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.

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.