Tag Archives: Depression

Jenny

rooney-mara-thomas-whiteside5Another character sketch. Another exercise. This time, I started with this picture of Rooney Mara and then wrote from that. I’m not sure what I’m doing with these yet…

The two hours before dawn passed in half-dreams and worries. A couple of times a voice seemingly outside Jenny’s mind spoke nonsensically—one silly pronouncement, like “It’s too cold for that!”—loud, as if she still shared the room with someone. She took these random pronouncements as signals she’d fall asleep again, but noticing them meant awakening too. Lately inattention required will, effort to elude and escape her thoughts.

Jenny tried not to look ahead to a midday meeting with her boss and instead recalled a high school hayride. One of the boys in her English class, a football player and avowed Christian, asked her out, and, worn down by the many times he’d tried, she agreed. She pictured the truck idling in a scrubby field at twilight. The scene reduced to that openbed truck, and the other couples—they were all couples—huddled under blankets amid hay bales, breathing exhaust. Jenny didn’t know the month exactly, but the chill of winter lay weeks away. During the ride, a sheen of sweat gathered on her legs under the blanket. She remembered that. The boy’s arm over her shoulder felt like wood, like the yoke the oxen wore on the cover of her US history textbook.

Her husband died in spring. At the wake, Jenny’s brothers and sister repeated how mercifully short his illness was. He’d been going to the gym daily before the diagnosis and, even in his final week, his eyes possessed their usual vitality. Up until the end, as frail as his body became, he still seemed young, joking that he’d finally lost those few extra pounds he’d been trying so hard to shed. She laughed because she thought it might make him happy. Just after he’d gone, she left him with his family and went outside to cry, the first light of the pale sky impossible to bear, its ill-timed beauty taunting her.

“You have to be ready,” he’d said the day before.

“I know, but let’s not talk about that.”

“Tell me you’re ready.”

“I am… but don’t want to be.”

This morning, Jenny opened her eyes to light and roused herself. The alarm hadn’t sounded, but an early start meant missing traffic. Her closet seemed spacious since she and his sister cleaned it out. Jenny laid the new blue skirt, a blouse, and her underthings over the rumpled covers of her bed.

She sighed as she turned the shower on. Her work had fallen off—her last review was not nearly as glowing as ones from last year—but her boss would be sympathetic, asking how she was “holding up” before turning to instructions repeated with a pleading expression she’d come to hate. She’d prepared for that day’s meeting until very late the night before, assembling a presentation full of statistics and new marketing plans. She shouldn’t have to bring work home, she knew that, but revising her resume and reaching out to contacts used up hours too. Jenny felt tired of driving, tired of working.

Water met skin like summer rain, tepid and gentle as another day began.

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Irene

20140410-18043552Today’s post is sort of character sketch for a story I’ve been mulling over…

Irene awoke from dozing, the book in her lap finally registering as weight and heat. Soon she’d make dinner, and somewhere in the preparations, her thoughts would light on her husband, how his sigh or grunt signaled his feelings about the meal she’d planned. He was dead ten years now, and she was free from that. But Irene heard him nonetheless. It wasn’t that she missed him, just that he echoed, especially in this solitary space.

Her daughter called earlier to report trouble at work, a new boss who didn’t think much of women, and Irene listened as she always did, with more concern than interest. Her days stretched out, not as her cat did—as if trying to release something locked—but, desperately, as toward the finish, its desire dawning as it reached completion. From the instant she roused, Irene thought of ends. She worried she’d taken too good care of herself and might last forever… or that she might at least outlast her money, which might be worse.

Her daughter often talked of her marriage, but, as her mother, Irene couldn’t really know her son-in-law. She never had much to add. She appreciated he fixed things and paid stiff deference to her age. She liked his laugh and valued his efforts to make her life easier but felt too tired for affection. Commitment like that was beyond her. Irene found no room for warmth. That stage passed.

Instead, Irene wandered in books. They were better than the babbling TV, and sometimes their emotions affected her. They transported her a bit, lifting her to moments she remembered but never discussed. She hadn’t always been old, after all, and couldn’t help returning to images of intimacies that might horrify her children. She didn’t dwell on men who never worked out, but the romance novels she read could recall their hands and the way her own heart rose to meet theirs. Once, her stakes climbed in arousal. Sometimes she still wished for risks younger women take in riding to the brink of release.

She counted three weeks since her son’s last call. Like his father, work possessed him, and, when he did call, his mind seemed absent. “Uh huh,” he said, until the sound became an empty rhythm. As a boy, he’d always been distracted, his eyes focused on places and people far from here and now. He was always excusing himself from the table to do something important. She might have known his future entirely then but hoped for more. “A son never loves his mother enough,” Irene’s mother said, and Irene tried to believe it.

Shadows lengthened across the carpet. Irene’s husband would have said, “The drinking lamp is lit.” Glancing at her watch, she wondered if she might have another bout of sleep before pulling herself from this chair to make dinner. Her husband never allowed such lassitude. He wanted every destination clear and another meal in the offing.

Irene closed her eyes, purple afterimages blooming and fading like bruises.

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On Will

spockWhen I first watched Star Trek, Spock affected me most. Captain Kirk was bolder, Scotty more resourceful, Bones more lovable, but Spock’s cool calm made him enviable. At the time, his logic was my ideal, and he sticks with me still.

In one episode, “Amok Time,” Spock experiences all adolescence in a fortnight—pon farr, a rage of hormones so intense that it floods him with lethal levels of adrenaline. The episode opens with Spock throwing Nurse Chapell’s offering of soup against a hallway wall. He composes himself long enough to request a leave of absence to visit Vulcan but can’t say why. Kirk agrees, then, when diplomacy moves Starfleet to divert the ship to another planet, Spock must admit his problem is “biology,” a need to mate as powerful as a salmon’s swim upstream. He says “biology” with such shame it’s clear he wants nothing to do with inconvenient bodily processes, emotion, or expressions of personal desire.

The first time I saw the episode, that’s what I wanted too, complete control over longing, the power to suppress every impulse. Spock tells Kirk that pon farr, “Stips our minds from us, brings a madness which rips away our veneer of civilization.” My veneer has never been glued down especially well and, back then, it kept getting ripped away by innocent teasing, by precipitous attachments to girls who never liked me enough, by thundering anger and sudden unaccountable tears. Even in pon farr ‘s throes, Spock remains articulate and controlled, exactly the sort of adolescence I sought.

That yearning for self-regulation has hardly left me. Even now, I engage in daily staring contests with acts that require self-discipline—willing myself to work out, to count calories, to write in my journal and sketch, to work on my next blog post, to create a to-do list each morning I’ll pursue all day. None of it will abide looking away. Spock never blinks, and if I do, some lazy, inconvenient, momentary urge wins over will. And, being less than what I want to be, I lose.

In “Amok Time,” Spock hopes to be spared his biology but, in real life, who can truly avoid feeling? My negotiations with emotion seem melodramatic, but the issue can’t be uncommon. I’ve learned, as Spock does, “The ancient drives are too strong. Eventually they catch up with us. We are driven by forces we cannot control.”

“It would be illogical to protest against our natures,” he tells Nurse Chapell.

I know that—and know how ridiculous it is to look to Star Trek for adolescent survival strategies—but, at that time, everything in my family felt like a contest to me. If you idly balanced a yardstick on your index finger, someone could do it longer. Someone could hide in a smaller space for more minutes or think of another name that began with B or present some trivia you didn’t know or ride a bike around the block faster. I obsessed over being or doing just one thing better than my siblings.

As I was a volatile child, the contests involving self-regulation had the greatest stakes—who could finish an ice cream cone last or win a game of “The next one to speak is a monkey for a week.” When an advertisement for Lays Potato Chips claimed no one could eat just one, I watched my family consume the whole bag before I crowed victory, my uneaten chip in my palm under the table. I counted licks of a Tootsie Pop without biting it… many times. I meant never to indicate anger or disappointment. Inevitably, I failed. So I tried harder.

My days repeat (and repeat) the age-old contest between stoicism and hedonism, debates over whether life’s purpose is nobility or pleasure. Most people let pleasure win, which goads me on. No one will regard me as lax or accuse me of choosing the easy way by going with the crowd, giving in, or giving up

Something won’t surrender—I’m determined, productive, diligent, ruminative, and not particularly happy. It hasn’t made me particularly any emotion. Most days I just tire and can’t push my sled anymore. It’s quite heavy and lacks dogs, nice slippery spots, and hills to coast down. It’s a blocking sled, really.

Instead I worry time has spent my inner Spock. My handwriting shows its age. The arches of n, h, and m have melted, the loops of o, p, e, d, and b are closed to daylight, and the lifts between letters drag, tripping at each attempt to leap another height. Once I took pride in writing neatly, fluently, and legibly. Penmanship was like any art—any activity—and required practice of the right sort, the kind that includes consistent effort and willful vigilance, commitment to do more than good-enough.

Though I like to believe I’ve abandoned Spock, scanning my handwriting reveals haste and capitulation to fatigue and utility. I can make-out what I’ve written—it hasn’t come to that yet!—but I can’t stand to look. “I used to try harder,” I say, “where has my discipline gone?”

The conclusion of “Amok Time” seems laughable now, typically Star Trek, with its philosophical overtones drowned by gaudy sets, Dutch angles, transparent stunt-double combat, loud soundtrack music, and a deus ex machina. Spock survives his pon farr, forms another tie with Kirk, and gets a smile out of it. The madness of Spock’s amok time, Bones says, may be “The price [Vulcans] pay for having no emotions the rest of the time.” While that certainly makes sense, the melodrama seems staged. Deadened feelings, numb routines, amplified editing and denial are just as likely costs as explosive outbursts.

My experience tells me so. Even now, Spock is at my shoulder whispering to buck up, toughen up, and shut up and, this late in the series, who could exorcise him?

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Danse Russe

“I am lonely, lonely. haring4

I was born to be lonely,

I am best so!”…

 

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

 

William Carlos Williams,

“Danse Russe”

Lately, the philosophical question plaguing me is whether solitude is the natural state of humans… which says something about the state I’m lately in.

It’s July and, as a teacher, I don’t report to work. However, my wife still leaves each morning, my son lives elsewhere, and this summer my daughter has a job in the wilderness of Wisconsin. Between seven am and seven pm, email, Facebook, and the internet generally keep me company. With my sabbatical ahead, I forecast a long stretch of similarly uninterrupted solitude for the next 14 months.

Scientists believe they’ve answered my philosophical question definitively: humans are not solitary, never have been, and, in fact, experience changes in genetic expression in response to social situations. Where scientists once believed you were stuck with the genes you possessed at birth, they now recognize the environment, including the social environment, can turn on certain genes and change traits thought immutable. Research indicates people who live alone develop suppressed immune systems and manifest marked changes in genes linked to depression. Abused children with access to support outside the home, for instance, show–genetically—less sensitivity to stress and trauma. Closeted gay men fall much more rapidly to AIDS than more connected victims. Solitude, science says, is bad for you.

I’m not naturally social. In that great divide between those energized by company and those taxed by it, I’m squarely in the second group. A day of teaching runs upstream against my disposition, and, by the end of the workday, I have no talk left. As most people do, my wife looks forward to parties, guests, and visits. I try to. I remind myself how much fun I’ll have, how good it will be to reconnect with friends, how exciting meeting new people can be. Nonetheless, my apprehension grows. Almost involuntarily, I experience a kind of dread.

I’m no recluse. I love most humans and seem to function well in public. Some people, I’m always surprised to hear, say I’m interesting, even charming. Still, solitude is easier.

There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is a choice. Loneliness implies unfulfilled desire. A solitary person likes quiet, enjoys controlling his or her time, and finds productive and satisfying ways to spend what may appear to others empty hours. In contrast, a lonely person feels lost in a desert of time and wonders where the oasis is, where life-sustaining company might be, right then. Solitude evokes strength, self-sufficiency, autonomy, confidence, and completion. Loneliness stings. It never feels right and elicits resentment, bitterness at the thought of being dismissed or neglected.

I aim for solitude, but its border with loneliness wavers. I consider calling people so we can get together, then I give the idea up as weakness—they have their own lives and could certainly call me if they wished. I shouldn’t impose. I remind myself of my good fortune, the time to read, and study, and think, and write. Then, when I’m not looking, the switch flips. I feel excruciatingly bored and forgotten. The day begins with journal writing, a to-do list, an hour or so of studying a psychology text, and work on my latest creative projects. It ends with Netflix, iPad games, and anything to pass time before my wife (finally) walks in.

If I complain, she says, rightly, “Do something about it.” And I say, “I should.” Yet, the next day, I return to the same strategy of making the most of being alone. Sometime soon, I may scream. In the meantime, I structure my new solitary life like a dike to keep loneliness out. I mean to keep loneliness out.

A researcher named Steve Cole has devoted his career to studying the physical effect of social isolation and has discovered that, even more than stress, “Social isolation is the best-established, most robust social or psychological risk factor for disease out there. Nothing can compete.”

Scientists may have answered the question of whether humans are solitary, but my own experiment continues. My days negotiate self-reliance and desire, fellowship and autonomy, productivity and yearning to hear another voice. Nothing seems so immediate and real as this battle between being myself and being part of something. Even this post is a skirmish, a surrogate for conversation, piled earthwork, more effort to occupy time.

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My Honking Lament

imgThe geese in Lincoln Park are residents. They don’t migrate, or, if their flight can be called migration, only consists of travel to the western suburbs, announcing their exercise with loud exaltation, arresting pedestrians’ attention.

I wish I were so proud. My own diffidence says little more than, “Hi, I’ve arrived” or “I’m back” or “I’ve been thinking…” or “I’m still here.”

Travel isn’t something I relish, yet I know I have to leave here sometimes. I must meet the world to be part of it—no pretending musing online is being public—and life is supposed to be about greeting folks, about expanding myself through contact with genuine others.

The electronic reality I occupy suggests otherwise. The “friends” I create through Facebook and other “social” media don’t seem to seek intimacy. They appear to desire the electronic equivalent of a honking sortie through fall or spring skies, affection without heart. Noise over communication.

I’m sorry if that’s insulting, better to be sincere even when wrong. I’m guilty too.

And no wonder I’m lonely. Maybe my inability to express my feelings is my limitation. True character would insist on recognition, demanding—seeing as normal—the spouting I lid and re-lid daily. But I don’t know what to think or whether feeling is really looked-for from me. Most men live lives of quiet desperation, but what if quiet oppresses? I hesitate to say more… except to confess obsessing over all I hide, withhold, and swallow.

It’s not anger. I’m not mad as hell and can’t take it anymore. I want company, would like to be starkly myself.

Do people sense how convincingly “acceptable” overthrows “sincere”? Do others long to meet, long to talk instead of text, long to release feeling and speak rather than perform? The niceties aren’t nice, the insults more brutal by being couched.

Taking risks sounds good in abstract. Really, it’s embarrassing, showing emotion you know others—discretely or indulgently—ignore. You imagine people laughing. Derision is the modern default. The Eliot of “J. Alfred Prufrock” knew that, the Arthur Miller of “Death of a Salesman” knew that, but we’ve learned little. We devise new modes of communication to say less, in fewer characters.

Real life still awaits us—by that I mean, of course, real life awaits me—and I travel further and further from authenticity by circling, circling, circling.

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No Buddhist

11621426-big-golden-buddha-with-lotus-flower-at-da-lat-vietnamEvery moment, a Buddhist might tell you, possesses infinite promise and infinite futility. “Promise,” however, doesn’t imply some potentially positive future outcome but instead an opportunity to know that moment as itself.

“Futility,” they might say, is a misnomer. Nothing can be futile if you live it. Each instant is full. You only need to pay attention and accept every sensation, thought, and feeling as what life is… with emphasis on the present tense. The butterfly doesn’t resent a storm, and the storm does not object to the butterfly.

I’m paying attention. This week, as I was going down stairs I’ve traveled hundreds of times, I missed a step and, finding my foot somewhere I didn’t expect, I landed awkwardly. I turned my ankle, which I’ve done and mended many times, but this time I fractured the long bone leading to my little toe, the fifth metatarsal. I walked home a kilometer sensing what happened, cursing my stupidity, punishing myself for mindlessness, and hoping I imagined the pain.

The emergency room physician confirmed my misfortune. She said I had six to eight weeks of recovery ahead of me and gave me that look doctors often do when you’ve done something hapless, that mixture of amusement and chagrin and regret and sympathy. Sometimes they tell you they’ve done something as dumb. Not this time. Before offering the diagnosis, she said she was sorry. I appreciated that.

Apparently, my injury is quite common among the aged.

A Buddhist might not cry as I did. Exercise is such a central part of life for me, and now I face one trial as I seek to heal and another as I regain fitness I’ve lost healing. We all need challenges, I suppose, but we don’t desire adversity we haven’t engineered. As much as you’d like to be calm and accepting, you can’t help re-imagining (and re-re-imagining) the wrong second, wondering how fate screwed you over.

There’s a Buddhist parable where a farmer loses his horse and a neighbor says, “How unlucky!” and he replies, “Maybe.” When the horse returns with two other wild horses, the neighbor changes his mind, but the farmer still says, “Maybe.” The next day, one of the wild horses throws his son, and the son breaks bones. The neighbor says he’s “unlucky” again and the farmer says again, “Maybe.” Then the army comes seeking soldiers and passes over his son as unfit… you get the idea.

I’ve been stumbling around on crutches wondering what benefit might come from my regret, what test this calamity signifies. I’ll pass through grief, and that’s necessary. I’ll learn new ways to live with myself that don’t involve punishing my body every day. That’s good too. I’ll need patience, which is what I’m worst at.

Intellectually, I’m fine. I can handle it. On the other end of these six to eight weeks, I may be a better person. But right now, honestly, I feel lost.

Perhaps this event meant to remind me how far I am from becoming Buddhist. This second—this very second—I’m pissed, I’m pissed as hell. I’ll be better because I must. The next few weeks, I hope, will determine how.

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My Blue Kingdom

manic-depression-joe-macgownWhen I was young, a margarine called Bluebonnet used the slogan “Everything’s Better With Bluebonnet On It,” and their jingle always set my imagination reeling. Everything? Shoe leather? Pine cones? Guano?

But my brother, who loved to argue, refuted possibilities. He said each would be a little better.

I feel similarly about the term “high-functioning,” which seems ambiguously redemptive. Who would want to be a plain alcoholic if they could be high-functioning? Autistics who are high-functioning explain their perspective and make the condition seem almost romantic. Even a coma victim, were he or she described as “high-functioning,” would be better off.

Forgive my black humor. I feel a right to it because I’m a high-functioning depressive, someone who struggles to see light in the gloom, who expends a lot of energy keeping his mouth above the waterline, who regards every moment of laughter—even dry and dark laughter—as immense relief, proof of life. At the same time, I’m competent. I make what contribution I can and hide the cost. I fool many by appearing as normal as possible.

The icon of high-functioning depressives is Abraham Lincoln. Because he used his unhappiness to spur his aspirations, historians regard his acute melancholia with the sort of awe reserved for superpowers. Depression made Abe more ruminative. It granted him greater empathy and contributed to his deepest devotions, his humility, his tolerance. Abe could deal with rivals’ criticisms without rancor or resentment, was immune to jealousy, because no one could possibly think less of him than he thought of himself, and relentless work was the only successful diversion for his blackest moods. He kept going and, in going, gave more than other mortals might.

Regular depression is nothing like that. People have trouble sitting up, and their emotions can be so painful the low-functioning depressed learn how to avoid them altogether, trading pleasure and pain for anhedonia, a feeling of feeling nothing at all. Battling a perpetual sense of inadequacy leaves depressives little energy for family or relationships. And, because a constantly unhappy person can be so very annoying, friends and family (and just about everybody) tries to cheer depressed people up with a zeal that ultimately humiliates them. Depressed people don’t need reminding they should be other than they are—that may be all they can think about—and yet their well-meaning loved ones and co-workers tell them, ad infinitum, how normal people appreciate the world.

My symptoms aren’t so severe, but I understand well enough.

Maybe the sort of attention a depressive gets explains high-functioning better than Lincoln’s model of noble suffering. Everyone wants you to get on with life, and the course of least resistance is to do so. Getting on with life, whatever the cost to your well-being, might at least spare you constant reminders you’re broken. You won’t be any happier, but fewer people may know it. You take muted pleasure—and, for a depressive, every pleasure is muted—in being undiscovered. Your acting improves with practice as the gap grows between the true you and the one others see, splitting gradually, inexorably. The complete rupture is a high-functioning depressive’s feared and cherished dread and desire, a moment of exposure arrived at last.

Lincoln was extraordinary, my hero as a human being as well as a leader, but historians’ version of his depression—or Winston Churchill’s depression or Charles Darwin’s depression or fill-in-the-blank’s—is the happy world’s wish. All these despondent people, history suggests, ought to get off their asses, buck-up, and carry-on like great ones did.

If I had more courage and energy left after fighting to think myself worthy of existence, I’d create a new model of high-functioning depressives, one that includes righteousness. “Why aren’t you depressed,” I might ask, “when the world seems so imperfect and most people too deluded to do anything about it, when those most sensitive to pain are instructed, overtly and covertly, to pretend otherwise, when the neediest people require so much more care than the world is willing to acknowledge?”

Abraham Lincoln might disapprove, but I like to think he’d at least understand. Everything isn’t better by being “high-functioning.” Maybe a little, but mostly the mask fits better.

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