when reasons fail

Reasons fail spectacularly when the subject is depression. Last week, a well-meaning journalist or two (no, I can’t remember which) offered Kate Spade’s separation from her husband as a ‘reason’ for her mental health struggles.

It would be great if depression and anxiety worked that way. Find the cause, fix the problem, job done. But they don’t work that way. Depression is depression and not just a grumpy mood (sort of like mine today), because it doesn’t obey reason. By that, I just mean that depression happens whether or not it’s warranted. I remember reading somewhere that suicides are more common in spring (no, again, I don’t remember: humour me, I’m having a bad day). Why? Because the new life that comes in spring is so incongruous with the cold, dark winter inside that it pushes people over the edge. The world looks beautiful, and that makes everything feel worse. See how that doesn’t make sense? (That is, unless you’re depressed. If you’re depressed, I am sorry; I know you understand this all too well.) Anxiety, though that’s not the main demon that haunts me, also eludes logic. We’re all anxious from time to time, about stuff that seems anxiety-producing for most people. That’s not disordered anxiety–it’s typical. So we might be tempted to think that an anxiety disorder is just like that, only worse. I suspect, however, that it is not only different in intensity but also in form. And although I don’t suffer from an anxiety disorder, I’m pretty sure that logic doesn’t cure it.

That’s not to say that bad things, painful things, frightening things, that happen in our lives do not contribute to depression (and anxiety and the rest). I’m a pretty functional person most days. By that, I mean that I can do the usual sorts of daily tasks at home and at work with the same amount of cheerfulness and grumbling as the average person. I try to be cheerful more than I grumble; sometimes I fail. This basically even keel is thanks in large part to some chemical help my brain gets so that it can stay focused on the task in hand. When things go wrong (sometimes even small things), though, distraction increases and despair looms. Then I don’t move between cheerfulness and grumbling: I go straight to complete despondency. Everything is going wrong, I am a total and complete failure, and the world would be a better place without me in it.

Hey, presto. I am no longer that even-keeled, basically functioning person. Now I am languishing under the boulder of depression, completely paralysed emotionally and psychologically. And I cannot shift that boulder, no matter how much I try to convince myself that there is no reason that it should be there. Reason has left me, and I am bereft. As long as the boulder sits there, I’m not going to get anything done. (Okay, sometimes I can do laundry, but that doesn’t get my articles written or my teaching prepped.) And I know from others’ accounts of their experiences with the world-ending psychological catastrophe known as depression that mine is nowhere near as bad as it gets.

The thing is, it isn’t the stress that caused my depression. Well-managed depression is like  a fault line that runs through someone’s mind. (There’s a lot to be said about mind/body/soul in depression, and Kathryn Greene-McCreight treats the subject very well in Darkness Is My Only Companion.) Most days, the landscape looks like solid ground. But on some days a small bump can trigger a massive tectonic shift. Coping mechanisms crumble, and the mind comes crashing down. My mind comes crashing down. And in the rubble, it’s hard to tell whether there is even an ‘up’, never mind figuring out which way it is. There, in the rubble, it can seem like the world has already ended. Suicide just brings into force the perception that’s already there. That perception is depression’s doing, and reason doesn’t really come into it.

When I reflect on my own psychological earthquakes, I think the only reason I am still around is the psalms. I’m serious. When I was a teenager, my inner life was a mess. (My outer life, too, but that’s a different story.) I have no idea how I stumbled into the psalms. I wasn’t a pious person. But boy did the psalmists know how to lament. They could say, ‘life totally sucks’ (my teenage lament) in the most beautiful ways. So for years (no exaggeration), I would conclude every journal entry with one psalmist’s question to himself: ‘Why are you downcast, O my soul? And why so disquieted within me?’ And I would add his encouragement to that depressed self: ‘Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance and my God.’ In the psalms, I found my ‘up’.

That’s not to say that religious practice can save everyone; on my worst days I would forget that there even were psalms. But for the most part, the psalmists have been my companions in despair: just the right company for my recurring misery. And I am very grateful for them.

Deo gratias.

 

 

 

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in the valley

I have always had days like this. More often, far more often than I would like. So my life’s path has been a crooked one through mountain passes. Some days are glorious, inside and out, and somehow then the valleys, seen from above, look less threatening.

In the valley, though, I usually keep my head down. I stay off the social media. I don’t blog. What on earth could I possibly say from down here? Words seem to die on my lips, and those that don’t simply fade into the darkness. But today I’m going to have a good look around, and see what I can see. I am not sure that it will help me get out of the valley, but having a map might at least remind me that this isn’t the whole landscape.

The first thing I notice about the shape of this internal valley is chaos–a sort of verbal chaos, in which I feel I cannot speak. It isn’t so much that I have no words, but that they’re all tangled up. Like Reepicheep (in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), all the things that I might say paralyze me, and I fall silent. I might pick up a pen, and scribble madly in the darkness: but nothing I say there will ever be read by anyone.

The second thing I notice is the emptiness. There isn’t a soul around. Literally, at the moment, there isn’t anyone around–I am ‘working’ from home. Or at least I will be, when the internal fog lifts a little. But it is more empty than that. There is such a deep aloneness here. From this angle, I can see very clearly the despair that inspires suicide. It’s the most painful aspect of the darkness, the sense of being utterly and completely alone in the universe. I know that from outside, the total disregard for how others might ‘receive’ one’s death looks like selfishness. But from inside, the actual love is absolutely imperceptible. (Here my saving grace has always been my children, even before I had any–but that’s another story.) All those others who might miss me are lost to me already in the darkness.

Usually the emptiness overwhelms me, and I can look no more. Maybe this isn’t a bad exercise after all. The third thing that I notice in the valley, feeling my way along, is a sense of uselessness. I’m not actually good at or for anything. Here I discover the slope I slid down–almost always this is the place I fall in. In the world of social media, instant likes, and numbers of followers, this is a very, very easy place to stumble. It doesn’t help that I have a sought-after spouse. I have four small stalkers, but the rest of the world has absolutely no use for me whatsoever. I’ve lost sight, here, of the things I have done that have not been totally unappreciated, and the things I have been asked to do. I know they are there, but they, too, have disappeared into the blackness: if I did them, they weren’t actually any good; people are just too kind to me to say so. Anyone could have done better. (At the deepest part of this valley, I have no doubt that someone else would be a better mother to my children. Thankfully, I don’t seem to be there today.)

This is difficult, this mapping. This is why I usually shut the computer and find something to tidy. But I’ve started now, and I am too stubborn to give up. The next thing I notice is an eerie sort of timelessness. This moment–or this series of moments–seems isolated from the rest of my life, past and future. If I were to try to remember something that happened even yesterday, I’d struggle. I might be able to recall it, but that person in the past wouldn’t be me, at least not the same me that I am in this moment. As I think back on yesterday–just to try it–it’s like watching TV. I am not in the scene. Whoever it is that I am right now is not in the narrative of my life. Maybe that’s not exactly timelessness. Maybe it’s an aspect of something else.

The something else is a loss of gravity. Obviously, my feet are still on the floor. The laws of physics still obtain. But there is another sort of chaos. I’ve become separated somehow from my past and future, and my words have become jumbled. Nothing is where it ought to be; my thoughts have no foundation, no anchor. I cannot tell, exactly, internally, which way is forward and which way is back. And I cannot ask for directions. If I tried to speak, I wouldn’t say what I wanted: clear thinking is impossible.

This makes me feel slightly crazy. Also a little bit dizzy inside. I don’t know what to do next: this is the final thing, I think. This is the point at which I have to find something to tidy or I will do something bad to my computer. Because I can’t subdue this chaos by writing. I can’t make this darkness lift by describing it. When I was a teenager, this is the point at which I would fling my binder across the room. The rings would burst apart, and the pages of my life story (and some very bad poetry) would scatter around the room. Ah, then the outside would look like the inside, and in collecting and collating all those sheets of notebook paper I would somehow come back to myself.

As long as I can remember, it has been this way. Some days are worse than others. Some days the darkness nearly swallows me up for good. But something always intervenes, and for that I will be grateful. For probably a decade, I finished every single journal entry with the same verse from Ps 42:

Why are you downcast, o my soul? And why so disquieted within me? Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance                   and my God.

Maybe that’s the thing today, the thing that intervenes. Because I remember, really: I was there in that memory, even if it is a memory of utter despair. This is my story. Even if I can only see that I have often walked in darkness, I can see that I am still walking. And I think maybe, just maybe, I am not alone.

 

Another morning gone

6:05am.  Wake up. Realize that the reason it feels like it’s still the middle of the night it that the 4-year-old woke us at 1:00 because she was wearing the wrong pajama bottoms. The rest of the night was not, well, restful. Hit snooze.

6:14am. Wake up, round 2. Think. No, not yet possible. Hit snooze.

6:23am. Wake up. I must get up. At this point, I still believe I can make up for lost time. Brain will maybe catch up with the body eventually, but at least the physical activity of the day must now begin.

6:25am. Stretches. Almost-yoga. I am not virtuous. I am totally dependent on doing back stretches in the morning to be able to move about normally during the day. If I don’t do them, eventually I will move in a way that would be fine for most people my age, but will result in me finding myself on the floor. So I stretch.

6:45am. Husband arrives with coffee as I am finishing stretches.

I love this man.

6:50am. 4-year-old wakes up, requires cuddle. She’s the fourth (of four!) and I know how quickly the cuddle-able stage will pass. Without really considering my lateness, I oblige.

7:15am. Now lateness is absolutely irreversible, but I am still not awake enough to take this seriously. 4-year-old announces she wants pasta for breakfast. ‘Sure,’ I say: there’s some leftover pasta from last night, and this is not a battle I ever, ever fight. I resist, if it means cooking pasta, but I surrender easily. She does not negotiate with 40-somethings.

7:25am. While said 4-year-old is eating breakfast, I begin to tease the kitchen into a state I will later find conducive to work. This involves a broom, a bit of spot-scrubbing, and getting the boys (ages 9 and 12) to help with dishes: unload dishwasher, help stray glasses and bowls to find their way into empty dishwasher. Oddly the 9-year-old is less resistant than the 12-year-old. Or maybe it’s not so odd.

Somewhere in the middle of that, make second cup of coffee. Some of it will end up spilled on the hall table in the midst of the Battle of Finding-Things-and-Departing. Never mind: 60% of it will make it to its target, and I will slowly become a functioning adult human being. (Ok, I admit this is optimistic. But I am still not admitting that we’ll be late, so optimism is pretty much my morning modus operandi, until about 8:45–the time we ABSOLUTELY MUST LEAVE if we are to be on time.)

Time passes. This is always the mystery of the morning: where does the time between 7:30 and 8:40 go? I pack up laundry to be taken somewhere else to be washed: this is an admission of defeat. I manage to get the kitchen floor looking less awful. The boys clear away a good bit of stuff in the kitchen. Someone rouses the 14-year-old, who miraculously gets up and starts getting ready for school. I pack up the girls’ backpacks. How does this all take more than an hour?

7:45-8:30. Get 4-year-old ready for school. Insist that she put school clothes on even though she insists that she’ not feeling well and can’t possibly go to school. Remind her that the alternative to teeth brushing is not to have any. Remind her that socks instead of tights are a bad idea in January. (She tried this last week: I let her have the choice, and she admitted before she even got to school that it wasn’t a good one. Mummy was right.) Agree that she can have a sticker if she does anything at all, really.

8:25. Husband takes boys and laundry. 12-year-old spends last 5 minutes at home frantically searching for his keys and phone. (Poor kid is definitely ours.) Leaves with keys, without phone, dissatisfied with his organizational skills. Blow him a kiss from the window: he needs it.

8:45. Realize that girls are going to be late. Think: these children need a new mother. One who is on time for things. Clearly the 12-year-old has inherited his organizational skills from me.

9:00. Take 4-year-old to school. ‘Will we get there before the bell, Mummy?’ she asks. ‘No, darling. The bell rang 5 minutes ago.’ She decides not to play the game where she remains just out of reach as I try to come up with some kind of choice for her to make that will allow her to get in her seat without losing. And I try not to lose my temper. But today, nothing is lost.

9:05am. Arrive at school, grateful that we live so close. Realize I am not alone in being late to school. The kids don’t need a new mum; I just need to get over it.

9:15am. Time to get 14-year-old to school. Insist she brushes teeth. Try to do too much while she is doing that. Get to school late and realize that she’s not brushed her hair. Sigh.

9:30am. Arrive back home. Find 2 loads of laundry left behind. Sigh. I face the usual choice: how much of the domestic chaos do I attempt to order before turning to the writing project before me (the one I should have finished last week)? Make the usual decision and try to order too much of the chaos, and find the day slipping away, writing project staring at me from across the kitchen table.

11:00am. Despair.

11:10am. Write the 800+ words I should be adding to some writing project or other here on my blog. Hope I will live long enough to do some writing after the children are grown.

Noon. Might as well go to Mass. Although I fear I will just hang my head and weep, I know from experience that I probably won’t. And I need to repent of my despair and self-loathing, and remember that it’s not about what I accomplish in a day. Sometimes I forget what it is all about. Somewhere between the sign of the cross and the ‘go in peace’, I usually remember.

I just hope I don’t forget it again by tomorrow morning.

 

 

 

 

not this again

It is, I confess, one of those days. Unfortunately they are all too common these last few months. You know, the days when it all looks and feels pretty bleak, no matter what the weather. The sun is out today, actually, but it doesn’t matter. I know that the world is full of people whose lives are desperate and perilous in ways I can’t imagine, that hunger and thirst and terrible loss are the daily reality of so very many people in the world.

And I am sitting somewhere warm and reasonably comfortable. I have family and friends. I am not hungry or in danger. I can say to my daughters and sons when they are afraid at night that there’s nothing to fear–and I know that it is true. They’re safe, and they’re loved, and they have enough to eat and the opportunity to get an education and to play sports. Privilege. Luxury. Not only that, but the assurance of a strong faith and a hope that is in God and not in any of that stuff that makes life easy for the educated (a PhD, no less) white girl from the suburbs.

It’s all good. And yet, the overwhelming feeling is one of despair. Misery. For no reason. Everything shouts at me: be glad! But I am not glad. Or, rather, even though I know with an absolute certainty that somewhere inside there is gladness and hope, I cannot for the life of me find it. I can say to my soul, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? And why so disquieted within me? / Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance and my God.”

Probably those two verses–or is it only one verse?–are the only reason I made it from 22 to 32, when there were so very, very, very many days like this. And here they are again, both the days and the bit of Psalm 42 (and 43) that got me through them. So, I guess I will say, with some frustration and petulance, “Not this again!” But that won’t be the end. It never is.

Eventually it will be that other thing again, that hoping and smiling thing, that thing that is not-depression. The joy will find its way to the surface of my consciousness and I will not only realize that the sun is shining, but I will feel its warmth and see how bright and beautiful the snowy landscape appears, bathed in its light.

And I will say again, with proper feeling: Deo gratias.