Pays au dela

"As to the natural parts I have, of which this is the essay, I find them to bow under the burden; my fancy and judgment do but grope in the dark, tripping and stumbling [wobbling] in the way, and when I have gone as far as I can, I am in no degree satisfied; I discover still a new and greater extent of land before me, with a troubled and imperfect sight and wrapped up in clouds, that I am not able to penetrate." Montaigne-"On the Education of Children"

My domain name, "Pais au dela," is the original French translated here as "extent of land before me." My goal for this page will be to explore, in an ambling way at times, the great land before me hoping to find clarity as I advance. I will focus centrally though not exclusively on mental health issues in my stumbling march forward.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

NFL Murder-Suicide 2: Jovan Belcher and Junior Seau

It has been a little over a week since Kansas City Chief's linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins and then committed suicide in front of two of his coaches and the team's general manager. Belcher's death was the second high profile suicide by an NFL player this year. Linebacking legend, Junior Seau also shot and killed himself on May 2nd.

Following Seau and Belcher's deaths, loved ones have expressed awful shock about being clipped out of nowhere by egregious violence. Given what they knew prior about Seau and Belcher, these deaths don't add up, don't make any sense because the person they knew would never have done this. The man that surfaced ugly in the final hours bears no resemblance to the person that teammates, coaches, friends and family loved up until then. Eternal ache! Disparate, shattered memory forever out of sorts never to be stitched again into cohesion!

Junior Seau was known for being cheerful, generous, outgoing, and generally fun to be around. Belcher was a perpetual overachiever, a doggedly studious and attentive success story who clawed his way into the starting lineup and a major contract after going unselected in the 2009 draft. Both men did exceptionally difficult things with their bodies. Most of us accept very early in life that we'll never see the athletic pinnacles they reached.

While it's hard to imagine a suicide that isn't a shock for family and friends, Junior Seau's end clanks irrational against the conquering dominance we saw from him for so long. And Jovan Belcher killing his girlfriend and mother to his infant child makes even less sense. Before the fact, we don't readily ingest any idea that goes against that display of strength and power. After the deed, we're left with mismatched pieces that won't reform into any coherent unity. What could possibly press down so heavy to snap these giant shoulders that meet everything head on and only overcome?

The potential for weakness was always there even if we don't take much time to acknowledge or articulate it. It's not that we really cover it up. We don't actively deny the possibility of falling down when looking up to professional athletes. The vulnerability of Jovan Belcher and Junior Seau simply doesn't occur to us very intuitively, and they become imaginary heroes lacking the human imperfections that plague us all.  But Junior Seau ran up against something he couldn't handle. The impressive physical stature and cheerful disposition crumbled beneath unchecked, hidden sadness. And Jovan Belcher snapped in desperation or anger or drunkenness or fear and jealousy or some lethal combination of them all. Neither man was supposed to be the kind of guy to do something like this. Both did.

Our conventional notions of strength and toughness are flawed. The idea that there is a certain type of person who commits suicide needs to disappear for good. The assumption that the strong won't succumb does unthinkable damage. It reinforces sport culture that prizes quiet self-reliance as the noble way to deal with adversity. And if you assume you can't slip and if people praise you your entire life for taking your lumps like a man, you never learn what to do and how to get back on track when the mind derails into distorted and dysfunctional thinking about all being lost. You never even learn that going off the tracks is possible. How could you be prepared to right yourself? Powerful, swift bodies do not automatically make you mentally strong, and physical prowess does not necessarily prepare you to confront all of life's difficulties. What do you do when, like Jovan Belcher, your financial situation and love life feel like they are collapsing in on top of you? Toughing it out and balling up alone and silent with your inner struggles are rarely productive ways of coming through that sort of difficulty.

Coaches and players at all levels in all sports across the country need to take notice of these things. They need to be talking openly about Jovan Belcher murdering and committing suicide. More broadly, they need to discuss how and why the exceptionally strong among us can sometimes end up so far gone. Playing sports we aspire to the type of toughness that Junior Seau and Jovan Belcher displayed for so long on the field. We want to imitate them when they keep working through difficulty, play through pain, and smash life's challenges flush on the mouth like fullbacks attempting to make a lead block. But we need more than all that if we want a functional model of what it means to be strong and tough. Mental toughness in the athletic world often means that you keep going no matter what, all the time, no matter how bad it hurts. This sort of toughness can grind you into rigid brittleness. I want coaches to talk differently about toughness, especially mental toughness to their players. I want them to encourage young people to work hard on understanding their weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and soft spots. Going ninety miles an hour even when it hurts is a difficult and sometimes very useful thing to know how to do. But so is knowing what sets you off, knowing yourself well enough to keep from derailing when things fall apart. Admitting that you hurt and looking calmly and closely at yourself to figure out why and how to fix it takes a lot of work. If playing sports is really to be a practice run that prepares young people for life in general, athletes need to come away from their experience with more than just the ability to play through pain. They need to hone their skills for self-understanding so they might see more clearly and then root out the sources of their own potentially fatal pain, frustration, and sadness.

Monday, December 3, 2012

NFL Murder-Suicide 1:Coach Crennel

On Saturday morning, Kansas City Chief's linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend Kassandra Perkins. A short time later, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head at the team's practice facility. The couple leaves behind a three month old daughter Zoey born on September 11th.

The situation is overwhelmingly awful in all directions. The families and friends of both victims face unimaginable challenges that they surely never fathomed confronting before Saturday morning. I wish them every ounce of impossible strength and wisdom they will need to go forward. I wish the same to the Kansas City Chiefs and everyone connected with the team.

When I read or see reports of these killings, I can't stop thinking about Chief's head coach Romeo Crennel. Crennel, defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs, and Chief's general manager Scott Pioli witnessed the suicide and spoke with Belcher right before he shot himself. Coach Crennel had to continue in his role as team leader hours after he watched a young man he admired and respected violently take his own life right in front of him. I don't see how he was able to do anything at all after such trauma (and the word "trauma" doesn't feel like it's enough for how terrible this must have been). Survivor's guilt after a suicide can be crushing, and Coach Crennel hinted that he is susceptible to this common emotion during a press conference yesterday when he spoke about his final conversation with Belcher, "I wasn't able to reach the young man." Belcher's suicide was not Crennel's fault, but it can be extremely difficult for someone in his situation to get over all the "what if's." Crushed by witnessing death and potentially swamped beneath regrets and doubts about how it could have maybe gone down differently, Crennel still had to lead his team through the weekend. The decision about whether to play on Sunday was ultimately his, and he has had to remain in the public spotlight while he works through his own reactions to a gruesomely hollowing loss. I admire his strength and composure.

Trying to image how difficult and terrible this all must be for Crennel hits me very deeply on an emotional level. Here, I hesitate feeling like I might not have any right to connect myself to these people I have never met and their unspeakable pain. I honestly don't know if I'm doing the right thing by adding this last paragraph. I have wanted to end my own life, and so when I think about Romeo Crennel watching Jovan Belcher commit suicide, I drift towards harrowing thoughts about what would have happened if I had, about who would have made the terrible discovery, who would have been left to wonder "what if" on my behalf, about the amputated hopes and shattered lives left in the wake. And even though it didn't happen and even though it could have been worse, I know that for family and friends, particularly my ex-wife, living with the possibility and fear for months was scarring and shattering enough. I am sorry for putting you through that.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Concerning Automoblies

A tribute through form to an old dead white dude from France who shared beautiful, hilarious insight into human folly and weakness...

Though I'm not a car guy really, I do very much love my 2004 Jetta. 1.8 L turbo. Tight and sensitive steering. 30 mpg highway. It's fun to drive and hasn't ever caused me any problems (je touche du bois). It is particularly thrilling to downshift (of course it's a five speed!) and zip by clunkier heavier cars going up a hill. On my way to my gym there is a fairly long and steep incline where I sometimes indulge the traces of Alabama car driving machismo that I couldn't help but incorporate growing up here.

I was driving over that hill a few days ago thinking about how much approaches to exercise have changed in the past fifteen years or so since I first learned to lift weights for football in high school. Back then nobody talked about metabolic confusion, functional movements, mixing cardio and strength training, or elevating your heart rate when you lift weights so that you burn fat and calories more quickly and efficiently. Cross fit didn't exist, and I don't think the core did either. Sometimes we did sit ups or crunches, but we didn't have any concept of getting gut, back, and upper leg muscles to work strong together. At least I didn't. Bench press was king, and we--okay I--fantasized about hitting the 300 lb max. My best was sadly 15 lbs short.

Back in the good old days when we lifted, we did a fixed number of sets of a fixed number of reps for each exercise (3x10 and 5x5 were common) and then moved on to the next exercise. There's nothing wrong with this approach and you can get stronger doing it. But kids these days have it so much easier because trainers and coaches have found so many adaptations and tweaks for getting into top shape fast.

One of these new techniques that interests me for both psychological and physical reasons is something trainers call "going to failure." On the last set of an exercise now, athletes often have no fixed number of reps that they are going for. They go to failure, meaning that they simply push until their muscles give out and they can no longer lift the weight they are working with. I like this approach, especially the name "going to failure."

It does, however, take some mental work to get used to the idea. It's scary facing that last set when you're used to having a specific goal for the number of reps you want to do. You know that it will hurt for a little while at the end of the set. You know also that you might not hit the number of reps you have in mind as being a good result. Sometimes I'd rather not do one of these types of sets because the possibility of a letdown performance disturbs me. I'm afraid that I'll feel like shit for failing when it's over while my arms burn from working to physical exhaustion.

Of course you can't push yourself this hard all the time. If you do, you'll likely get injured or burned out or both. But it's good for us, I think, to expose ourselves to the fear of finding out just where our physical limitations are. Americans are obsessed with success and terrified of failure. It's easy to slip into patterns of avoiding all difficulty because the thought of not winning is too overwhelming. And it's also easy to drive yourself nuts thinking that you always have to succeed balls out 110% of the time in everything you take on.  Going to failure every once in a while promotes a much more realistic attitude. Maybe I'm beginning to stretch now, but I think that experience from the weight room can make us healthier and stronger mentally beyond the gym doors. We have limits. We can't do everything, but there's rarely anything all that catastrophically wrong when our efforts aren't quite enough. The muscle burn cools off quickly, and the angst of wondering if you'll do enough pull-ups to satisfy your image of the ideal strong man you hope to be is gone before you leave the gym. You're left knowing that you did all you could and bolstered for your next attempt, where after proper rest, you will doubtless fail better.

I thought about all this driving my Jetta over that hill the other day. The heated seats are a dream and if you have the means I highly recommend picking one up.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


This post is dedicated to all the Family to Family participants and teachers I've encountered over the past year. To the class that has just finished, thank you for your commitment and enthusiasm over the last 11 weeks. Teaching this class, I learn new things from the people who come to NAMI Huntsville looking to learn from us. At risk of slipping into terms of cheesy pedagogical sappiness, I have to say that I emerge stronger and better informed from this experience because the education that happens is really not a one way process. I can't say enough about how well Dr. Burland designed the program.

I found the organization in early December last year when I was looking myself for help getting back to mental stability. I'd spent nearly all of June 2011 hospitalized with severe depression and was slowly finding my way back. An internet search led me to a page about a monthly support group meeting. I attended apprehensively with my mom. I remember that it was dirty cold and rainy. But there's a plunging gulf now between me and the bone chill of that wet December night. Looking back, it almost seems like it happened to someone else in a different lifetime. A little less than a year has passed, but the memories of how stupidly hard things were then have started to fade. I got involved volunteering for NAMI, and now I work to provide the same boost I found last December to others who are struggling.

In NAMI parlance, I go both ways or switch hit, meaning that I've suffered from depression and have family members who have as well. In olden days, they would have said I was a "family member" and a "consumer." But NAMI has dropped that second term and now I'm an "individual living with mental illness" (a clunky term but warmer I think than "consumer"). I do most of my volunteering from the family member perspective addressing other struggling family members. But this work is certainly one of the most powerful methods I've found of maintaining my own stability.

In discussions of mental illness, people claim frequently that no one can really understand it unless they've experienced it first hand. In my hardest luck times living as a sort of emotional defeatist, I identified strongly with this idea that no one else could possibly get it. It was just futile to try to explain anything or even talk about the problem much at all. But this common place assumption that no one else can understand isn't true. Understanding is a great challenge that demands imaginative effort from the people on the outside and rhetorical work creating clear explanation from folks on the inside. But people can understand. I've seen it over and over in four sessions of Family to Family when eyes light up in compassionate moments of piercing insight into what a sick family member struggles with. The families I've met desperately want to get it, and thanks to the twelve weeks of effort they put in coming to and participating in this course, they do, not exactly as if they'd lived it but well enough to assist someone who is. Misunderstanding and breakdown in communication between people suffering and their families is just the starting point. It doesn't have to be a permanent affliction. This is perhaps the best thing I've learned in Family to Family. Knowing that depression is often a recurring condition is terrifying. But after my time teaching and taking this course and seeing that it is possible to talk about depression even with people who haven't known it first hand, I can't imagine it ever being so hopelessly difficult as it felt a year and a half ago. And for this I have an abundant--we're talking cornucopia style overflowing bounty of natural splendor--sense of gratitude.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Trpytich Series 5: Mood and Anxiety

When I say "mood" here, I'm not referring to what we usually mean when we use the word. This post is about linguistic mood and how it plays into our mis-calibrated understandings of the world and people around us. I've leaked to some my intentions to write a breathtaking and groundbreaking piece on modal verbs. This is not yet that piece, simply the overture, or maybe the shorter sonata that I will one day incorporate into a linguistic symphony of mood, making my language into the music my boyz from band always assured me it could be.

In grammatical terms, the mood and tense of a verb are often discussed together. Tense is a much more familiar concept for non-languagefreaks. "I am eating" and "I have eaten" are two different tenses of the same verb that each indicate when the action happened. Mood is not as simple. It refers to different levels of possibility and potential. You can talk about things that might never actually happen by changing the mood of the verb. "I don't eat horse," but "I might eat horse if someone said I was too chicken shit to try it." Those two sentences are the same verb in two different moods. If you have studied a romance language, you might remember the difficulty of trying to remember how and when verbs take the subjunctive mood, something that doesn't really exist much anymore in English.

In much the same way that our understanding of past, present, and future often goes awry, we can easily confuse things that are true with things that could be the case. Here is a fictional example.

A brother and sister live together and share a car. Rosita goes for a walk one Tuesday afternoon and comes home to find that Enrique has gone somewhere and not left any note about when he will be back. Rosita is on a Jujitsu team that practices every Tuesday night. When she sees the car isn't there, she gets furious and goes through the following thought sequence.
  • Enrique took the car.
  • He must not want me to go to Jujitsu practice.
  • He wouldn't do that if he really cared about me.
In this sequence, one thing is true. Enrique took the car. The rest is over-interpretation of that one true thing. Rosita has extrapolated, assumed her brother has malicious motives, generalized a single inconvenience, and worked herself into a state of rage where she's ready to Jujitsu choke Enrique into submission. All this rage built on potential, built on the modals describing things that might be.

Here's what really happened.
  • Enrique got a call from a friend who needed to be bailed out of jail.
  • He got really upset because he was worried about his friend.
  • He took the car forgetting momentarily in his emotional state about Rosita's Jujitsu.
Conflicting circumstances meant he couldn't simultaneously be a considerate brother and a good friend to his unfortunate incarcerated buddy. But there is no malicious intent like what Rosita was thinking in the first scenario. He doesn't want her to miss doing the things she enjoys, and he does indeed care about her. He doesn't deserve to be submission choked, and perhaps more importantly, Rosita doesn't have to feel the frustration and anger that come when she interprets the absent car as an intentional slight and a sign of her brother's general indifference. You can save yourself a lot of pain and anguish if you can learn to recognize when you are using modals poorly to form an unfounded, negative outlook about things you don't really know.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Help me Help NAMI-Huntsville

On December 8, I will be running in the Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, AL. After serious mental breakdown in the fall of 2010 and many painful months for my family, my friends, and myself while I battled severe depression, marathon training has been essential in recovery. This is a celebration of mental stability regained. I don't believe it's possible to separate psychological and emotional health from physical health. They are not different issues to be treated by different branches of medicine or isolated specialists. Psychological and physical health work best when they work in tandem towards complete, overall well-being. Get your mind working well and your body naturally tries to follow along. Get your body firing healthy and your mind begins to fire with it (that's a chiasmus for my rhetoriquer buddies out there).

So who’s Pheidippides? Besides a guy with a name that’s really fun to say out loud, he was the accidental inventor of the marathon. In 490 BC, Greek armies defeated an invading Persian force at the Battle of Marathon. After the fighting, Pheidippides was dispatched as a messenger to relay the good news to Athens. He ran all the way there without stopping and dropped dead on arrival. We modern runners are out to prove that with proper preparation, both physical and mental, you can run this distance and survive to celebrate with your community.

Like Pheidippides, I run with good news. The Huntsville chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has provided me immeasurably valuable information and support on my trek back from the mouth of hell. They’ve done the same for many others in our area. I’m dedicating my race to them and to my family and friends who little by little reminded me that life is very much worth living. At NAMI-Huntsville, I learned you can live well and even thrive after the onset of a mental illness. And I’m asking for your support so they can continue doing their good work in our area. If you can, please consider contributing $26, a dollar for every mile of the marathon, to help ease some of the pain for people living with a mental illness and their loved ones. If you are feeling really generous or if you just really love the metric system, you might consider this equation: 26.2 miles=42.195 kilometers. Any help you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Simply sharing this link with others would help us and the people in need of our services. You can donate online through this link.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Triptych Series: Glossary

And again Montaigne provides a lead in. He said everything first but only because he was ripping a lot of it off from Ovid and Seneca. Glosses are the individual entries that are often, though not always, collected in a glossary at the end of a book. I say not always because historically book makers have used other formats for presenting the commentaries that explain in various ways what the words in the central text mean. The image below from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website shows a different layout from a medieval manuscript.


These glosses have surrounded and started to choke out the original text. Montaigne described this over-glossing problem and the interpretive difficulty it can cause in his essay "On Experience." Paradoxically, efforts to make the original matter clearer do exactly the opposite when commentators crowd out the author's words with their own: "Who wouldn't say that glosses compound doubt and ignorance since we never see any book that the world has taken interest in, whether human or divine, where interpretation has dried up the difficulty. The hundredth commentary only leads into the next, more thorny and choppier than the first had found the matter...We spend more time interpreting interpretations than interpreting things; and there are more books about books than any other subject: all we do is inter-gloss each other."

With Montaigne's grumpy wisdom in mind (I've always found footnotes kind of annoying too), I'd like to build a moderate set of commentaries on some of the terms in my triptych posts. I'm having vague inklings of thoughts on book history, the way we know things, spatial arrangement of written text and hyperlinks. Perhaps, these ideas will develop more fully as I gloss. Maybe for instance the tipping point where glosses cease to clarify and start to confuse will become more evident. This post will be a work in progress that I will add to from time to time.  

Call bullshit on yourself (Triptych Series 3)-I've adopted this from a beloved literature professor who was discussing psychotherapy and how it can be beneficial in class one day. Freudian and other analytic approaches seek insight into past trauma by having people talk about the past. The general idea is that these traumatic moments continue to trouble people subconsciously without them being aware of it. Finding the source and becoming explicitly aware of what the trouble is/was relieves tension according to analytic thinking. My prof. saw things a little differently though. He told us that you really never get to the bottom of things because there's always something else a little deeper or further back underlying whatever old source of tension you reveal. He told us, and this is a paraphrase, that while talking about the past you slowly realize what your own bullshit ("conneries") sounds like. Ex. "I absolutely have to get this essay written by the end of the day or all is lost." When you learn to hear yourself in this way, you move on to other things.

I contradict myself (Triptych Series 1)-Friends from the literati will doubtless have recognized the nod to Whitman's Song of Myself :

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Coming back to that line to gloss it, I wonder how well or if Whitman knew Montaigne, the godfather of singing oneself. I know Emerson read him. I slip little snippets from the masters like this into my posts frequently. Some I will explain here, but I probably won't ever get to them all. If you hear an echo of something else you read before and wonder if it is intentional, it probably is. Does that make me a thief?

I'm cool with cliche (Triptych Series 2)-In Tommy Boy--rip Chris Farley--Tommy makes his first sale by using a colorful explanation about his competitors' packaging policies. The owner of an auto-parts store tells Tommy that his customers want to see the word "guaranteed" marked on the box:

"I could take a dump in a box and mark it guaranteed."
"What's your point?"
"You'd be buying a guaranteed piece of shit."

After years in academics chasing after the topic that other scholars "have ignored for far too long," my attitude about originality is very much in line with Tommy's thinking on guarantees. I could fling a pile of elephant dung at a canvass and mark it original... But the fact that no one's ever done it does not necessarily mean that someone needs to. I'm not against good, original artistic projects. Being original though is not synonymous with being good. My friend Emily has mentioned David Foster Wallace--rip the infinite jester and glosser extraordinaire--in a comment on this running post. In Infinite Jest, Wallace does miraculous things finding meaning in the cliched, non-original language of a Boston AA group.     

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Triptych Series 4: Plans for the Day

Many of my ideas in this post grew out of a wonderful conversation I had last Thursday during a mid-distance run. In August, I joined the Marathon training program at Fleet Feet here in Huntsville, and over the last two months running with them I've learned that a lot of the things I thought I understood about myself as a runner weren't actually true. I do, in fact, enjoy running with other people, and it's much more likely that I'll over-train and injure myself than it is for me to slack off and not work enough.

Last Thursday, I talked with another runner about unrealistic expectations and how they can wreck our perspective on ourselves, our success, and our failures. A three-pronged perspective on time, particularly on the time of a single day, can illustrate this destructive potential of our own expectations. I'm not a big fan of making written schedules or keeping a calender of the things I need to get done. If I did keep such an agenda, a single day might look like this.
  • I'll work on ads for 3 hours.
  • I'll write the rest of the article that's due tomorrow.
  • I'll revise the article I just got back with editor and reviewer comments.    
Instead of planning things out clearly like this, I usually wake up in the morning with vague and scattered pieces here and there of a still vaguer idea of everything I think I should accomplish in the coming 24 hours. I need to finish this article. Breakfast. Coffee. Oh yeah and I want to work towards my weekly quota of hours for my other job. Ice shins. Coffee. When am I going to squeeze my run in? Facebook. Read email. Shit there a lot of corrections to make on that last piece. More coffee. Heart rate and breathing rise in response to the not entirely articulated hunch that there is a lot to do and maybe not enough time to finish it today. A productive morning of writing. Frustration around 1:45 when I realize that I'll probably need to stop and eat if I want to continue doing productive work (In my more intense days of furiously studying the urgent questions of modern and Renaissance French literature, I would habitually skip breakfast and later look up in the library and realize the sun was setting and I hadn't stopped for lunch either). 

Like many of our faulty mental faculties, our ability to plan for the day tends to go haywire and get wildly mis-calibrated. We say to ourselves offhandedly "I want to do this, this, that, this, and the other today." But we don't spend very much time evaluating how much time all those things actually take. We demand of ourselves that they get done before we sleep, and if for some reason they don't--like for instance we were grossly overestimating how fast we can work--we go to bed feeling like we whiffed on the day.

I've developed a way of defending myself against the disappointment that creeps on me when I realize that today I won't get any further than step one. My protective mantra: I cannot do everything. Some days will not be a triptych of success. Sometimes, we guess wrong and revisions take all morning and part of the early afternoon too. And really unless I'm performing hands only CPR or an emergency tracheotomy, there's not much reason to ever get in such a goddamn hurry to finish anyway.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Triptych Series 3: Time and Anxiety

I've wobbled back and forth between writing about running and writing more generally about mental health. Today, I swing back towards a more general post to try to describe in pictures and in words the relationship between how we think about time and anxiety. It wouldn't take much doing though to apply this post more specifically to marathon training as well.

This post is probably the easiest one I've put together. Anxiety is linked so very often to dysfunctional attitudes about time. In states of high anxiety, we lose the ability to think rationally and we create all sorts of baseless unsupported interpretations of the world that we assume are true. Worse, we generalize these beliefs ( "nothing is going right") so that they apply to our past ("nothing has ever gone right") and future ("nothing will ever go right"). Anxiety extends a single unpleasant jar on the nerves so that it becomes the encompassing be all truth of all days.

Nothing is going right
Nothing has ever gone right

Nothing will ever go right

Good therapy teaches you how to call bullshit on yourself. It teaches you how to move into a more realistic understanding of the ugly sensation and keep it from overtaking every single thing you do, say, and think.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Triptych Series 2: If I Were a DJ

Strange, I've never really listened to music much in my running. I say strange because I love the musical boosts supporters often set up along race courses. "Eye of the Tiger" coming up Mountainwood on Memorial Day in Huntsville (I've said in an earlier post that I'm cool with cliche). UVA pep band in front of Poe's dorm and Mr. Jefferson's Library at mile 9 of 10. That's good stuff, but for some reason, I'm not motivated to bring an ipod along when I run on my own.

After my first triptych post, I had a great mid distance training run last Thursday. It had been difficult at times to visualize those snap shots I wrote about. Literally moving them around to format the post, I discovered that there were different spatial possibilities for visualizing past, present, and future when I run. Before writing the post I had only seen a timeline sequence of images inside my mind. But I can put the images in different spots mentally. Once I started moving the images around, I found that my focus was clearer when I projected an angelic future hovering above my left shoulder and a diabolical past above the right. I've rearranged the first post to reflect this arrangement.

I had already begun thinking about a musical version of three layered time when I decided to write about triptychs. I knew which three songs would represent my past, my present, and what I hope will be my future in training. The songs were loaded and ready to play.  It was an invigorating surprise last Thursday to hear my choice for the present--the Beastie Boys "Body Movin'"--start playing in my head. I listened and loved that moment of a run that was going well and shot a taunting cosmic bird at the past that was now over.

If I knew how to DJ, I'd sample all this together and it would sound amazing.

I am

 I was


I'm gonna, addressed to the 26.2 on December  8


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Triptych Series 1: Running in Snapshots

I call myself a wobbler and post pictures suggesting I need to climb up on stilts to figure out where I'm going. But the snapshot of the stumbling, directionless fool does not encompass or really even neatly summarize who I am. I contradict myself with the pictures Montaigne drew. And I can't very well approach the clarity I'm seeking without acknowledging incongruity here. Physically, I do not wobble, not right now at least. I run--eyes up the road, elbows at 90-- knowing where I'm going and how to get there. People have complemented my writing for a similar stylistic focus. As an undergrad English major, I suffered through Richard Lanham's Revising Prose. Lanham's style manual is nauseatingly formulaic. He  teaches students to use this god-awful equation to calculate the "lard factor" in their writing. I had to revise a C paper with the formula to bring my grade up to a B-. And now a decade later from the looks of the Amazon page, Revising Prose comes with software to help students perform statistical analysis of their writing. As annoying as the book was to read though, it is filled with good editing guidelines for removing unnecessary words. I've incorporated much of Lanham's advice into my own writing and editing process. When I reread my work, I focus primarily on ways to communicate more succinctly. I like writing this way but I also want to become more comfortable at times with Montaigne's looser meandering approach. Slicing straight through to where I want to be or ambling in the backwoods a while to find out what I do not know.

As runners we have all kinds of strategies for focusing on the most efficient and enjoyable way to run successfully. Process and outcome and what have you. In my distance runs recently, I've worked to conceptualize time in ways that motivate me, and I've developed a visualization technique. I try to see three moments in my mind as if they were all happening at once: where I've been, where I am, where I am going.

The Trails that I Adore

The World Before Me

The Metro Platform I Hated

Alpha, Omega, and Whatever Letter Comes in the Middle all at once.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Suicidal thoughts: Say it and Hear it

Today is International Suicide Awareness Day, and so I'm  here  in an Alabama Starbucks back from the mouth of hell, ABD and 3/8, embracing my status as a raging cliche, semi-academic blogger of posts, thinking about what it truly means to be aware (I promise to spare you the etymology). 

Here, in bullet-point form, is my three point plan for better awareness for 1) people wanting to die 2) people trying to help them 3) people who've come through the desperate, suffocating night and remember again how  fucking great it feels to want to live.

  • If you feel like death is the only thing that will make anything better, I am not here to argue with you, at least not right away. Whatever the cause, your pain is legitimate and dreadful. It might not make sense to anyone else. Hell, it might not make sense to you, but it is just as real as a broken ankle or a bad flu. If you feel this way, you are NOT weak, and it's okay to say it aloud. I encourage you to tell someone, someone who will listen first and won't try to convince you that you shouldn't be feeling this.
 REM "Everybody Hurts"-my embrace of cliche deepens.

  • If someone you love is struggling to want to live, listen first and don't jump immediately into all the wonderful reasons to go on living. You are doubtless right about these things, but you're not likely to convince a suicidal mind to look on the bright side of life. Someone longing for death will not likely hear the love in your reasoning. "You have so much to live for" sounds like "you asshole, why are you so stupid that you can't see all you have to live for?". Try this instead: "Fuck, that sounds like a shitty thing to have to feel."
  • If you've been suicidal and no longer are, say it. Embrace it, don't shrink from it in shame. You did something tremendously difficult and beat it. Pound your chest with pride, and help smash up the silence that keeps people gagging in breathless agony and solitude.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Thing I Might as Well Try

The NAMI Family to Family education program is a free twelve week course that helps families cope and adapt when mental illness strikes someone they love. Dr. Joyce Burland the program author included an entire 2:30 session about mental health advocacy in the course. The advocacy class comes in week eleven, the last week of instruction before class twelve, which is a party.

People often show up the first week of Family to Family choking on impossible living situations or newly crushed by significant trauma, things they’d never dreamed could happen to their own family but did—arrest, hospitalization, involuntary commitment, suicide scares, attempts, and completions.  By week eleven, many have found great relief. Friendships have formed. People have realized that they are not absolutely powerless in the face of illness. They’ve bonded while telling stories they once thought no one else could ever relate to. They’ve discovered ways to let go of unfounded guilt they’d felt for not knowing what to do (“You couldn’t have known what nobody told you!”) and, most importantly perhaps, they have learned for certain that they are never never never alone against mental illness.

The advocacy class can be a kind of piss-in-your-Cherios buzz kill. We generalize with remarkable alacrity. We transform a detail that’s true in a particular situation and apply it universally to describe everyone and everything everywhere on the planet. Family to Family fills people with hope. It gives us much too feel good about, but this hope unchecked can easily slide from being a powerful motivator and become a deceptive, naïve outlook that fools us into thinking things are fine, that social awareness and understanding of mental health is on the rise everywhere, and that soon people will be getting the care, support, and information they need to overcome the challenges of mental and emotional struggle. Piss-in-your-Cherios wrong folks. Things are not getting better.

Dr. Burland very wisely anticipated the deceptive powers of new found hope when she wrote her life-altering education course. In a forceful reminder not to snooze into unrealistic optimism, she includes this particularly disheartening passage in her class on advocacy: “There are more people with serious mental illnesses in jails and prisons in America than there are in state mental institutions. There are two times as many people with brain disorders in shelters and on the street as there are in state mental hospitals.” These sobering truths ground class participants in the ugly reality that the rest of the world has changed little during the ten weeks they’ve just spent learning about psychological health.

I’d love it if everyone knew what people learn in Family to Family. They should. I dream of a world where high school students learn these things in health classes and know at 15 how to support someone with depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia before life teaches them the hard way through terrible, shitty experience. A low voice in me groans constant for every single parent, spouse, sibling, lover, and friend who has watched feeble and choking just not knowing what in the hell to do while madness gnawed into their love. It doesn’t have to be this way, but if we give into the sirens of empty optimism not much will change.  

Dr. Burland maintains a delicate balance in her call to action. Her task is not easy. Give people too much positive and you make them naïve. Harp too often on the bad and you juice people of their motivation and enthusiasm. Burland opens her juggling act with Eleanor Roosevelt’s writing on fear: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

I’ve been through the Family to Family course three times now, as a student, training to teach it, and as the resource assistant who helps prepare class materials. Different points in the course have stood out more prominently with each go-round. Eleanor Roosevelt's call to face doubt has been echoing strong since I heard it again in early August.  

For about six months now, I’ve vaguely bounced around the idea of creating this page, to write for myself and others about my experience. I’m not entirely comfortable sharing these things. I don’t want to be a blowhard cause-head that bores everyone talking all the time about the same thing. People will think I’m self-centered if I talk about my own life that much. The emotionally charged subject will make people too uncomfortable. I might say things that hurt people. And I can’t possibly tell the world I thought seriously about killing myself for a time. That would just be unbearably shameful.

Remaining silent though is no remedy for shame. No there’s no leaving shame after all—not down here—it has to be swallowed sharp-edged and ugly, and lived with in pain, everyday. No path around it, a delusional wish to think we might evade completely its crags inside us. But after we absorb the initial jar of shame, we can control how we move on from it. For every wave of enthusiasm pushing me to speak of unpleasant things, there are plenty of doubts to hold me in check. Ultimately though, those whispering doubts are vague and poorly formed lies I tell myself wanting to believe there is an easy way out of pain and regret. There isn’t. I will feel these things whether I speak of them or not, and recognizing that inevitable fact transforms the impossible challenge into the thing I might as well try.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The World Before Us

At the beginning of September 2010, I was extremely happy and had great confidence in the satisfying future ahead of me. I was living in a studio apartment in a nice residential neighborhood in Paris with my attractive and talented French wife. We had married in June at a lovely ceremony. Our best friends and closest family came from around the world and showered us with pink and yellow rose petals on the church steps above la Rue du commerce where you can look out over the 15th district’s scene of unassuming shops and bistros. For our reception, we cruised down the Seine on a river boat, eating well, drinking Champagne, dancing well into the early morning. From the heights of my emotional peak, I watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle off the water against my bride's once-in-a-life-time white dress and darkly Mexican tan shoulders.

My personal life was coalescing into order, and I was also flying high in my professional life back then. I’d written the first chapter of my dissertation (on Proust and friendship). My advisers liked it, and I was progressing on schedule towards my PhD. A smooth path into the tenure track and a happy nuclear family was opening in front of me with no visible obstacles in sight.

By the middle of October, I was a helpless suicidal wreck standing on a metro platform pondering whether I would jump in front of the next train. Things fell apart at break neck pace. I dropped like lead faster than I ever imagined possible into a bout with major depression. After two hospitalizations, five adjustments in medication, six therapists, six psychiatrists and countless hours of anguish for me, my friends, and my family, I’ve emerged intact and breathing a year and a half later. The nauseous funk has dissolved away, and once again, I am functioning and even enjoying the things that lost their flavor when I was sick. The pleasures of running, reading, cooking, and writing have returned.    

Health professionals and other writers often describe depression as a loss of identity. In the depths of the illness, you are not yourself in an utterly terrible way. Things that once mattered no longer do, and you stop caring about what motivated you when you were healthy. You want to care. You dreadfully miss your motivation, but for some reason, it is incredibly difficult to pop the emotional clutch and kick start your active will once it sputters out with depression.

If you lose yourself when you are depressed, it’s tempting to say that you recover when you learn how to be the old you again. Recovery though is not necessarily a return to a previous condition. Often undetected problems in your former identity caused or at least contributed to the onset of illness. In many cases, recovery requires building a new identity from rubble of the former self. I am no longer the same person I was when I walked out of my wedding into the fluttering rose pedals. My recovery has been a transformation, at times a rather painful transformation. Our marriage did not survive the turmoil of mental breakdown, and it has hurt and still does hurt to let go of such a huge and important part of me. 

This past winter, I got involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the director of our local chapter suggested I train to become a Family to Family instructor. I spent an intense emotional weekend in January learning about the family dynamics of coping with mental illness. Our trainers Sue and Linda are two truly spectacular women who have made remarkable long term commitments to share what they’ve learned from caring for their struggling relatives. They taught me how grief is a major phase of recovery from depression. Following a breakdown, we and our families need to mourn the changes in our lives—the lost time, the unrealized potential, the shattered projects, the wasted opportunities. Listening to our wonderful trainers explain the grieving process, I broke down into unabashed weeping. Sue and Linda and the Family to Family materials had pierced me deep and opened a flood of pent up emotion. I understood that day that the life my wife and I had built and the dreams we’d planned together were gone.

But the experience wasn’t entirely negative. The painful realization of my loss also brought a powerful feeling of release. My tears were searing hot, but they were also rinsing out some of the hurt from my divorce. When I think of this loss in terms of mourning, my broken marriage doesn’t ache quite so badly. I accept that our relationship is gone and not coming back, and acceptance brings solace and peace even if it never completely wipes away the pain.

For many of us, our first depressive episode is a fall from grace. Like the sin that drove Adam and Eve from the garden, depression pushes us out of the happy state we once knew. And so as I look back over what depression smashed, I recall the end of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Those closing lines comfort me greatly because they are not just the end. They’re also a new beginning for Adam and Eve and the beginning of humanity’s march towards redemption. The story’s not over. Paradise will be regained. And so too with mental illness, perhaps in repeating cycles of fall and redemption. A simultaneous Alpha and Omega of depression, loss and fiery destruction of yesterday’s bliss, hope looking ahead to tomorrow’s wide open world before us.

They looking back, all th' Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
Wav'd over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng'd and fierie Armes:
Som natural tears they drop'd, but wip'd them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way