Friday, January 8, 2010

Talking the Walk (17)

The Truth (and Trouble) of and

Again and again I come back to it: the truth of and. It is such an important truth that sometimes I think I will be well precisely to the extent that I understand it. Meaning know and live it...down to my bones.

I once won a literary prize, and part of the judges’ citation stuck with me: “acceptance of puzzlement as a natural state of mind.” With a couple of adjustments it could stand as the truth of and: “acceptance of contradiction as a natural state of life.”

Substituting and for but, though, either...or, or any of the binary exclusions that occlude our daily language, works wonders. Try it. I am a hopeful, happy person and (not but) I am often sad and listless. I am energetic and ambitious, and (not though) quite lazy. I am loyal and disloyal (not either/or).

Why force a great, wandering river into canals?

But that little word and can be a terribly hard word to remember. I learn it and forget, practice and neglect. Over and over, I slide from inclusion and acknowledgement (not blanket acceptance: I can acknowledge a part of my nature and work actively to change it) to exclusion and denial. I try and convict myself in the Court of Either-Or, and hear Judge One-Way (me again) pronounce sentence: You must be one thing or the other; you cannot be both.

I learned all this again just last fall. Ironically, after my book launch in October, and at the talks I gave subsequently, some listeners said to me, “You seem well now,” as if all the troubles I was describing were safely behind me. “I do feel well,” I said, “” But I could tell they didn’t believe me when I said I knew bad times would return, times they, and even I, could scarcely imagine. Sure enough, within a month, I was floundering, slipping into a netherworld of sleeplessness and incoherent thoughts and depression and even hallucinations. I could barely understand the book I myself had written or the talks I had given about it. But while I felt myself slipping, while I still had time, I did a useful, practical thing. Using what few verbal resources I had left, I wrote myself a letter, a sort of “message in a bottle” from my still-hanging-on self to the unwell self I felt gaining on him. I taped the letter to the wall beside my desk, and read it often in the next two months, feeling disbelief but also comfort at its assurances that I had gone to this black place before, and had returned from it. I wanted to read it as part of this talk, but it is a little too long. “Letter to Thursday” is still taped to my wall, waiting for when I need it again. It is a frank and simple statement from one self to another, saying in essence: I know you, even if you don’t remember me. We are in this together.

Still, a real and practical difficulty posed by “the truth of and” is planning. Planning requires a committment based on some assurance about who you will be in the future, so it relates to that difficulty of maintaining a reliable storyline of self and life. I think all of you will know what I mean. When I was asked to come here today, I was just emerging from a bad depression. I had to perform a familiar calculation, a kind of guesswork, i.e. if I’m a little better now, will I be better enough by then? What if I’m not? Future planning is really tough with a mood disorder. How do I plan for an event 2 weeks, 2 months, 2 years from now–when I don’t know who, what version of myself, will be present then? In practice, this is not an easy problem to solve, but in theory at least I have developed a simple approach: Say yes to whatever seems reasonable now, but allow yourself the option of backing out if necessary when the day arrives. When and if that happens, telling the truth is preferable–overall, I’ve been greatly helped by being more open about my condition–but don’t be too hard on yourself if, in an imperfect world, where intolerance and misunderstanding and stigma are all alive and well, circumstances force you to lie, and instead of “I can't make it; I’m in bad shape mentally,” you say “I’ve got the flu,” or “I have to work,” or “My car broke down.” Metaphorically, they’re all true, after all: you are sick, you do have to work (on yourself), and your vehicle (you) needs maintenance in the shop.

I tell the truth when I can, and lie when I must. (Unless it is it the other way around...)

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