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, 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.