubbing my eyes. “So I guess you’re not full of shit.”

He laughs. “Who knew?”

Sputnik096_BirdyMagazine_My Existential Doctor Herb, Part 17 By Brian Polk
Art by S. Putnik

Brian Polk is a Denver-based writer, publisher of The Yellow Rake, and drummer for Joy Subtraction and Simulators. He’s the author of Placement of Character and Turning Failure into Ideology. He likes writing, muck raking, yellow journalism, zines not blogs, cheap booze and punk rock.

Mark Mothersbaugh is one of this era’s most unique and prolific composers. Deeply aware of the ability of precise, multi-faceted artistic expression to deliver vital social commentary, he has perpetually challenged and redefined musical and visual boundaries. Mothersbaugh co-founded influential rock group DEVO, and then parlayed his avant-garde musical background into a leading role in the world of scoring for filmed and animated entertainment, interactive media and commercials.

As an award winning composer, his credits include Moonrise Kingdom, 21 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Enlightened, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and the hugely successful Rugrats television, stage and film franchise.

Through his multimedia company, Mutato Muzika, Mark has scored hundreds of commercials. Mothersbaugh received the BMI Richard Kirk Award for Outstanding Career Achievement at the organization’s 2004 Film/TV Awards. He can currently be seen as the art teacher on the hit television series, Yo Gabba Gabba!

Siena Goldman aka S. Putnik lives in her birthplace, Los Angeles, where she has spent her lifetime so far experimenting with the visual and musical arts. She loves working with pencil, pastel, watercolor, crayon and collage to convey interesting textures, color palettes, and moods in her multi-media artwork. As a 25 year old, she has spent a lot of life in school, uncomfortably switching districts and trying to fit in. Now, she is just stepping out yet again, this time stuck in the squeeze of birth as a young artist.

In case you missed it, read Brian’s November Birdy install, Down To Brass Tacks, with art by Mark and S. Putnik or head to our Explore section to see more by all these creative.

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