Tag Archives: Depression

Off to Work

depression-van-goghShe puts her cup down too hard, and the coffee inside gathers up and spits onto the tabletop. He rips a paper towel from the roll, hands it to her, and sits back down.

His interlaced fingers form a knot. As he stares into the hole created by his thumbs and index fingers, she continues to speak, and he half-listens. He’s heard the gist—cheer up, damn you—and sympathizes, though he struggles to comply. He’d like to save himself as she wishes but pretends instead.

The birds are already up, and cool, damp air seeps in from the open window. It will be another warm day, bearable in the morning—pleasant even—but still and heavy with sun by mid-afternoon.

The summer he was ten, he spent days like this with neighborhood boys. They collected personnel for baseball games at the backstop down the street or played capture-the-flag or hide-and-seek. They played like soldiers, occupying maps larger than their block. Sometimes, he hid among honeysuckles—though he knew he’d be found there—just to linger in the shadow and scent. If someone begged a ride, they’d go to the pool, and he’d return home in late afternoon cool, clean, and sated by sun. After TV, after supper, after another hour of play on the block, after more TV, after a few pages of a boys’ book, he slept.

Memory is dangerous. It makes one perfect summer day into a condition, what “would” happen every day. Then it rewrites the past altogether. He tells these stories so often their gilded nostalgia wears thin and reveals gray metal beneath. These tales were once solace, but he over-handles them, relying on bright imagination that never quite saves him.

She’s right to expect more. Because she loves him and he loves her, he tries and, for long stretches, rouses himself to cut vegetables, do the dishes, change the light bulb burned out upstairs, make and follow through on intentions. It’s all intention. He wants to believe in fresh pleasures and new stories but soon leaves cabinets open and forgets to set the timer for the potatoes. He crawls in bed early, unable to do one more thing, though he’s done much less than planned. He awakes to familiar rituals and gestures.

In school he learned about entropy, the heat death of the universe. Mr. Clements spread spaghetti-thin arms and said, “Everything will average. Hot will cool and cool will heat up. The whole universe will level out.” Sitting in the third row—as he did in every class—he pictured the universe as one bucket of tepid water.

Mr. Clements sat back down beside the overhead projector and rolled the notes forward. “Copy these,” he said. His eyes dropped to the page again.

She must be exhausted with restarting. A heavy sled without dogs, he dreams of hitting a frictionless patch with favorable gravity, a place motion will take. He wants to redeem her hope. He’s not sure what hope is.

He was ambitious once. In high school, he wrote his 400 meter times on a pad in his locker, noting each tenth gained as he approached the school record. He squeezed like a spring into the blocks and, at the gun, became pure will.

She reaches across the table, places her hand over his, and calls him back. There are practical matters, tasks to accomplish, obligations to fulfill. Another day of work awaits, and his mind leaps forward to take in all the time between now and returning. He prays, “Oh Lord, get me through.”

And he smiles. Some days, the only kindness he marshals is playing this role.

The birds chatter, and today’s humidity gathers in the kitchen. He loves this time of day and wants it to pass. He remembers joy and settles on survival. He takes a deep breath of morning air and sighs.

Throwing on his backpack, he heads toward the door. “Good bye,” he says, “have a great day.”


Filed under Ambition, Depression, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Nostalgia, Thoughts, Work

In My Room

article-1184369-04FEF065000005DC-530_468x310When I was young, tantrums—fits, really—sometimes possessed me. Some minor slight would set me off, and I’d rail in ire or angst or something between. I lost it so often my family nicknamed me “The angry bee” because I buzzed incomprehensibly and spun like someone signaling a path to poison flowers. I couldn’t have been easy to watch, so my parents sent me to my room. Their instructions were simple and direct: “Stay there until you can come out and be a civil human being.”

Once alone, I’d…

  • rail against the injustice of my oppressors
  • formulate elaborate plans to run away
  • fantasize how much I’d be missed
  • cry until crying grew tiresome
  • relive and revise the moments that landed me there
  • embrace whatever criticism I’d received
  • crack the door to listen to my family without me
  • catalog my other shortcomings and fatal flaws
  • excoriate myself for the sins of my nature
  • cogitate over what made me so unsuited to society
  • resolve to become Spock and never feel emotion again
  • compose the newest chapter of my prisoner’s autobiography
  • prepare my apology and a sincere promise—this time—to change
  • rehearse a jocular re-entry sparing my saying anything
  • wait, hoping someone noticed and retrieved me

These episodes ended much less dramatically than they began. I slinked back into the TV room. One of my brothers or sisters scooted over to make room on the couch or in a chair. I slotted into the space, and no one said anything. The biggest kindness, they must have believed, was silence, forgetting, moving on.

I’d say the process didn’t help me much but really it made me. In many ways, I’m in that room still, a ruminating creature subject to the same looping reexaminations and recriminations, looking for a place when I’m never entirely sure I belong anywhere. Without my history of time alone, I might not pursue sense so desperately now. I might not read the way I read or write as I do.

Nonetheless, the infinite time out isn’t anything I’d recommend, and it wasn’t a course I could take with my own children. My wife’s request I let my son or daughter stew, to give them time to process, to calm down, to think twice about the things they’d said—such patience felt impossible to me. In their place, I’d await some angel’s arrival. I wanted to be the angel. My children weren’t always glad to see me, and sometimes they welcomed continuing our dispute just where we left off, but I couldn’t stay away, couldn’t leave them alone, couldn’t leave me alone, couldn’t leave questions alone.

My self-restraint never lasts long. Though I’ve learned to affect a preternatural calm, I’ve never actually had much. My mood changes more than weather, is more subject to subtle shifts in air pressure, cloud cover, temperature, and wind direction.

You can accept never settling some issues because variables are too multitudinous and circumstances too chaotic, but thinking every issue insolvable is a bad habit. And one hard to break. Disbelieving assures you’re right. Though self-recrimination is a tremendous ally to deliberation, a motivation to think over, under, and through complicated questions, a spur to exploring subtle distinctions, implications, and applications, though I wouldn’t be myself without this relentless sense I haven’t thought anything through yet, that room is lonely.

The greatest kindness may be someone who can stop spinning flywheels of thought and affirm what you might otherwise never believe. Some rooms you can’t escape without help.

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Filed under Aging, Anger, Apologies, Depression, Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Memory, Parenting, Place, Solitude, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Writing


601seasonsChicago has been stingy with spring so far. The sun—though warm enough—doesn’t appear often enough. The sky is the right blue at times but clings to low temperatures. In the fair fragments of fair days, people emerge as from caves, turn their faces upward, and walk stupefied in parks and on busy streets. But I can’t count on the next day. Another storm or chill will come.

To live here, you need insulation—not just the real sort that stuffs coats or lines walls against wind and snow, but the psychological sort that allows you to remain steady through cold and hot, that keeps you tolerant, moderate, and calm in the face of struggles. Insulated people aren’t unsettled by bad minutes, hours, or days. They’re rarely put-off, aggravated, insulted, or miffed. They don’t feel down for long. Nothing penetrates their poise. Their desperation barely becomes audible.

My own insulation is thin. Some people say I’m “sensitive,” though no one applies the term as a complete compliment. Being sensitive means you feel subtle shifts of light and shadow and the rise and dip of each degree change. When you’re sensitive, winter permeates you. You thaw just as readily, but I wish I were the sort who stayed the same through vicissitudes. I’d like to carry the seasons in me, to call them as needed and rest assured I might meet spring just as summer, fall, and winter.

The world has no shortage of worries and is always with me, and anything that happens—to those I know and those on the news—can drag me into weather hard to elude.

The other day, after another soggy walk to school, I ran into a colleague who told me I shouldn’t despair, that spring had to come someday. I tried to be cheered, but hope comes reluctantly when conditions affect you. People say things will get better, and I know they’re right, but these things will also get worse, and better again, and worse. I know that, however these things are, they will demand I accept their comings and goings and how little I control them.

It’s enough to make me desire delusion, the willful substitution of faith for doubt, and the oblivion of utter insensitivity. I could wish for hibernation too, if I didn’t worry about its becoming my perpetual state, a way to escape into unconsciousness and save myself from internal weather.

A bright day will arrive soon to obliterate these dark thoughts—it can’t rain every day—and, when a beautiful day does appears, I’ll celebrate spring with everyone else. In the meantime I wish I could find another layer to wear. I wish belief in spring sustained me more.


Filed under Apologies, Chicago, Depression, Doubt, Essays, Hope, Identity, Laments, Meditations, Spring, Survival, Thoughts, Urban Life, Worry

A Christmas Message

Burning Christmas candlesI’ve been thinking recently about necessities fulfilled without human notice—the season change, the hibernation of plants, the sleepy obedience of animals, the shifts in daylight and night and all the planet’s other restless but essential motions. Other animals do what nature requires much more than we do. We set ourselves apart and operate as if noticing were a burden.

Truthfully, we follow necessity too. The tides of sleeping and waking pull us daily. We sense the shifts of clouds overhead as they extinguish the gentle warmth sun lends a cold day. We smell cooking when the wind wheels to a new direction, and some deep hunger stirs, bigger than the promise of food. We hear a bird cry in the cold and can’t help feeling how out of place its solitary song appears, how strange we feel in empathy.

But maybe I’m speaking for myself. A few weeks ago, some beloved readers commented on the despair they hear in me, the “vague loneliness” of “some melancholia or something heavy-pressing on the soul.” I try to laugh too (in my muted, sardonic way), but I suppose they’re right. It’s in the cadence of my posts, in my quiet enthusiasms and fitful peevishness, in stoic descriptions of shadow and weak sun. I guess this time of year stretches me out, attenuates pleasures I know I ought to appreciate more.

Which makes it important to compose what I hoped to today—a Christmas message. You see, I am appreciative. My faith in humanity wavers, days seldom deliver the joy I hope, and the frictions of existence chafe me endlessly. Still, I care about you. It will sound silly—corny even—to say so, but I never greet another person without real warmth. Though I can’t always show it, meeting another mind is such consolation and relief to me. When someone is open to talk, I’m equally open, and I love to hear a student’s latest lament about an unfair question or quiz, a cabby’s story of his biggest fare, a colleague’s memory of a disappointing fourth birthday, or a stranger’s gratitude when I give him the dollar he asks. And, though I sometimes have to withdraw from the world to meet it again, I don’t really like being alone, either in my thoughts or in my affections.

I’m especially appreciative of family—extended and nuclear—that accepts me as I am and doesn’t ask me to pretend to more. They forgive me when I need it and prod me when I need it and reassure me when I need it and offer me solace when I need it. They keep me, in the absolute sense of that word—to hold, protect, preserve, and cherish. And I try to keep them as well… partly by keeping Christmas.

Christmas doesn’t mean anything to some people and everything to others, but it’s just a day. The frontier of dawn races around the planet as it always does. People wake to jobs and responsibilities, to troubles, to tiny disasters and private triumphs and loss and love. The dishes shuffle. Mouths and minds fill with words and empty again. Eyes drift over the familiar and unfamiliar, storing it all.

But, even if you regard Christmas as the sorriest excuse for materialism and an emblem of Christian myopia, indulge me at least this Christmas message. I meet you today with peace and love. I’m grateful for you. And I mean to appreciate the world more.

Merry Christmas.


Filed under Apologies, Blogging, Christmas, Depression, Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Meditations, Modern Life, Resolutions, Solitude, Thoughts, Voice, Winter, Writing

Moods, Enumerated

This week, seven prose poems…

1. Anhedonia

A broken barometer sits on the wall, mute on what’s passed, what’s passing, what will pass. It speaks to no one or, more truthfully, speaks only to itself, conducting ambient temperature and pressure as any matter would—gas, liquid, or solid. Its glass face reflects the room around it with the gelid gleam of a fish eye, and the needle, still for some unspecified time now, moves only in imagination. The scores that ring its edges calibrate absent possibilities.

2. Despair

The street is all umbrellas, every soul—excepting yours—under one. Awnings, weakened by age and ravished by wind, wave like pointed serpent tongues. Whatever happened ended, and people emerge in hopes of light cracking along the skyline, dwindling pools in the street, swept pavement, and the restoration of ordered and domesticated realities. Only you still feel the weight of water falling, and whether it is memory or prophecy matters little. It is, and that’s all you need to know. All time shares one weather.

3. Melancholia

He sits in the back of the café, well away from any window, and, by the time you arrive, empty glasses crowd the table. He’s alone and may have been all along, but each time fresh glasses arrived. Ringing the bottom of many are circles of black, and the same dark rings his mouth— ink from the look of it—deeper than creosote, bitter even to sight. He isn’t smiling, but the pride of his poison is unmistakable, a mark no rubbing erases. The last light to penetrate so deep is gray, the same color as smudged panes or wash water that won’t ever come clean.

4. Joy

Someone keeps a bed of impatiens fed with manure, and so the flowers froth in vividly mixed pink, white, orange, lilac, red, and magenta. Over the summer months, the blossoms mound in the sun, rising like yeasty dough. They watch the sky with faces eager for rain or for someone to shower them with water. They do not care which and expect too much. When the flowers begin to fade, it will be from the inside out, their springy stems bowing and browning in shadows they created themselves.

5. Desire

Hungers feed by doubling, as if they want more of themselves and would delay satisfaction forever.  The present unfolds infinitely, fabric streaming like water gushing from a new-pierced well. It issues from somewhere deep and unseen, and, unlike water, nothing breaks its weave. This hunger serves no one. Rename it as something else if you can, but you won’t make it what you wish. You can’t reach it to rein it or ride it. It’s never yours entirely, though it seems only yours.

6. Rage

No witness remains to explain when or how flames started. Heat breathed first at your ankles, and then, red from the periphery circled you with news of a coming storm. You made this storm, but no escape remains by the time you notice, and soon even the distant sky pulses orange as from a flickering candle. There is no candle, or perhaps it’s all the candles burning to spend themselves. From so far away you can’t hear voices or see bubbling surfaces erupt in contagious flame. You can’t hear even yourself shouting into the air rushing to feed the destruction.

7. Relief

The typical gusts die away, and, though the air isn’t still, it embraces what it touches without carrying it. The sun balances against any breeze. Temperature becomes invisible. You don’t have to move—because the planet moves for you—but, if you do, every still lingers. Watch the horizon, and you won’t see the edge of the world transmuted as you usually do—it will be just the same, just different moment to moment. So much of what you know you can count upon, including counting upon knowing always, a story you mean to examine tomorrow.


Filed under Allegory, Art, Depression, Doubt, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Metaphor, Parables, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Voice

Messages from Trouble


On my old blog, I kept a category called “Angst” that I banned from this blog. Yet angst remains one of the chief motives behind my writing.

If I’m absolutely honest, I’d much rather read work that—at least sometimes—promises mild weather instead of future storms, earthquakes, and suffering. The writer who relies on angst takes considerable risks—people will say he or she is whiny, over-earnest, or self-absorbed. But I do rely on it.

In German, I understand, the term is a mixture of fear, anxiety, guilt, remorse…a host of emotions that are bad enough singly, worse in combination. What I can find online suggests the word shares an Old Norse root with “anger,” but anger seems only a part of angst, which extends beyond your own psyche to a grave concern for the world and your power to operate meaningfully in it. People use the word “angst” to describe anxiety you can’t trace, a motiveless world-wariness and weariness, a nearly unbearable sense of futility.

And, if you describe your feelings as angst, you are almost automatically making some grander claim for your emotions. The philosophical associations are part of what makes angst suspect—it’s German, for chrissake, not American—and, by the way, why won’t “depressed” do?

Some of us always look for the right word, search menus for perfect choices then ask to alter them in some minor way. We look fussy and “Yes, but” until the last moment. Some accuse of us of believing what’s good enough for others is never, ever good enough for us.

Yet, to me angst seems real. If I were depressed, I might be inert, but angst is active, a desperate desire to taketh arms against a sea of troubles or, at least, a sea of unaccountable crap.

Which is why it motivates writing. Feeling uncertain there is any answer doesn’t stop anyone from searching. They call madness doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. At times, that describes reality as well. The problem isn’t just you but a bigger sort of hell where desire is the one thing that won’t expire.

Unfortunately, angst can also be inarticulate and lead to a sort of flailing. I know it’s hard to listen to. What feels to me like trouble with the world may sound to you like trouble with me.

In my classes, the students sometime study Edward Albee, a singularly angsty writer. In an interview, someone asked him how he answers the charge that he is a nihilistic, pessimistic writer. His answer:

If I were a pessimist I wouldn’t bother to write. Writing itself, taking the trouble, communicating with your fellow human being is valuable, that’s an act of optimism. There’s a positive force within the struggle. Serious plays are unpleasant in one way or another, and my plays examine people who are not living their lives fully, dangerously, properly.

Oddly, reading his answer makes my angst abate, makes me hope for milder weather. In his statement I find a defense for all the grim posts and poems I have written and will write. Angsty writers often have more confidence in themselves than their readers do, so those writers have a hard time winning audiences. Yet I choose to believe I’m responding positively to my struggles, living fully by occasionally being full of angst.


Filed under Anxiety, Apologies, Blogging, Depression, Doubt, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry, Writing

My Friend Eeyore

I’m busy with summer school, so this week I’m reprising a post from my earlier blog:

Once my mother equated each of my brothers and sisters with Winnie the Pooh characters. She seemed to know the character for me right away… but paused before saying “Eeyore.” Maybe she meant to preserve my feelings.

You remember Eeyore.  After saying good morning, he added, “If it is a good morning, which I doubt.” He is relentlessly downbeat, depressed, and self-loathing. Seeing his reflection in the stream, he says, “Pathetic, that’s what it is, pathetic.”

I’ve heard people use Eeyore to chide someone for being sullen or complaining, for not going along with the high spirits of the moment. “Don’t be such an Eeyore!” they say, in exactly the same context as, “Don’t be such a party pooper!”

But I can’t help defending Eeyore. People forget Chapter Six of Winnie the Pooh when Eeyore reveals it’s his birthday. Pooh, being Pooh, realizes his friend needs something more than “Many happy returns” and enlists Piglet’s aid in gathering presents. Pooh chooses a pot of honey (what else?) and Piglet chooses a balloon. The honey gets eaten (what else?), and Piglet trips and pops the balloon.

And Eeyore? He couldn’t be more pleased. He’s grateful for Pooh’s “useful pot” because now he has somewhere to put the balloon, which—had it not popped—wouldn’t have fit.  You can’t argue Eeyore is great company, but he does support the theory of lowered expectations. When you expect nothing, everything pleases you. And in the story, it’s truly the thought that counts to Eeyore. He seems tickled the balloon was once his favorite color—red—and his favorite size—about as big as Piglet.

If I could only be so positive. The worst-case scenario occurs to me first, so I’m at my best when I pass by it to say something positive. It’s my duty to lift myself from gloom and disguise my hope-challenged state. I look to laugh but sometimes settle for accepting the way I am and invest in hoping something better lies ahead. I don’t always succeed, but sometimes.

Eeyore’s take on his own condition is that nothing is wrong except, “We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.” Eeyore says he has no “Bon-hommy… I’m not complaining, but there it is.”

We might suggest Prozac—but he recognizes his state and tries to work with it.

In the fourth chapter, when Eeyore loses his tail, he’s despondent—though he doesn’t know why yet. He’s particularly happy to see Pooh, for he was “very glad to be able to stop thinking a little in order to say ‘How do you do?’ in a gloomy manner to him.”

Eeyore isn’t companionable but craves companionship. He is ready to be consoled. When Pooh points out his tail is gone, Eeyore sees Pooh’s observation accounts for a great deal, and, in fact, “It explains everything.”

Nothing will ever explain everything for me—it’s tough to accept someone else’s answer to a question you ask yourself—but Eeyore celebrates unreservedly when, tail found, he “frisked about the forest, waving his tail so happily.” That sounds good.

It might be sad to look to Eeyore as a model—pathetic, that’s what it is, pathetic—but there’s much to admire in him. A. A. Milne writes, “Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, ‘Why?’ and sometimes he thought ‘Wherefore?’ and sometimes he thought ‘Inasmuch as which?’ and sometimes he didn’t know what he was thinking about.” I can identify.


Filed under Depression, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Home Life, Hope, life, Meditations, Memory, Recollection, Thoughts, Tributes