Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Talking the Walk (20)
Know Thy Selves
“Know thyself.” Everyone has heard the ancient Greek injunction, inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. For all its wisdom, though, I still think it could be improved. It presumes, in its singular pronoun, a stable and consistent identity, when in fact identity is malleable and multiple, a condition of flux which must be constantly updated, even renegotiated. “Know thy selves,” I humbly suggest, would be a more humane and practical credo.
Something I remained ignorant about for a long time, for example, was the fact that my periodic inability to read–words, these things I loved, going dead and blank, their sequences fuzzy and meaningless–is a common symptom of depression, and doesn’t at all betoken apathy or lack of intelligence. Or at least not permanent forms of those things. What it may mean, though, is a temporary impairment of interest and cognitive ability. And there are far better ways to deal with that than simply dropping out of the life one wants.
Like what? you may be thinking. What are you supposed to do if you find yourself bottoming out just when you need yourself most? Unable to read–but an exam coming up? Unable to write–but an essay due? I can think of some practical approaches to these problems, but outlining them would take us too far astray in a short talk. And I would be the last person to say that these are not serious problems, serious threats. Fluctations in mental health still threaten my job and my personal life; they’re a minefield I am always trying to pick my way through. I have no wish to travel back in time to advise my younger self: he did the best he could, what he had to do, then. But I know a couple of things he didn’t. One is that hiding a problem–from yourself and from others–usually takes more energy than trying to manage it. Coming out is almost always a good idea. What I hope I would do now, when I felt myself slipping, is to approach someone I trust with the facts: I want to do this (finish my course, write my exam, hang on till tomorrow), but for some reason I’m unable to. I need help, something to get me through this. That would be a start. Not a solution yet, but the only sure step I know towards finding one. I don’t say it is an easy step to take.
It seems strange that my eighteen months on a psychiatric ward in my early twenties had not begun my education in these matters. That tumultuous passage had schooled me in many miseries, fears and self-doubts of every kind, but it had not taken me very far at all in developing a practical awareness of myself, how I had changed, and how I might get on with my life, given the fluctuating and rather fragile (though at the same time newly toughened and robust) creature I now seemed to be.
Strange...or not so strange. Many medical mishaps–including a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia, zombiefying tranquilizers, many electroshock treatments and a near-fatal overdose–had given me good reasons to drop out of the standard curriculum of mental health. Again, though, I was an extremist: I shunned the mental health system completely for the next decade, which included some of the lowest and most pointless wandering in my life. Some kinds of learning occur only slowly, in tiny increments. No matter how successfully it is managed, trauma takes time. Time to occur (since it occurs in waves, even if one event precipitates it)...and a long time to come back from. Long, slow time is usually not on offer in an age that idolizes speed and a narrowly defined functioning. These idols of quick-time get stamped out crudely and worshipped thoughtlessly. And is it perhaps yourself–your image and expectations of yourself–that have helped to mold this unforgiving deity? Just because what you need isn’t on offer–or doesn’t appear to be–doesn’t mean you can’t ask for it, claim it. A system may function badly–many do–but it can’t function better than we ask it to. Demand it to. And: permit it to. “Time heals,” we say, but do we act as if we believe it? It takes courage to trust time–the courage to wait and see.
After that, of course, comes the challenge of admitting what you see, and finding room to accept it. Several times each year I still experience what I call my “shut-downs.” These are the periods that have taught me how far beyond sadness depression really goes. In these dead zones my brain and body and spirit–my whole self, really–become, in stages, unable to comprehend or respond to the world. It is a lot like that famous scene in 2001, when Dave Bowman unplugs HAL, and the computer disappears circuit by circuit–busted right down to his programmed origins of “Dai-sy...Dai-sy”–though by that time I have long since lost the urge to sing. At such times I’ve learned to apply what I call the small-circle cure. This means reducing activity and stimulation to a bare minimum. Dimming the lights, unplugging the phone, cancelling social engagements. And, as I feel my ability to think in sequence ebbing away, scaling my reading down from the love life of Anna Karenina to the love life of Britney Spears...and then further down, to just flipping through books of pictures or watching reruns of The Sopranos. To return to the idea of functioning: Someone seeing me lying on my side for hours beside a single lamp, flipping pages of Rolling Stone or People, might see a very low order of functioning...and it is, in a way...but it is a much higher order of functioning than I showed in the years when I tried to keep reading and writing through these spells, which can last six weeks or more, and added terrible frustration to depression when I could understand nothing, produce nothing. Self-acceptance, I’ve come to see, involves a better understanding of one of the simplest words: and. I am a person who reads, and writes, challenging books...and I am a person who, at times, cannot read or write the simplest sentence. The two facts are not mutually exclusive; they mustn’t be, since I’m living both of them.
But that little word and can be a terribly hard word to remember. A major part of my ongoing recovery, including the therapy I do with the excellent psychiatrist I have now, involves trying to remember the truth of and. As I said earlier, there is a degree of amnesia to my condition, so that every time I lurch upward into mania or downward into depression, it feels like the first time, and I lose all memory that I have been here before and gotten through it. Retaining a thin thread of memory, enough that I can say, “I know this place; I was here before, and I left again,” is one of the most important gains I’ve made in recent years. It’s a lifeline to cling to, a thread to guide me out of the labyrinth.
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, “...now.” 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, it is still there, 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 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.
“In this together” is a sentiment alien to the depressed person, since a feeling of utter desertion is at the core of the predicament. One is abandoned by joy, by purpose, by energy...by others, by the world, by life...by oneself. The last is the harshest turning in the lock. Losing this first advisor, ally, friend–this best angel, truly–confirms that the ship has indeed been abandoned and must inevitably go down. Without this “other” there is no self–only a cave where someone used to live. Heaing no word is having no word. Getting a letter, a postcard, a murmur, on the other hand, is evidence that desertion may not be absolute, or at least not final, since somewhere your self-in-health is still speaking.