June 28, 2007
You're so alone. Do you deserve it? I know you think so.
Have been reading Peter D. Kramer's brilliant Against Depression; I read an essay excerpted from it a couple of years ago that stuck with me, and then I found it this past weekend remaindered at a Barnes and Noble. I'm really pleased to be reading it now. The gist of it (so far) is that although we *say* we believe in a medical model of depression, we act as if we do not, as if depression confers depth and grace and virtue. It's all very thought-provoking and so far I'm agreeing with him all the way down the line. Here's a passage I loved:
There is dignity in a prolonged recovery--but always, I would trade a bushel of sad grace for a peck of resilience. Despair and estrangement are understandable responses to loss. But if mourning lingers, it seems to me that we honor it in part because we must, because our ability to moderate hopelessness is limited. Often, what psychiatrists combat is not difficult emotion but an inability to emerge from it--not emptiness, but endless emptiness. An interval of grief followed by an increasing and finally a full turning toward the world--doesn't this sequence contain nobility enough?
I do feel that my own mood problems have been a catalyst for change and a crucible in which that change has taken place; I've gotten further along my path than I might have expected to at 35. On the other hand, I was an ebullient, confident 20-year-old, as I've recently been reminded--so was a detour through a Swamp of Horror really necessary? As Kramer suggests, perhaps I honor my depression because I have no other choice.
June 24, 2007
After the fall there'll be no more countries, no currencies at all
Blogging from me, all yatima-style.
R: So I got a sticker for Rachel that says "happy is the new rich" -- I think she'll really like that.
R: Yeah, it's so her philosophy.
F: I hear that and I want to replace the "is" with "are".
R: Dude, that makes it backwards!
June 17, 2007
Just don't let the human factor fail to be a factor at all
I’ve been thinking about how madness is like obscenity; everyone thinks they’ll know it when they see it, but each person has a slightly different definition. I’ve also been thinking about how one travels from madness to health. Obviously in each case the path is different, and yet I think there is a similarity between the arcs our paths (because I speak as a formerly crazy person) describe.
So I’ve been trying to remember what it was like, being crazy, getting well, all of that. “Descent into madness” is how I’ve seen this sort of thing described, but I know my own madness wasn’t so grand as that; things just got harder to bear until eventually I couldn’t cope at all. The way I’ve come to imagine it is thus: Emotionally healthy people have a sort of buffer between themselves and the rest of the world; when the world crashes in on them, they have something that deflects that, that allows them to preserve themselves. When you’re crazy, you’ve lost that entirely, and it’s like walking around with open wounds, and not only world-crashing-in events cause pain, but the mere dust and disorder of everyday life burns and stings.
I reacquired a buffer between myself and the world by finding the appropriate mix of drugs; that’s changed over time, but the mainstay is an antidepressant (I’m currently on Effexor). But I still think my buffer is more permeable than it would be if it weren’t chemically constructed, and so I still have to do all sorts of things to keep myself sane and whole -- and that’s mainly what I’ve been thinking about recently. What have I learned to do to maintain my sanity?
One of the first things I learned was to pay attention. When I was depressed in 2000, I was suicidal, and tried twice, with full intent, to kill myself. When the veil of depression lifted just a little, I was then nearly crushed with the realization that death is just around the corner all the time for all of us; I realized how extraordinary and precious everything is, and I walked around in a state of total wonder. In time that sense of awe retreated, which was good, because it turns out to be uncomfortable to coexist with that much awareness of mortality, and I was new at it and had a lot of other stuff going on. But I revisited it over the years, and have gotten better at living with it, and it’s made an enormous difference in how I experience my life. I can ask myself (and you can too) -- am I doing what I want to be doing right now? Is this how I want to spend my time? And if not, what can I do to change that? This works at any level of zoom. Do I want to eat this piece of junk food? Do I want to work at this job? How can I do the most good in the world?
I have also learned that living this way and asking these questions increases my daily satisfaction immeasurably. If I know that I really enjoyed the last meal I ate, that I saw how beautiful the morning glories against the fence are, that I have told the people I love that I love them -- well, I’m not going to step in front of a bus on purpose, but I’ll be at peace, come what may.
Another big component of getting a grip on my sanity was learning that it’s okay to experience feelings. I started out, as we all do, with a really simplistic, rather childlike belief system about emotions. And then I kept it for almost thirty years. I didn’t like to feel strong emotions or have negative thoughts because I felt they would affect the world around me. Pure magical thinking. The clearest example I can think of is that I used to have escape fantasies. And then I would excoriate myself for them as though I’d actually gone through with them. So I’d think, “Wow, I am fucking everything up and my life sucks and everything is terrible and I want to run away and join the navy or drive an eighteen-wheeler or go to a town where no one knows me and work as a waitress.” And then I’d think, “What kind of terrible human being would abandon all her responsibilities to do something like that? Me. I am a terrible person.”
It has taken years to realize that my feelings are simultaneously important, and worth respecting, and transient, and worth ignoring. Getting the balance right is tricky, but I’m working on it.
Feeling anger or sadness or anxiety or fear -- it’s all okay. What I do as a result of that is what matters. And so maybe I write it all down, or I talk to someone, or I think of a way to treat myself well, or I set aside time to figure out how to not be in the situation bringing up all the shit. But I don’t drown it out with mere distractions. And I don’t quit my job and leave my lover and run away to Juneau or Barcelona with no notice (even though quitting a job or leaving a lover or moving somewhere new can all be valid choices). I’ve learned that the feelings themselves can’t kill me, can’t harm anyone else, they just are. And so I lean into them and learn what they can teach me.
The third Really Big Thing I started to learn after my breakdown in 2000 was that I could let my friends be my friends. When I was suicidal, no one knew until after I’d been in the hospital. I was both incredibly ashamed and incredibly relieved -- there was no hiding to be done any longer. So I started, hesitantly, talking to friends about what I was going through, and an amazing transition occurred -- I felt closer and more connected to people than I ever had in my life. I’d thought I would be despised for being so vulnerable, so ridiculous and weak and crazy. And instead I found my friends loved me anyway. Learning to let them was astonishingly hard (and seeing how hard it’s been has been it’s own occasion for rueful tears), but well worth the effort. Over the years I’ve gone from thinking I was uniquely fucked up and unfixable, to recognizing that everyone in my community was a bit broken, to finally beginning to grok our common humanity. I’m just like my friend and just like my mom, just like E.E. Cummings or King Lear or the Buddha. And we all fear death and cherish our lovers and hang on to happiness and try like hell to get through the days. Sharing my inner life, and letting the people I know share theirs, has made my experience of the world rich with meaning. Despite that fancy English degree I got when I was twenty, I’m just now feeling up to understanding all the literature I’ve read over the years.
So. I may not be the very sanest person I know, but I’m far from mad, and that’s some of how I got from there to here. May it be of use.
June 03, 2007
By love we'll beat back the pain we've found
A VALEDICTION FORBIDDING MOURNING.
by John Donne
AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move ;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears ;
Men reckon what it did, and meant ;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers' love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, 'cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.