Getting Back Up

You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting anything lately, breaking my intention to post twice a week for the whole of the year. This was not from lack of material; in fact I have several essays waiting in the wings, and more still waiting to be edited, but the pipeline has ground to a halt.

There’s a simple reason, and a familiar one for all who know me well: depression.

Depression isn’t quite the same as sadness, which could be cheered up; depression makes everything harder, including being happy. So easy tasks become difficult, difficult tasks become hard, and then the work backlog kicks in. Nor does it work to be cheered up, though it doesn’t really hurt; the problem with depression is not that I’m walking backward, but that I can’t walk.

Depression is also tidal. I took on the blog project at high water, and like many of my projects begun at such times, it suffered when my mind’s tide turned.

I’ve dealt with my mental illness for a long time. I’ve had the “black dog on my shoulder” since I was a small child, at least; I remember walking around my old neighborhood feeling desperately unhappy about nothing in particular. Some days I can pull myself out of it, or push myself through it; other times I need help from outside, and I’ve gotten it from many excellent friends; sometimes there’s just nothing to be done about it until it goes away on its own. Sometimes it passes in a day or two; sometimes it eats whole months. I don’t remember much of September 2007, for instance, or March 2011, and there’s nothing good in what I can recall. Sometimes my illness leads me to self-harm, though I’ve avoided that for three years and counting.

But even when I’m depressed, I’m still a depressed teacher, and here are a few of the lessons I’m trying to draw from this latest round with with the traitor in my head.

One of the constant whispers in my ears, one of the mental assaults that I am so frequently fighting off, is that I am powerless. That nothing I do will matter. That I am alone.

Thing is, that’s not altogether wrong… if the third one is true. In this world no one can make it alone. This means two things worth remembering: one, those who have made it didn’t do it on their own, and two, anyone can have power when they join with others. A comedy duo was once asked, “Do you think one person can really make a difference?” They replied, “Of course not. That’s why there are two of us.”

If you’re alone, then yes, you’re powerless. But you don’t have to be alone.

Because so many people feel alone, it’s worth asking why they do, and I think the answer lies in depression as well. Depression digs us into a hole so deep that we can’t see the people around us. And depression can be taught: psychologists call it learned helplessness. In times like these, many people feel alone and powerless because they have been trying and trying for so long with no real success. So they have learned that anything they try will fail. This is not true, but it’s not foolishness, either. So many people have tried so hard for so long, and because of forces too great for them to control, they have failed. The thing to do is try another way. But the holes that depressed people live in don’t let us see other paths.

So here’s the crucial lesson: keep going. Crawl out of the hole. “Inch toward daylight.”

I’ll be honest: in the long run, I can’t promise that this strategy will succeed. It’s quite possible that nothing we do will matter. Except that trying, in the face of despair, in the face of certain failure, matters a great deal.

I’m getting back on my feet. I’m going to keep writing, even if I’ve already failed at what I set out to do, and even if no one ever hears a word I say. Even if I can’t always walk well, I’m going to keep moving.

Advertisements

Giving

I am depressed.

I mean that both about my life in general and about me, today. It’s genetic; I can see traces of problems on both sides of my family. I could also attribute it to a biological father who left me and my mother when I was young, or a stepfather who meant to teach me to avoid ego and instead taught me to avoid self-worth. I can blame brain chemistry, an awkward and isolated childhood, my social life, lack of light in Seattle winters. But ultimately blame leads nowhere, least of all to solutions.

For me depression means lack of energy, lack of interest, feelings of hopelessness, and above all a bitter self-loathing and self-sabotage. I can remember feeling sad with no cause when I was very young, and I can remember taking out my frustrations against myself. I learned emotional masochism, making myself feel worse through guilt or making my life more difficult, so that at least I would be in control of the amount of pain I was feeling. Since I was a storyteller from almost my first word, this meant my heroes would all prevail against vicious odds, but pay the price, suffering serious wounds in the moment of victory. They would then live out the rest of their lives maimed and meaningless.

It took twenty-odd years, but eventually I went from telling stories about it to doing it myself. I was a cutter for a year and a half, and I have nearly a score of scars visible on my arm.

One night I tried to go further. I knew a high place, and I intended to jump off it. Something or Someone stopped me, but it was a struggle. I contemplate suicide to this day. I won’t do it. But I think about it. Living is not easy; it’s like going through life in heavy chains, forever constrained by the bonds and by the sheer weight. Everything is a little harder, a little worse, a little more painful, and self-destruction to one degree or another is my constant companion. This is what depression is.

Yet for all this, my case is light. Many days I have no symptoms, and I can live like anyone else. My case is sufficiently mild and sufficiently idiosyncratic that I have never considered medication. I have never trusted any method that would rely on me alone. I am too good at self-sabotage to be solely responsible for my own health. If I chose to take medication, I could just as easily choose to not take it, and frankly, knowing myself, I would stop at the worst possible time.

Besides, I have a cure.

It is not a quick fix; nothing is. My cure is more Sisyphus than silver bullet (and while it works for my mind it couldn’t possibly work for all mental illness). And it is less easily weighed, measured, and dosed than any pill. My cure is other people.

When I look into a mirror, I see flaws, failures, a useless lump of flesh that cannot–will not–accomplish anything that is worth the oxygen it consumes. This is because mirrors lie. We look into them and see what we expect, out of our pride, our misery, or our mediocrity. It takes someone else, someone who loves us for who we really are, to tell us the truth and do what no mirror can: show us our real selves.

Sometimes one person is a strong enough force in my life to bring my mind into balance for a time, by herself. I’ve already written of Jay, who helped me through my addiction to cutting. She didn’t do it herself; she couldn’t have helped me unless I was willing to be helped. And I could not have done it without her to help me. So we owe each other the victory. And Jay isn’t the only one who’s been so stabilizing for me.

Hanging my sanity on one person works, if it’s the right person… but only for a time. If nothing else it’s tiring for them. I try to give back, but I can’t always, not at the right time or in the right way. And even strong relationships of mutual support will eventually end, one way or another, because everyone dies. So the only way I can make my cure work is by drawing on many people, and the only way it’s fair is if I use the strength and stability they’ve given me to help them in return.

I have often wondered why, in the One’s big plan, I was born under such a shadow of depression. And if there is no grand plan, I’ve wondered what use I can make of my illness, how I can make it serve me rather than the reverse.

Now I know.

My cure is the world’s cure, or the beginnings of one. The support I need–and the support I hope I can in turn give others–is the support we all need. I just need a little more of it. No one can go through life alone. Every great hero we’ve ever heard of had a hundred helpers; even Jesus of Nazareth needed family and friends. I have said, “We are one.” This is what I meant. People supporting other people and being supported in turn. Those who have–be it money, power, or in my case just a better view of who I am–supporting those who have not. And then, as all such stories go, the balance shifts, and those who were needy become those who give. Many times it is love and truth, as with me. Sometimes it may be a larger act, perhaps those who have money and power giving to those who need it more, and getting back what they most need: forgiveness.

It all begins in weakness. It begins by saying that we need help, then by asking as I have asked. It is a renunciation of power, a confession of vulnerability, and for many of us it is the most terrifying act of our lives. But do as I have done. Say, in your weakness, “Please. I need help.”

You’ll be amazed, as I have been amazed, at who comes to your aid, and how. Then in time you will become the one to give, so listen to your neighbor’s whispered cry–“Please. I need help”–remember your own weakness, and give to them in the same measure as someone gave to you. And so our weakness becomes our strength.

This is the story of all family, of all community, of every union and every alliance, the story of all democracy, of all humanity. Asking for help and giving it, not once but always, giving back what’s been given, day in and day out. It is the story of all hope.

Give and ask and give again, world without end, forever and amen.

“Use of Weapons”

I have an old friend, whom I have known off and on for half my life. I knew him when we were boys, and now I know him as a man; he’s funny, insightful, and generally a good friend. He was among the first to recognize my cutting for what it was. He also owns guns.

Whenever I was over at his apartment, he would get out his latest acquisition, put it together and show me the parts, occasionally demonstrating grip or aim. His eyes would always light up as he did so. For my part, I was nervous, and it showed; he would always take pains to show me that the safety was on, that the gun was unloaded, that I was safe.

Thing is, I was never for a moment worried about what the gun could do to me. I was worried about what the gun was doing to him.

You see, I’ve held a weapon in my hands before. I’ve felt the rush of power that goes through me when I do. It is thrilling. It is a little intoxicating. It is, perhaps, a primal thing — an old human instinct to  pick up a rock or a stick to use as a tool to make oneself stronger and safer.

Trouble is, weapons are tools made to inflict harm… and therefore made to exert power. That I know all too well, and I am reminded every time I look at the scars on my arm. When I held a weapon, things became clear; I had a measure of power over my pain and over my life. My knife gave me a way to dominate my problems. I was raised to not harm others, however, so I became my own target; I couldn’t hurt anyone else. Besides, I wasn’t dealing with my actual problems, just trying to simplify things with a thrill. So I have felt both a weapon’s allure and a weapon’s damage. And it hurt.

In fact, it hurt both ways.

When I see a weapon, therefore, I see its effects in both directions. I see the damage it can do to others: whose lives will the weapon claim? Whose body will be rent by it? Who will mourn? Who will hurt?

I also see the damage the weapon can do to its wielder: who will they stop seeing as people, and start seeing as targets? Who will they feel they have control over? Who will they feel they can dominate and coerce? What problems and disputes will they be tempted to simplify or resolve through using weapons, or threatening to? How will the weapon alter their anger? Their fear? Their grief? Will they take it out on others? On themselves?

Perhaps my history — first as a Quaker, then as a cutter — has misinformed me. Perhaps people with weapons need not be so altered; perhaps all those who defend the Second Amendment are well aware of the intoxication of going armed and doing harm, and guard against it; perhaps they are well aware of how much responsibility lies on them when they carry weapons or allow others to do so. Perhaps they are aware of the potential consequences and are content to run the risk.

Still, no matter if I am misinformed about the mental damage on the users, I feel at least a little qualified to speak to the physical damage done on the targets; I’ve seen the blood I’ve drawn, staunched the deep wounds I’ve inflicted, felt the pain I’ve dealt out. And I know that when it comes to weapons, power through doing harm is their only purpose; even when used as deterrents, it’s the potential for damage that gives them their power. They work by hurting. Hurting is their work.

So I think of innocents in the line of fire. I think of those like me who turn their weapons on themselves in a desperate bid at controlling something. I think of those who really are guilty of something, but are never given a chance to atone. I think of all those who love the targets, and their pain. And finally I think of what weapons did to my mind, that addiction to power and dealing pain, and wonder what might happen to other weapons users.

So no, I don’t trust weapons, from the pocketknife up to the atom bomb. I don’t trust their power and I don’t trust the hands that wield that power, be it a lone wolf or someone in uniform or just someone like me. People are not always healthy, after all.

And so for the sake of all, I don’t use a weapon anymore, and I hope others will think twice about using them as well.

(I am indebted to Iain Banks, who first used this title.)

Good News

I hear a lot of bad news lately. Sometimes it’s just the quality of the reporting, of course, but usually it’s the content. I see reactionism rising, neglect from those in power, and the ostensible good guys either trip over their own feet or lose sight of their original aims. Poverty’s spreading. I’ve been hearing of suicide, of abuse. My friends are struggling with unemployment and illness. There’s a lot of pain in my world right now: my people’s, my friends’, my own.

I can bear my own, with time, but it’s seeing others suffer that grieves me so much, so I can’t sit by any more. What can I do?

To stare down pain, a poet will write verses and a singer will write songs; a storyteller, when he sees his loved ones hurting, will tell tales to raise the soul. He’ll sing of a victory.

Now, I could tell you about long-ago successes–it’s kind of my forte–but I think I should tell you all a new story. It’s a story about me, but not just about me; it’s my triumph, but not just mine. And it’s not news to some, but not common knowledge, so: time to speak up. Continue reading