Finding Meaning In Meaninglessness: A 2021 Survivor’s Guide

I can pinpoint the exact moment that 2021 broke me. But before that, I suppose some context is necessary. We all know that 2020 was a rough year worldwide. A

2 years ago

I can pinpoint the exact moment that 2021 broke me. But before that, I suppose some context is necessary. We all know that 2020 was a rough year worldwide. A global pandemic killing or hospitalizing millions, economies in utter disarray, people out of work with either no way to return or return safely. Utterly horrific wildfires on opposite sides of the world killed countless wildlife and reduced hundreds of homes to ash (all of which would be lost down the memory hole soon enough). A wave of racial violence and killings bringing on the biggest wave of civil rights protests since the 1960s. An increasingly brazen and desperate old man committing crimes out the door as he barely lost to another old man thanks to a few threads of democracy still holding taught. It was not a good year for pretty much anyone (save for a few billionaires who increased their net worth exponentially).

As we are wont to do, the coming of the new year brought with it plenty of wishful thinking and hopes that conditions would improve. I think for many of us any of those hopes exploded into a flaming pile of trash on January 6 as images of right-wing mobs – spurred on by the same man who had recently lost his re-election but was willing to do anything legal or illegal to not make it so – plastered screens with indelible images of revolutionary cosplayers waltzing into the US Capitol and seeking out targets to kill. But hey, maybe we could just chalk this up to a kind of 2020 hangover, the final remnants of a fever about to break.

And despite the worrying spike in Covid cases early on in the year following holiday travels and some initial bungling of Covid vaccine distribution – both in the US and especially elsewhere that wasn’t blessed with agreements to prioritize supply – there were actually some signs that 2021 might actually pull out of the sharp skid and finally begin to turn things around. In the US, Biden and Congress, all held by the barely left of center Democratic Party for the first time in exactly a decade, managed to pass a historic bill that provided direct economic relief (stimulus checks, monthly Child Tax Credit payments) and protections (eviction moratoriums, expanded unemployment insurance) to people who needed it…at least temporarily. And by the middle of spring enough people who wanted the vaccine had received it to the point that clinics were regularly throwing away unused vials (another problem entirely).

But Covid numbers were dropping as rapidly as vaccination rates were increasing. It was possible to see family members indoors again and hug them. Indoor dining felt almost normal. Even concerts, both outdoor and indoor, felt achievable! I have such a distinct memory of my wife and I walking through a busy mall for the first time in over a year and a half, maskless. It was early July. It was like being able to take a quick glance into the past and a former life, to experience carefreeness in a way that now felt alien. It was riding a bike again after years, maybe wobbly the first few seconds, but almost instantly your limbic and nervous systems kick in and resume the autopiloting features you had taken for granted.

Maybe the year wouldn’t be so bad after all.

In truth, 2021 had already come crashing down on both myself and my wife by that day. And because there is no easy or quick way to explain why, and even though I have resisted sharing too much about it publicly, I am going to talk about it anyway because I know it is a situation that far more people experience largely on their own.

My wife and I have been trying to have a baby since the beginning of 2019. We had just bought our first home (a miracle in itself, frankly), we were both gainfully employed, we were both in our early thirties, and the time seemed ripe. We had no reason to expect issues beyond a looming fear in the back of my wife’s mind that it might not be as easy as we hoped. Without getting into private medical details, needless to say those premonitions turned out to be far more accurate than either of us could have imagined. One year later we were no closer than we had been. The dreaded “I”-word that had only been a pinprick in the back of our minds was starting to loom over our every action. And the unwitting “advice” and words of encouragement from medical professionals, close friends, and family were the furthest thing from helpful:

“It only takes one success!”

“I know so many couples who were successful as soon as they stopped trying!”

“Have you tried losing weight?”

“Maybe you’re just thinking about it too much.”

And of course the ever-present “Have you thought about adoption?”

Meanwhile, life continued on around us, and social media did what social media does best in making sure we were aware of other people’s success. As soon as you hit a certain age, the stream of pregnancy announcements, births, and infant photos on Facebook and Instagram are simply ubiquitous. And you really are happy for them, mostly. But you also have a bitter metallic taste in your mouth that refuses to go away.

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The single thing most people who don’t experience infertility or go through fertility treatments understand the least is just how constant the experience of infertility is.

The coming of the pandemic only made things more difficult logistically, of course. Somewhere in the middle of the year we got in touch with a Reproductive Endocrinologist to take things to the next level. Between all of the initial testing and pandemic-induced delays on everything, it wouldn’t be until November 2020 that we would actually get to try something. We were and continue to be extraordinarily fortunate to have robust health insurance that covers the vast majority of costs associated with ART (assisted reproductive therapies), but one of the stipulations was that we had to complete a certain number of “unsuccessful” cycles trying other methods before they would cover the gold standard of fertility treatments, IVF. This meant attempting several cycles of what’s known as IUI, which, to put in the simplest terms, is basically inducing ovulation of one mature egg through hormone therapy and replacing doing the act “naturally” with a catheter (trust me, you get over the lack of “romance” in all of it very quickly).

Given the root cause of our issues, we knew that the chance of success through this method was not all that great (around 20%), so our hopes were not exactly high. In an act of cruel irony, though, we were informed that the very first cycle that took place at the end of November 2020 and yielded results the week leading up to Christmas had resulted in a positive pregnancy. The cruel part is that both my wife and I assumed by the day of the blood screening that it had failed due to her bleeding pretty much right on time. We would learn that this is what is known as a “chemical pregnancy,” where an embryo manages to form and implant but almost immediately fails, usually due to a chromosomal abnormality (essentially the body’s way of rejecting a non-viable pregnancy). So in the span of a minute we went from being told that she was technically pregnant to understanding that it had likely already failed.

The following few months felt mostly like an exercise in futility as we went through the motions of two more IUI cycles and came up empty in both. Winter 2021 wasn’t exactly kind to the general psyche to begin with, and the continued sense of failure only haunted us more and more.

I think the single thing most people who don’t experience infertility or go through fertility treatments understand the least is just how constant the experience of infertility is. You are not simply going to a medical facility once a month, or even once a week. During a cycle the carrier can go in for some sort of screening, blood draws, or other tests every other day for weeks on end. And then there are the daily injections and the hormones that come with them, not to mention the weeks of hormonal birth control in between cycles to “reset” the body and wait for insurance to clear everything. This doesn’t even touch upon the hours upon hours spent on the phone with either medical or prescription insurance to insist that they approve everything, that they mark everything as urgent, and that they actually give you the medications needed.

As neither the egg-provider or the carrier my clinical role was simply to go into a weird room once in a while and provide an adequate “sample.” But unless you are an extraordinarily shitty partner who refuses to learn anything about what’s actually going on or serve as the support for your partner to fall back on throughout, the whole thing is also ever-present. It affects everything, your ability to plan ahead, your social life and connections (especially with anyone who is pregnant themselves or with an infant/toddler), and your relationship with each other. Thankfully the foundation of my relationship with my wife is one of deep enough trust, understanding, and mutual respect (not to mention mutual individual therapy) that we’ve been able to weather it. Not all are so fortunate, and not all make it through unscathed.

All of which isn’t to say that I was in good shape around then. Starting around the end of 2020 and through the winter, I began cycling more frequently into prolonged depressive states. The stability that the SSRIs I had been on for over a year and a half had provided me was fading. I began falling back into bad habits and mindsets mentally. I wasn’t playing music at all, wasn’t writing anything either for my band (which was on hiatus while we hibernated through the Covid winter and made preparations for studio time later in the year to record our first album) or for the blog. I basically shut down. It was the first time since finally coming fully to terms with my chronic depression and deciding to try medication in 2019 that I felt like I was severely backsliding, and that it was not within my control. Fortunately my mental health team worked with me to successfully change up my medication dosage and regimen and found a new combination that appeared to help with minimal side effects. By mid-spring I was starting to feel like “myself” again.

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You want to feel happy, and you are, but you also don’t fully believe that it’s real.

A couple of days before my 34th birthday on May 1st, we underwent our first IVF egg retrieval. Unlike in IUI where the goal is to encourage follicle/egg growth in the ovaries but only enough so ideally one takes the lead and is the only one to release upon ovulation, in IVF the goal is to simply grow as many mature eggs as possible without losing any that are over-mature. The procedure requires actual painful laparoscopic surgery. It’s not a relatively simple in-and-out thing. The egg donor is pretty much flat-out for several days following other than to receive the embryo transfer if there are any and doctors deem it safe to do so.

The first gut punch of that cycle came immediately following the egg retrieval. As my wife was coming out of twilight sleep and only barely understanding what was going on, a nurse told her that they had retrieved 10 eggs, which was well below our expectations. The problem with IVF once retrieval happens is that what you start with is virtually never even close to what you end up with. Not only does the retrieved egg need to be mature enough to form an embryo, it then has to actually fertilize with the sperm in a petri dish, and then it has to survive and grow appropriately for either 3 or 5 days before a “fresh” transfer or to be cryogenically frozen. The attrition rate for each phase can commonly be around 50%. Still, we were hopeful to at least get several high-quality embryos out in the end so we wouldn’t have to go through another egg retrieval like this again anytime soon.

We got one embryo. On May 4th, crestfallen but still with a glimmer of hope (“It only takes one!”) we transferred that embryo and hoped for the best while preparing for the worst. Two weeks later we got a positive result. It happened. It worked.

The month following was one of cautious optimism. We were now fully vaccinated, as was our family. As described earlier, cases were falling, and the overall mood of the country seemed to be lifting. We started thinking and planning ahead in a world where we had a baby and Covid was no longer an immediate threat. We had spent so long keeping our emotional walls up to guard us against the false promises of hope that the process of lowering them was a challenge, especially once potential grandparents were involved. You want to feel happy, and you are, but you also don’t fully believe that it’s real. Slowly but surely the feeling fades though, and the emotional gates lower bit by bit with every passing week and every successful scan. We were coming up on the 8-week scan, which is significant in the ART world as it is usually the point at which fertility patients “graduate” from the world of constant attention from their Reproductive Endocrinologist’s team and are passed back to their normal OB-GYN.

On June 9th, I sat in the car in the hospital parking lot as my wife entered to get her scan. Due to Covid protocols I still was not allowed to be with her. So when she sent me the message that something was wrong and the inevitable follow-ups after a torturous amount of time, we each had to face it alone.

The bottom dropped out. I sobbed uncontrollably in the car, trying not to pay attention to the constant stream of people walking by or the construction workers sitting right in front of me. My emotional guards built over the previous 2 years were finally coming down, and the small bit of hope and joy I had allowed myself to experience was now the knife placed directly in my chest. I could barely think. I wanted to scream but wanted even more not to draw any attention to myself from passersby and on-lookers.

Not knowing what else to do, my mind reverted to its chief dissociative mode of background music. Melodies and words started forming. I placed all of my focus into that for a few moments, jotting down notes and making voice recordings on my phone, anything to not have to think about the full reality of the situation at that very moment. I wrote the spine of what would become my first new song since the last writing sessions with my band in 2020, which was unsurprisingly my most personal and emotionally raw song to date. It was probably the only thing that kept me in any way stable in that moment and allowed me to gather up enough composure to be the person I needed to be when I finally saw my wife again.

For a very small moment I wrung a shred of meaning out of meaninglessness, comprehended the incomprehensible. The pain was still burning a hole through my ribs out through my spine, but I was alive.

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The biggest problem for me these days is that sense of disconnect, the lack of meaning and purpose to anything.

I mostly retreated from the outside world after that, especially online. The immediate pain of the wound lasted a few weeks, but even as my wife and I healed with each other over that summer, the scar left behind would take far longer to fade. Of course soon after the Delta variant arrived in the US, and even the relief of returning to some sense of “normalcy” was short-lived. As people trying desperately to get pregnant and have a baby, the constant threat of Covid and having to manage our reality and risk tolerance against those around us only wore us down further. Our world felt like it was in a constant process of shrinking after just a small taste of freedom and hope.

By this point in time thankfully my meds were doing what they were designed to do and prevented me from diving head first into the infinite voids of despair with no way out. I was depressed, yes. I was heartbroken. I was feeling generally unmoored from the world with little to grab onto. But I wasn’t the kind of depressed that leaves you paralyzed, unable to make executive decisions and potentially positive action.

The biggest problem for me these days is that sense of disconnect, the lack of meaning and purpose to anything. It’s probably the greatest personal challenge I face on a daily basis at this point in my life. I have mostly attempted to fill this void through the false god of “busyness.” Personal projects, professional exploits, chores and other tasks, online chats, an endless stream of TikTok and YouTube videos. Literally anything to prevent me from having to face my own thoughts and the voice inside my head telling me there’s nothing out there for me, that there is no point to any of this and nothing I do matters. And in many ways it feels like 2020, and especially 2021, have forced me to come face-to-face with these fears and deal with them one way or another.

Professionally, I have been feeling unfulfilled for many a year. I had been working in video production and editing since graduating college, mostly because it just seemed like the only thing I was reasonably good at and enjoyed beyond music, which I never considered taking on professionally for a number of reasons. After a number of years climbing the professional ladder to becoming a full-blown video editor and producer, and a period of several years where I struck out on my own and attempted to build a brand, identity, and sustainable lifestyle through the fraught world of the gig economy, I finally landed a stable video editing job in Boston. It was predominantly corporate client work, and despite a few moments and projects I was genuinely proud of, after I hit the 3 year mark over the summer I felt the itch again. I felt stuck, doing the same things over and over again, unable to advance meaningfully within the company and without many appealing options or opportunities elsewhere.

I still thought that I could find meaning through my work and labor. I still believed that maybe the right role or organization with a mission I could get behind held the answers I was looking for. I held onto all of this despite the years of reading, hearing, and espousing the growing consensus within my generation that work and “productivity” will not save us, and that we will always give far more than we receive for our labor as long as the system is rewarded for it. That’s the trap that many “creatives” fall into though I suppose.

After months (frankly, years) of rumination, hemming and hawing, career quizzes, and career counseling, I finally decided to take a jump somewhere else, just because it was different. I am currently a Project Manager with a comms/media company mostly working with insurance brokers who provide services to corporate clients around employee benefits. It’s fine. It’s different. It’s a job. Maybe I can turn it into something else different or better down the road, and maybe someday I actually will find a job and place that gives me back something meaningful. But for now I’m just trying to be okay with the idea of a job or profession not defining me or having to mean much. I’m not great at it, but I’m trying.

Even more difficult to reckon with has been my relationship with politics and activism. I’ve been politically-engaged since probably middle school, starting with the 2000 election. Like with so many other millennials, that interest and engagement blossomed with the election of Obama in 2008. Since then it’s been pretty much all downhill as our idealism and hope slammed into the immovable objects of capitalism, corruption, and cynicism. And yet I personally kept hope alive that I could make a difference somewhere, that my activism and my stalwart and unflinching eye on the ins-and-outs of national, state, or local politics would one day lead to tangible victories and improvement in the lives of people who needed it most.

Trump wasn’t the killing blow, but it certainly was a harbinger of things to come. My cynicism grew with every passing day as my faith in the national electoral system to deliver meaningful change for the people that live in it waned. If anything the final straw on the national politics scale came in witnessing both the campaigns of Elizabeth Warren (who I personally supported and fervently volunteered for in 2019/2020) and Bernie Sanders (who I supported in 2016 and continued to support from afar in 2020) collapse in the face of the national Democratic Party throwing its full weight behind the embodiment of milquetoast status quo’ism that is Joe Biden.

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My political cynicism has metastasized into a black oily goop coursing through my veins, and it’s left me completely void of motivation to put up a fight.

That’s fine though. Maybe I could shift my focus towards more local Congressional races. Last Congressional race I volunteered fervently for a leftist candidate running on making affordable housing a guaranteed right, single-payer healthcare, Green New Deal, etc. It was an open primary with a whole slew of candidates. At the same time I was also volunteering to get ranked choice voting adopted in Massachusetts. Not only did my candidate lose and the winner (a former Republican bought and sold by pharma) win by capturing 23% of the vote, but ranked choice voting went down in flames despite having no organized opposition.

Okay, what about state and local politics? Surely I could do something there to make a difference. The group Act on Mass has set up multiple campaigns with lofty goals of bringing some measure of transparency to one of the most opaque state houses in the nation. Despite the good press and volunteers they mobilized to meet with their representatives and apply pressure, ultimately when it came time to set new rules for the the state legislature the House at best paid lip service to the reforms and at worst straight-up ignored and actively twisted the reforms to make them sound like a bad thing for the state. All I personally got out of it was my House rep snapping at me at a meeting, talking shit about me in private, and him suspiciously no longer showing up at local Democratic Town Committee meetings since organizing a vote to support the transparency campaign. But he’ll undoubtedly run unopposed next primary and win another term purely on the notion that he’s the “best we can get” if we don’t want a Republican to win.

And the less said about local politics the better, frankly. Imagine all of the worst people who never left your hometown and are now in their 50s and 60s, and that’s the predominant makeup of my local government. Participation in local elections is routinely in the low teens in large part because election days are random days in the spring completely disconnected from anything else, and the people in power have no motivation to change it. So nothing does, and few people care enough about any of it to do anything about it. To which you might say, “Well why don’t you run yourself???” If you’ve read this far, do I seem like someone who should be running for elected office? Do I seem like I have the capacity to bullshit my way through pretending to respect the people I would have to work with and get to vote for me??? Also I have only lived in this town for 3 years, meaning I would have no chance going up against those who have had many decades to build out personal patronage networks.

My political cynicism has metastasized into a black oily goop coursing through my veins, and it’s left me completely void of motivation to put up a fight. I truly thought for years that I could find meaning through activism and community organization towards a better shared future, but all it’s done is leave me less hopeful and less connected to the people around me than ever. Meanwhile the world continues to burn; fascism, authoritarianism, and ethno-nationalism continue to be on the rise; and basic human rights are being compromised or reversed. Worse, the people who are “supposed” to be the alternative to this continue to be so inept and corrupt that they make the ineptitude and cruelty of the emboldened right wing look viable. It’s just so difficult to wake up every day and know that you’re living through a period that will be viewed in the future as the death throes of representative democracy in what was once commonly considered the most “successful” democracy in the world. I fundamentally don’t know how to deal with it.

So what am I left with at this point? How do I wring the smallest drops of meaning out of an existence that can feel so utterly meaningless so much of the time? Maybe the answers are more obvious to some of you, but for the chronically depressive mind it’s a constant struggle. There is a voice inside my head that consistently paints a picture of the world and life as devoid of purpose, that is beyond redemption, where efforts to do good by others are just pissing in the wind. And every single event or action that lines up with that picture makes that voice grow stronger. It feeds off of it and delights in being proven correct. The medication and therapy can hold it at bay and provide some buffer against it, but at some point I think the only thing that can really beat it back in a substantive way is to form an alternative narrative and image that is stronger. I have to essentially convince myself that these above things don’t actually matter, or matter as much as other things.

Like in that moment in the car at one of the lowest points in my life, I need to reach inside of myself and pull out the pieces of me that give me strength and meaning. My music and love of expression through music has to be the liferaft I cling onto. I have a truly special situation currently with the group of people I came to meet through pure chance since moving up to Massachusetts. Our band, we broke the weather, is going 3 years strong, and our first album is due for release very, very soon. The excitement and experience of getting to record that album over the summer was legitimately one of the few things that got me through that difficult period. Those were some of the only times I have gotten to feel truly myself.

I only wrote my first “song” not purely for an extensive jazz ensemble when I was 30. I didn’t give myself a chance before then, didn’t think I could write rock or pop, or lyrics for that matter. Didn’t think I could sing (jury’s still out on that one, honestly, but I’m trying). I did primary songwriting for 4 tracks off of the upcoming album and contributed throughout the rest. Since that moment this summer when I had my first creative breakthrough in months, I’ve written around half a dozen songs, with more on the way. I listened to that voice in my head telling me I wasn’t good enough to do this for so many years. It took this long to finally prove the voice wrong, and now it’s one of the only things I truly have to ground me in any way. Those moments have meaning.

My wife and my family have meaning. My in-laws moved from California to the block directly behind us earlier this year just to be near their only daughter. My parents moved up to MA from NJ a few years ago to be near us and my sister, who has lived in MA since college. My family is far from perfect, and the pandemic has certainly complicated things many times over, but we are all close, and these past 2 years would have been even more difficult without them around. As cliche as it sounds, my wife has truly been my rock and my tether keeping me from floating away for many years. She may not understand the nonsense that goes on in my head sometimes (probably most of the time), but she understands how it affects me and is there to support me through the worst of it.

My friends and the communities I choose to cultivate have meaning. It’s admittedly been difficult living in suburbia both without a child or the ability to do many social activities safely and make friends. Ironically all of my local friends are connected to local and state politics, which is an issue in itself, but one I can’t avoid. Elsewhere the virtual communities I have been a part of since I was a teenager still sustain me. The Heavy Blog community, both with staff, and all of you who read and share with us, are a part of that. I have been making a conscious effort to spend less time on social media that tends to only inflame the worst parts of my psyche and focus more on actual discussions and chats with friends over Slack and Discord. I hope I can continue to foster those communities and bring some meaning to myself and others through it.

As for my wife and myself and our situation, we’re still trying. The fact is that every step, every attempt, and every crushing blow has brought us at least one step closer to the reality of having a child than before. When the day finally comes, I know that will have meaning as well. And that’s about all that I can hope for at this point.

Photo of the author in 2021 from one of the rare selfies he takes.

UPDATE: 2/4/22

Nick and his wife are expecting their first child July 2022 after a successful IVF transfer in Nov 2021. It will be a girl.

Nick Cusworth

Published 2 years ago