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.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Triptych Series 6: Holiday Spirit

There are 3 irreverent things I love most during the holiday season

  1. A friend taught me several years back how to make something called "three day candy." These things are deadly delicious little turtle like chocolate treats with an oozing caramel-pecan center. The recipe is a tri-generational family gem that my friend learned from his mother who learned it from her mother before her. And, as the name indicates, the process takes three days. Day zero of the process for me is the festive trip to the grocery store where I find a stock person and with a 110% dead pan straight face ask "Hey, can you tell me where your nuts are?" This tradition was established ca. 2011 and so far no one has laughed. There is usually an instant's facial glitch, while the stocker mulls whether I actually just said that, and then s/he directs me to the aisle where pecans are stocked. Friends and family who will be tasting these sweet nutty treats in the coming days, please know they were prepared with love and inappropriate humor. Savor accordingly.

  2. Another grand yule tide tradition near and dear to my heart established ca. a couple weeks ago: running my smart ass mouth to the Alabama fans in the family when Auburn stomps wild over the tide en route to an SEC championship and a ticket to the all the marbles big dance in January. I'm not trying to rub this in or anything (#preterition), but, seriously, how many fantasy points do you get for a field goal return td? Please comment here if you know the answer. I do really want to know. Is it advisable to weigh field goal coverage ability when selecting a def/special teams unit? WFE. 

  3. This, always and already this, forever. HAPPY CHRISTMAS YOUR ASS FOLKS!

If you think laughs could be worth money, consider supporting my marathon fundraiser. 'taint no joke. Thanks to everyone who already has.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Race for Your Mind Deux: Pheidippides Runs to Texas

Last December, I competed in the Rocket City Marathon here in Huntsville. As runners often do, I used my race as an opportunity to raise money for a cause, the Huntsville chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illnes (NAMI). I reached out to friends and family and asked for donations of a dollar for each mile of the 26 mile race. I had wonderful response and even received contributions from friends of friends, strangers I had never met.

On February 16, I will be competing in my second marathon, this time in Austin, TX. Again I will be using my race as a fundraiser for NAMI Huntsville. For those who can, I would like to ask again for suggested $26 dollar donations to help us continue providing mental health educaion, support, and advocacy in our community. Donations of any amount are appreciated. Simply spreading the word about this fundraiser and our organization is a valuable gift. In addition to individual donations, I will be looking this time for businesses interested in sponsoring our mission to sooth some of the pain wrought by psychological and emotional disorders.

For me this is personal. 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, racing is a celebration of mental stability regained. I don't believe it's possible to separate emotional and physical health. They are not different issues to be treated by isolated specialists working in unrelated branches of medicine. 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/quese buddies out there).

NAMI Huntsville helped me trek back from the mouth of hell during the worst of times. Returned to stability, volunteering at NAMI Huntsville keeps me steady and upright, providing purpose and a sense that my pain can now be useful to others in need.

If you would like to donate, you can make contributions online at my crowdrise site or send checks to NAMI Huntsville; 701 Andrew Jackson Way; Huntsville, AL 35801. If you are interested in adding your company’s name as a race sponsor please contact me at

Fundraising Websites - Crowdrise

Donations help us provide:

*Family-to-Family Education Courses. A free, 12-week course for family members of individuals with severe mental illnesses. Times and days vary and courses begin two to three times annually. Those interested can contact the NAMI Huntsville office for information about upcoming courses. Registration required. 256-534-2628.

*Monthly support group meetings for family members of people with mental illness. First Tuesday of the month @ 7:00 p.m. in the United Way Board Room. 701 Andrew Jackson Way; Huntsville, AL 35801. 256-534-2628

*NAMI Connection a weekly recovery support group for people living with mental illness in which people learn from each others’ experiences, share coping strategies, and offer each other encouragement and understanding. Thursdays @5:30 p.m. in the United Way Board Room. 701 Andrew Jackson Way; Huntsville, AL 35801. 256-534-2628

*Monthly education meetings on varying topics related to mental health. Third Tuesday of the Month @ 7:00 p.m. in the United Way Board Room.

*A mental health library of over 200 titles in our office at the United Way Building. All are welcome to use our resources on site. NAMI Members can check out books from the collection for at home use.

*Compassionate empathy and information from experienced volunteers about local resources and navigating through the complexities of the mental health services system. 256-534-2628

Saturday, November 23, 2013

NAMI Gratitude, a Growing Holiday Tradition

This is an article I wrote for the December issue of Grassroots the NAMI Huntsville newsletter. Without consciously planning it this way, it is the second year in a row I've written a Thanksgiving gratitude post about NAMI.

I am a somewhat shy person. When I’m in a good mood, approaching strangers to ask them for favors is already a mildly annoying challenge. When I’m depressed or particularly anxious, this challenge becomes an outright mind gauntlet—imaginary demons of impending doom, absolute certainty that something is about to go wrong and that just after that everything will. My natural predisposition to leaving other people alone has been an obstacle I’ve had to confront while serving as 2nd Vice President and Education Program Coordinator for NAMI. When I’ve called people to see if they would like to do a presentation, I’ve often been filled with distorted, exaggerated worry that I’ll be bothering them. What if they say no! Everything will go wrong, and nothing ever again will be right. The horror.

But confronting shyness to schedule our monthly speakers has repeatedly been a rewarding experience. I thank all of this year’s presenters for bolstering my faith in NAMI’s mission to help relieve the pain of mental illness:

Dr. Kevin Bowling-HudsonAlpha Institute

Dr. Marie Kirby-HudsonAlpha Institute

Dr. David Barnhart-Behavioral Sciences of Alabama

Jacqueline Wilson-NAMI Huntsville President

Rita Limbaugh-Mental Health Center of Madison County

Clete Wetli-Huntsville Recovery, Madison County Democrats

Richard Reynolds-Huntsville Achievement School

Brian Davis-Executive Director, Mental Health Center of Madison County

James Hickman-Mental Health Center of Madison County, NAMI Huntsville 1st V.P.

Dr. Tarak Vasavada-UAB Health Center Huntsville

I’ve contacted you fretting you would say no to my requests, afraid I’d be a thorn in your side by asking you to do free work for NAMI. All year long though, I’ve heard you thank me for providing an opportunity to speak. Your commitment to service is remarkable, and I’ve been blown away by your kindness and generosity. Thank you all for smashing my fears to pieces.

Nick Snead-2013 2nd V.P., Ed. Program Coordinator

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Wish I'd Known: Making Limoncello out of the Past Conditional

This post originated as part of a presentation I did recently at NAMI Huntsville on mental health support and education programs. It was my soapboxy lead in for discussing the possibility of starting two new NAMI education programs in our area, Parents and Teachers as Allies and Ending the Silence.

In the fall of 2010, I crashed hard with my first episode of major depression. From roughly the end of October that year until the winter of 2011-12, I was more or less incapacitated. The simplest daily tasks often felt like arduous, insurmountable burdens that I would never overcome. Breathing was a chore, and on my worst days, getting up out of bed and walking 20 feet to the bathroom to take a shower was more difficult and more painful than running 26.2 miles with a healthy mind and body. I am not exaggerating at all here. Taking a shower when depressed sometimes literally hurt worse than running a marathon.

There were moments of absolute hopelessness where I didn’t think I would ever feel normal again. Eventually though with a lot of help and support from wonderful family and friends, with good therapy and after finally finding the right meds, I made it back to functioning like I did before my crash.  NAMI Huntsville was instrumental in the process, and I’d like to thank everyone involved in our organization for their help and support.

Once I was stable again, I began looking back on the dark times with a sense of regret and frustration about how ignorant I had been. There were so many things I could have done differently to avoid sliding into a life and death struggle with my mind. So many things I could have done better to accelerate my recovery.

I try not to dwell too much on the errors of the past because focusing incessantly on the things you could have done can drive you nuts. But I don’t want to completely forget about my previous ignorance of psychological disorders either. I’d like for the memories of what I did inefficiently to be an example of what others might avoid. So I’ve compiled a brief list of things that I wish I’d known about mental health treatment before I learned them the hard, shitty way through stupid, bungling experience.

I wish I’d known that any given anti-depressant has roughly a 50% chance of working, that finding one that works takes trial and error, and that if a medication isn't working you don’t need to wait 7 months for an emergency hospitalization to ask a doctor if there are other options.

I wish I’d known that unexpected verbal aggression and sudden unexplained anger can be an early sign of depression, especially in men.

I wish I’d known about the physiological changes involved in depression and hadn’t spent so much time berating myself for being weak and unable to simply snap out of it.

I wish I’d known not to expect a smooth, quick, easy progression towards recovery, that I hadn’t pushed so hard to get better as soon as possible, and that I hadn’t fallen so hard so many times into an engulfing discouragement when I met with minor setbacks.

I wish I’d known how to let a bad day be simply one bed day and not a definitive sign that things weren't getting better and never would.

I wish I’d known the very simple and basic difference between a therapist and psychiatrist and hadn’t spent so much time huffing over why my doctors weren’t doing what I expected them to do...

I’d like to see my regrets and the things I wished I’d known become standard knowledge incorporated into the education we offer young people about how to take care of themselves. I dream of a world where this is the case, where people get help for emotional problems as easily, as quickly, and as readily as they do for a broken arm or a case of the flu. I want our schools to teach young people how to care for their minds and help defend preemptively against the ignorance that lead me down so many waste of time dead end paths before I finally found the right resources to drag myself out of an utterly wretched hole.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


FoE20 the angleheadedest hipster I know

Georges Perec’s absence from our world makes the planet just a tad darker. He really should be here to play along as technology explodes and creates all these new forms of poetry and prose for us. We now have a global talk board system that allows no more than 144 characters per statement. Just one man’s thoughts on the subject, but we are worse off because Georges Perec never got to use those boundless talents he possessed to tweet.

Perec might have invented Twitter if he’d lived long enough (he died of lung cancer in 1982 at age 45). For those not familiar, Georges Perec was a French author and a member of the literary movement OuLiPo—which stands for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature. Writer Raymond Queneau and François de Lionnais, a mathematician, created OuLiPo in 1960. The group produced literary works by creating and applying arbitrary constraints to inspire, guide, and form their writing. Coming up with constraints can be a very jocular process. For instance in homage to Perec, I once challenged a budding literary scholar to include an implicit reference to the Karate Kid in the first paragraph of the piece he was working on.

Perec pulled off some of the more acrobatic feats of constrained writing. He wrote an entire book without the letter e. This is particularly impressive (nuts?) in French since the majority of feminine adjectives end with e and since the most common class of verbs in French, er verbs, have e’s in most of their conjugated forms.
Je danse                    Nous dansons

Tu danses                  Vous dansez

Elsa valse                   Ils/elles dansent

Writing an e-less book, Perec would not be able to use the most common French wording to say “I dance”; “You dance”; “She dances”; “Y’all dance”; or “They dance.” If he wanted to include present tense dancing in his book, he would either have to adapt and write from the “we” perspective (“nous dansons” would be permitted), or he would have to find a synonym from one of the other verb groups. (I’ve just looked in a French thesaurus, and all 15 synonyms for “danser”--including “twister” (really France?)--were also “-er” verbs. So it looks like a present tense dance scene written without e would have been a serious challenge.)

Constraints like these might sound annoying, but they can also stimulate artistic creation. An arbitrary limit shuts down the most common way of expressing an idea, so you are pushed toward new and different ways of formulating a thought. Writing a dance scene from a "we" perspective might lead to beauty or truth that you wouldn’t have found if you were free to write however you wanted. In this post, I self imposed the arbitrary task of spelling "empathy" with the first letter of each paragraph. I had to begin the post with an e. Searching for an e word related to empathy and guilt, I remembered Ecclesiastes which reminded me of Montaigne’s writing on vanity and a comment a friend had made about repetitive thinking involved in guilt. The constraint helped me bring together ideas about the ceaseless and pointless mental work of shame that I might not have otherwise connected—like “the tyranny of rhyme forces [poets] to find their greatest beauty” (Proust).

The unlimited potential of language is one of the fundamental principles of Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theory. According to Chomsky, every language has a finite number of words and other meaningful elements (like prefixes “re-", “dis-”, “quasi-”). But you can create an unlimited number of statements by changing the way you put these building blocks together. Language is a gigantic set of Legos that you can always build into something slightly different from anything you’ve ever made before

To test Chomsky’s principle, I have launched my own linguistic project similar to OuLiPo. I call it OuInPo.In” stands for “insult”, and this is how it works. I send a text to the same friend about once a week to call him a new insulting name. The one constraint is that I can never repeat the exact same insult. Science drives my quest to verify the endless expressive potential of the English language. So far, so good. I have had no trouble creating original profanity, but as the experiment has progressed, I have discovered an unexpected memory challenge. Sometimes I can’t remember whether I've used an insult already or not. Have I already accused my friend of carrying on Miltonic conversation with livestock? I'm not sure.

A situation like this calls for some creative fixes to ensure I don’t accidentally repeat myself. When in doubt, I look for a more specific and more bizarre version of the insult I'm considering. I’m not sure about livestock, but I know I’ve never sent a text about llamas or wildebeests. And llamas and wildebeests come in all different sizes, shapes, colors, and political affiliations. So many potential variations on a general idea, and the beat goes on and on and on. With a little caution and critical thinking, I'm able to maintain the integrity of my findings. Right now the experiment is still ongoing, but it is looking more and more every day like Chomsky was right.

And you know, I guess maybe I could have accomplished the same thing coming up with different ways to tell a friend I love him, but it’s too late now to reverse course and start over.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Breakdown, Empathy, and Guilt Epilogue: Comic Relief

My last two posts on empathy and guilt have been pretty heavy, so I thought I'd do something a little lighter today. Back in Alabama two days after my fugue from Paris described here, I was hospitalized for suicidal depression. My parents and my ex-wife convinced me to go to the emergency room around 10 or 11 on Sunday night where I spoke at length with an on call therapist. I was admitted to a psych. unit just in time for an inauspicious Monday morning breakfast where I learned that in this facility--home to a medical team charged with reminding me again why I wanted to go on living--they served only decaf coffee.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Breakdown, Empathy, and Guilt 2: Guilt

Ecclesiastes—and then Montaigne centuries later riffing on the ancient preacher’s wisdom—delves into the terrifying possibility that human effort, all striving and toil carried out in the light of day, will ultimately become yet another gloss on the collective and never ceasing epic of earthly futility: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?” Rhetorical question implying it’s own answer in the asking: nothing. We get no return on the time and pain we invest in our vain attempts to turn a profit. All is futile, pointless, without recompense. In the opening of his essay on vanity, Montaigne applies the preacher’s notion of pan-pointlessness to his writing: “There is perhaps [no greater vanity] than to write in vain on [vanity].” And yet, he does not abandon his labor. Montaigne states that he will go on writing as long as there is ink and paper available to write with. Both he and the ancient preacher challenge a very ingrained way we tend to think about work. Work now in the present, do something here in this moment that requires pain and difficulty, and in the future, we will reap pleasures and enjoy our due rewards. Not so according to Ecclesiastes. We will work and toil, but the ir-reciprocal future mocks our simplistic ledger sheet balances and refuses us the gains we are expecting.    

Mountains of guilt form slowly through the ceaseless toil of mental repetition, returning and returning in my mind forever in vain to a mistake I made in the past, working pointlessly deluded by half-formed, inarticulate belief that if I just think hard enough and long enough, I’ll figure out my absolution. Son of a bitch of all futility! I shine rational hindsight on my errors hoping to deduce away the fault, wipe out my culpability, and undo the pain I caused for people I loved who also loved me. At times I realize there’s nothing more to explain or figure out no solace to come from reexamining one more time why I did the things I regret, and yet even while knowing it pointless, the desire to look back again rises over and over. A distorted belief that there is still some mystery to be solved locks me into a vainly repeating cycle of willful déjà vu.

Perhaps a concrete example will clarify these largely conceptual abstractions. Depression struck me with stunning speed. In roughly two months time, the secure mental footing of early September 2010 softened to pieces in an irrational torrent of emotion that I didn’t understand and didn’t know how to control. I was married then and living in Paris with my now ex-wife. The first decisive explosion came late in October while my ex-wife, who taught English then at a high school in Paris, was away chaperoning a school trip with some of her students in Boston. God I hate the memory of that week. Though there isn’t a whole lot that I recall. Recollections are spotty of the worst times, in part because I was drinking heavily, in part because the shock of breaking down wipes out a lot of memory. A friend has suggested that it is a blessing not to be able to remember too many specifics. Forgetting is a shield from guilt. The less you remember the fewer psychic devices for wracking yourself with remorse. Still though, there are plenty of moments I’d like to redo and things I wish I hadn’t done and said. Even when specifically searching the concrete example, it still takes me some circling and indirect approach to finally arrive at the point. Swept under by rip tides of grand significance and transcendent meaning, of which there is plenty here, I have trouble with solid objects and descriptions of simple action. I left. The week my wife was out of the country for work, I disintegrated in fear and confusion. I felt awful all the time. The initial counseling sessions I’d been going to for several weeks were not working. Wildly impatient to feel better, I fell into unclear thinking patterns about what I needed to do. Returning to the States started making sense to me. My ex-wife was the only one who really knew how bad I’d gotten. We were communicating regularly by phone and I told her I was feeling like I needed to go and considering buying a plane ticket. I don’t recall the specifics about how that discussion went, just telling her beforehand that I was considering it and then that I had done it once I bought the plane ticket. I scared the shit out of my co-workers that week when I stopped showing up without giving any notice. Instead of getting out of bed and going to work that Wednesday, I holed up all day in the apartment drinking shots of rum until I threw up. And I didn’t respond when they called and sent messages to find out if I was okay. Close friends, a couple living with their children in Lyon, were expecting me for a weekend visit. That Friday, I sent them a brief text to tell them I was having a breakdown and headed to America from the security line at CDG Terminal I.

All these steps in my breakdown return from time to time and raise questions of motive, justification, and responsibility. I wonder about proper verb choice for telling this story. I got depressed. I was overcome with depression. Depression took hold of me. I gave in. I gave up. I quit. In nearly synonymous statements, different levels of activity and passivity nuance my responsibility for the pain my wife felt that week. I do not know which is most appropriate, or even if it is possible to capture these events with a single verb conjugated in a single tense. Perhaps the truth lies in a hypotactic structure that properly combines and subordinates the light and shadow of the varying tints of blame. Or perhaps searching complexity here will only set off a confused, nightmare strobe light hell.

Theoretical writings on empathy and depression—and other mental disorders—focus largely on how supportive friends, family, and therapists need to show a suffering person that they understand, at least to some degree, what s/he is experiencing. The general thrust of most empathy writing places the burden of empathy on healthy people. With my ex-wife and me, this sort of writing would say that she needed to work to imagine what depression was like from my perspective. Monumental task that is rarely an intuitive response to the crazy shit people can say and do and think when they are depressed. Imagine. You are a woman, newly married, with a clear idea of where you and your husband are headed in the future. Your dream in life for as long as you can remember has been to have children. After the high of the wedding and the honeymoon season, your husband shows irrational signs of agitation and anger for about a month and then starts swinging between lethargy and panicked desperation. Worried about your husband and whether he will be all right while you’re out of town for a week, you leave to chaperon a school trip. And then while you are away he reaches crisis level and tells you over the phone without being able to really explain why that he’s drinking heavily, stopped going to work, and decided that what he needs to feel better is to buy a plane ticket on a whim to go back to his home town in Alabama. Through the daunting waves of fear and helplessness and confusion and frustration stacked on top of the demands of chaperoning an international field trip, empathy writing calls on you to listen to your husband’s irrational fugue plan and express a compassionate understanding of what he is feeling. Tall fucking order. Empathy in times of crisis can be overwhelmingly difficult.  

Hurt from depression fans out like flaming disease from the person directly affected to the people around who want to help. It’s commonplace to say that depression is contagious, and I’ve seen first hand how friends and family suffer the pain of what their loved ones are going through. Empathy for someone who is depressed is important, but efforts to understand what someone else is going through need to run both ways. Caregivers need to know that someone else understands their struggles and fears and frustrations. Just as we long from the inactive depths of lethargy for the kindly ear of someone who gets it, our wives, friends, husbands, mothers, and fathers need compassion for the difficulties they face living with a body-snatching invader that transforms the person they love into a ghostly stranger. It’s hard to live with depression. And it’s also hard to live with someone who is depressed. The imaginative burden of seeing the world from another’s perspective needs to be shared. If someone suffering from depression can show family and friends that the situation is hard on everyone, we stand a better chance of creating supportive relationships that foster healing.

Yet this empathy for caregivers is likewise a tall order. When I started working on this post, I thought that there was a great lack of understanding about how and why depression is hard on the people around us. Writing about my ex-wife’s experience of my breakdown however, I’ve realized that, at least for me, the major problem was not a lack of understanding. I knew my condition was hard on her. But I’m not sure I ever expressed that understanding in a productive way. Guilt slams our ability to say we know that depression hurts our families too. I could slip out of my body and float out several feet to look back at the situation from the outside or float a little farther and glimpse through my wife's eyes. But these are scorching images uncomfortable to behold and even more uncomfortable to discuss. Looking at someone else's pain can quickly push you back inside yourself behind a wall of silence meant to shield you from awareness of another's suffering. Talking about someone else's pain trains your eyes on the scalding picture you'd often rather look away from. It was hard to acknowledge my wife's pain without being swallowed up by a nauseous sense of shame for causing that pain. It was easier sometimes to say nothing than it was to confront that sense of shame. When I did talk about this with my wife during the roughest times, I’d often slip into melodramatic expressions of my own culpability that didn't communicate an understanding of her position. I’ve been a terrible husband (guilt) I see that you are frustrated by my inactivity (empathy). These statements are close in meaning, but the subtle difference in perspective is crucial. The expression of guilt focuses too heavily on what the person speaking thinks about him self. The expression of empathy (I + you) reminds the person listening that she counts too and breaks open the isolating movements of guilt. And so this becomes a rhetorical challenge of the melancholic. Show the world you see how your pain hurts them too but do it without submerging into the self-focused, isolating hyperbole of shame.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Breakdown, Empathy, and Guilt 1: Empathy

Empathy, the concept comes back again and again in my thoughts. I try to see the world as you. You try to see the world as me. Before ever really concentrating on the term “empathy” itself, I’d long thought of reading and writing fiction as two powerful ways to loosen the hold of our own self-focused perspective and get a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else. Or at least I hoped they might be.

Empathy, though, has at times seemed an idealistic dream to me, or a gift of the uber-talented privileged few. We can’t possibly understand everything about someone else’s experiences of the world. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse—where a narrating voice hovers around a summer vacation home able to slip in and out of the minds of the people gathered there—was an exception. And so was James Joyce’s “Molly” chapter at the end of Ulysses that traces in minute detail the insomniac movements of a women trying to fall asleep one early morning in turn of the century Dublin. 

Empathy writing is tricky. Having never himself experienced a sleepless night as an insomniac wife, Joyce could be way off in his “Molly” chapter. And when she created Charles Tansley, what did Virginia Woolf actually know about being a young common born philosophy student, with a chip on his shoulder about his social standing, vacationing with his famous mentor and his mentor’s upper class family? I pose skeptical questions about whether character creation tells us much about what it’s like to walk in different shoes and feel the world from a third person perspective, and yet, without any precise explanation at the moment of exactly how the process works, I do still believe that Joyce and Woolf’s imaginative ventures gave us valuable insight about living in the world with other people.

Empathy reading can also be tricky. We can easily over-generalize and arrive at erroneous conclusions about what an author has done when writing about the world from someone else’s perspective. With Joyce, I’m tempted to overreach and say he has written an account of what it’s like to be a woman from a man’s perspective. But he hasn’t. He’s written a very specific fictitious account of a small slice of time for one woman living in a very specific time and place in history. The “Molly” chapter has not captured the essential experience of womanhood. It’s simply a hypothesis, one possibility, postulating how one made up woman might feel in one limited context. And having stumbled across that term “womanhood,” my head begins to spin. So many different possibilities, so many different contexts in which to be a woman, could there possibly be a way of defining a condition that encompasses them all and conveys to us men who do not know firsthand what it’s like to be a woman? Time transforms every situation, and the possibilities for framing another person's place in the world seem nearly infinite. We can always add, expand, narrow, or remove an element and create a new and slightly altered place to understand. What is it like to be black? What is it like to be a child? What is it like to be an 8-year-old girl growing up in an advanced technological information saturated era ? How does it feel to be a young black girl living in an affluent suburb of Atlanta where 75% of the students at your school are white? Relating to others would be simple if there were a stock set of 4 or 5 different types of people to understand. But in the detailed experience of day to day living, we slip fluidly in and out of 100’s of categories, 1000’s of overlapping, concentric, and entirely separated circles in the ever shifting Venn diagrams of our identities. 

Empathy’s hard because it takes constant reassessment of the endlessly complex and rich experiences that add up to make us who we are. This post has been rather slow in developing, and along the way, I’ve done a little bit of reading about fiction and empathy. There is an expansive academic literature on the subject. In her article “Empathic Engagement with Narrative Fictions,” Amy Coplan provides in one of her footnotes a workable solution that addresses the complexity of empathic thinking: “Rarely, if ever, would we be able to imaginatively experience everything that the other experiences since it would be virtually impossible to have awareness of all of the target’s unconscious thoughts, desires, beliefs, and so on. This does not mean, however, that we cannot imaginatively experience a close approximation of the dominant thoughts and feelings that the target experiences at a particular moment in time.” I had a strange and revealing reaction to this footnote, conflicting emotion that clarified for me some of my own expectations about how I want to relate to other people, a blend of hope and disappointment. Coplan reassures with her insistence that empathy is possible despite the complexity of other people. But her affirmation is only partial. Empathy is limited and temporary. We get only a “close approximation” at “a particular moment in time.” And something in me demands more. A low whispered taunt tells me this is not enough, that I’m settling if I accept these limits. This reaction seems a strange manifestation of perfectionist thinking, and in a leap that is not fully articulated, I wonder if my disappointment is somehow linked to possessive desire (Help! I'm an epistemophiliac!) A question for another day. No place here to delve into musings about how we know what we know. This prologue has gone on long enough, and I’ve not yet arrived at what I’ve really been wanting to address: the ways guilt obstructs empathy and prevents healing relationships between depressed people and the friends and family who support us when we’re down.

A suivre…  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


Seeping lava oozing and solidity of the surface beginning to dry and harden into place. Several billion years of earth always shifting. A life. An eye blink.  A single instant of stillness. A snap shot a mere 80 years wide. Permanent light written onto silver bromide plates objectively captures the whole picture. Ca a été. Motionless and complete. Save the blurry splotch down at the bottom. And the unnamed forms halfway jutting into the upper left corner. A half road towards virgin forests unexplored? What lies just beyond the frame? A life that could have been? A cosmic finger slipped accidentally in front of the lens? The angle of the shot, some say, makes all the difference.

A river centuries deep cuts the banks steadily migrating several feet to the left over 20 years, steady drift that never arrives. Unnoticeable change finite and constant where billions of years ago a dry colossal mass of rock and dust hover in space and time. A hot loud bang diced the rock. Jagged, two parts slipped to either side of a miniscule fissure, at first imperceptible, separating what heavens vault had originally cracked.  

Time passes. With cartoon like fluidity, the fissure yawns apart. Two sublime and daunting stones repel each other and float divided by emptiness out further and further towards opposite ends of existence. Slowly the momentum dwindles and eventually comes to a full stop. The rocks spin wildly in place, out of synch, unguided, heads flipping and rotating, pointing sometimes up or down or backwards, momentarily towards and then back away from each other. A blade of grass dwarfed by light years sprouts from nothing. Faint sounds of water trickle intermittently.

The rocks are still and nearly aligned, several inches closer to each other maybe, but on this scale, it’s hard to tell. The blade of grass lengthens and several others appear. Sounds grow louder, some indistinguishable, potential signs of animated life or simply expanded notes of the mineral stream passing. The rocks are closer—it is clear—and moving again, slowly accelerating back towards their starting place. Several drops develop scattered with large empty gaps between them. Elements on mismatched scales are converging, negotiating the steps of coherence. Drops expand into puddles their blurry edges filling up the blanks between them, and pushed by the force of approaching stone, puddles find each other and flow together. Things are moving fast now. Lush vegetation bursting open. Rocks lengthening and flattening. Distinct rustlings in the brush. A steady rush of water audible as the stream shades in a final remaining hole at its center.   

The edges of land and river are close. Water spills outward in all directions, an uneven ameba-like advance searching for a barrier. A first foot splashes aground and fills up the stone's outer contours. Then another upstream, and another and another. All along the shore where water touches rock, the flow recedes back towards the river’s center, spinning as it retreats coloring in the last remaining gaps to form unbroken contiguous banks fixed and reestablished back where we know them.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Being Yourself, Again

We lose parts of ourselves when we get depressed. Things that we enjoy when healthy become bland, insipid, slightly nauseating counterfeits that no longer light us up the way they did in the past. The late fall arrival of the Oscar contenders in the theaters. Talking about fascinating books with friends over filet mignon at our favorite restaurant. A bike ride through the Bois de Vincennes. Auburn wins the national title we’ve waited 25 years to see. C’est tout un. A resoundingly indifferent and drained  “whatever” supplants the joyful responses you’d expect in these situations. The clinical term for this condition is “anhedonia.” On a neurological level, we lose our ability to feel pleasure, a condition that makes it considerably difficult to do anything about depression. It’s very hard to stay active (a key component of fighting depression) when the things that should cheer you up don’t.

When I crashed in the fall of 2010, I forgot how to teach. Before my infernal season, I had taken great pride in my work as a language teacher and my efforts to plan creative, engaging classes that prompted students to practice their language skills while also allowing them to express things that were important to them. I transformed very rapidly that fall from a proud, inspired, and aspiring educator, to a shelled out vacancy sloughing through everything half-asleep and gasping. I no longer felt I could motivate or connect with my students, and a disturbing fog of loss and inadequacy latched tight around me. Every step felt 30lbs too heavy, like I was carrying a log pressing down hard on my neck. Every breath felt like I was only getting half the oxygen I needed. (Recently, I heard a man on television say that this feeling is like wearing a lead trench coat all the time.) I sat for hours stiff and empty in front of a blank computer screen searching for the next day’s lesson and producing nothing. At times, my mind swung from that stifled, lifeless stare into accusing recriminations, asking what the fuck was wrong with me and why I couldn’t just get my work done.

Things got really ugly for me at work that semester. Several days while trying to work on planning in my office, I punched myself in the head over and over progressively harder towards a deranged frenzy thinking that the blows might somehow free me from the breathless stagnation I was wading through. I locked up completely several times unable to speak in front of my classes. Something like a panic attack. Not the heavy breathing and heart racing feeling exactly, but long physically painful silences where my brain jammed and struggled to find every word, where I had to fight hard against my mouth and throat and lungs that defiantly resisted making each sound. One day in the language lab, the state of the art West German cassette equipment bugged during a lesson—yes the machines were marked “Made in West Germany,” in 2010. I had a moment of panic; seized, immobile, pressure jam clogging of the brain, and then dreadful relief. Relief looking out the window over the dull grey mediocrity of the Paris suburbs and the once promising social housing cabbages telling myself the chaos of equipment malfunction didn’t matter because as soon as the course was over I was going to climb up to the top of the building and jump. 

This is an example of the gruesomely ridiculous logic of suicidal thinking. Tiny insignificant things, things we have no control over and that aren’t even our fault, come to hurt so badly that our clogged and distorted reasoning, corrupted by pain, tells us that death is the only way to stop hurting. Gruesomely stupid indeed, but in the moment it makes absolute sense.


A year and a half later in January 2012, I was not fully healed but much better. I had limped most of the way back from my most terrible and desperate state. I had recently gotten involved volunteering at my local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the office director suggested I do the training to become a Family to Family instructor. This training session ended up being a most valuable gift of experience after my bout with depression had convinced me that I no longer knew how to teach well like I had loved doing before; like the day a group of French 18 year-olds got excited talking in English about whether poetry makes anything happen and decided that it can but must adapt to the times and ever changing audiences in order to do so. That old self (moi d’alors) that could run a discussion like that had slumbered invisible and homeless hidden deep inside me for over a year.

Our trainers Sue and Linda were complete strangers at the beginning of the weekend and good friends three days later. Thinking about our interaction over those three days has lead me to an unexpected meditation on generosity and empathy, one of those suprise tangents of an idea that isn’t planned when you begin writing and that wells up along the way. Montaigne taught me it is worthwhile to veer and find out where these paths lead. Sue and Linda did not know specifically what a pleasure teaching had been for me in the past. But even without knowing me they gave me something very specific that I had been missing and needed for a long time. They were there sacrificing an entire weekend away from home and family, giving away their time and energy running through 30 exhausting hours of emotionally exacting course material. They were passing along information and technique that we trainees took back to our homes across the state and used to help hundreds of people hurting and looking for solace to calm their pain. Sue and Linda shared their own sadness and vulnerability telling of tremendous loss in the face of mental illness, but their sense of loss was tempered throughout by the example of hope they showed in their actions, their patient and loving strength in confronting hardship, and an implicit assurance that life was not over and that joy was still possible, a joy they exemplified in the abundant flow of humor in their absolutely hilarious banter all weekend.

There is a fascinating relationship here between general and more specific forms of generosity. Sue and Linda made their general disposition towards the world one of giving, and in doing so, they hit upon a very specific need that was crucial to my recovery. I tend to think that understanding what a person is going through needs to proceed acts of kindness, that we have to know someone’s situation before can do unto them, that empathy makes generosity possible. I wonder presently about the value of reversing these terms and exploring the idea that generosity makes empathy possible. We may not understand precisely what people are needing, but by adopting a general disposition of kindness and giving away our time, our resources, our energy, we might hit the mark anyway. Empathy is a wonderful thing. Maybe though it isn’t always a necessary part of helping others. An act of kindness might be the exact response someone else longs for even if we don’t know the details of that longing before we make the gesture. Or it might be a bridge into a more intimate and detailed understanding where empathy can take root. You may invite me for dinner, and while talking during our meal, we may stumble together onto the solution for a problem that’s been plaguing me for months.

Sue and Linda gave me the opportunity to present part of a practice lecture on our first day of training. When I stood up, a little nervous, and began to read, I discovered, with delight, that I could still project my voice like I had in front of a classroom. The old aspiring educator roused and steered up slowly to dock in the forefront of my mind. A refreshing light penetrated the hall dimmed by dreary silence for so long. The subtle possibility for banquet renewed and stirred up into my words. And as I came to the end of my section and reminded my fellow trainees that they had not caused the battles raging in the minds of their family members, an older, better version of me, that I’d once abandoned and left for dead, sat again welcomed and laughing at the head of the table. With their dedication to a cause and general disposition towards kindness, Sue and Linda had helped me recover the teacher I wanted to be.