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.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Wish I'd known: Accepting

In an earlier post, I wrote about the many things I wish I had known that could have kept my breakdown from wrecking my life so thoroughly. I was incapacitated for over a year while my marriage shredded to rags in a wood chipper of depression, like the one they used to pulp dead bodies in Fargo. Doing the simplest things—getting out of bed and trudging to the shower or standing back up from the shower floor after I'd laid down hoping a stream of warm water might bring peace—felt like insurmountable obstacles. It's unpleasant still even fully recovered today to create the scroll of those shitty memories. Slight echoes of yesterday's desperate gasping awaken in me when I record the past that I hated.

The people we've been at different points in our lives sleep within us. They can rise and radiate out of the gut where they slumber, fanning up in smoke through our torso, seeping into our mind. They can precipitate and calcify, solidify and become us again. Right now when I think about those shit days, that guy who couldn't hold his head level walking down the street because it was physically too painful, whose belly thrashed, whose throat filled with a nauseous choke of impotence at the thought of getting in to work, this guy who I hate and hated being is only a wisp of fumes. He puffs and passes through me and then quickly passes on. These days he doesn't have any grip to take hold.

Again, I'll harp on it like I have in other posts. Simple daily tasks like getting out of bed or walking a block with your head straight are easy when you are healthy. When I lost my mind, those things were literally more difficult and painful than running a marathon. I return often to this comparison because I think it gives the best glimpse of how hard and devastatingly real of a problem depression is for someone who hasn't lived it. The comparison is also useful for newcomers who are plummeting through the horrors of melancholia for the first time. If you've been highly functional and successful, it's hard to understand why all these stupid goddamn trifles are suddenly next to impossible challenges.

To take depression seriously and to fully acknowledge what it's done to your abilities you have to wrap your head around swirling counterintuitive thinking about success and failure. In the early days of my crash, I had a very scrambled grasp on my condition. There are different levels of knowledge and understanding. On an immediate level in the bone and gut, I knew exactly how hard everything had become. I was the one calling in sick when I couldn't get out of bed and canceling my classes pretexting stomach illness when I couldn't think of anything to do with my students. I could feel that something was terribly wrong, but I couldn't explain it to myself clearly like I can now. My brain had put me in a place where teaching a class or planning a lesson was almost unbearable. And I do not say "my brain put me in a place" without realizing that many of my own dysfunctional choices and thinking patterns contributed mightily to get me into that terrible place.  From the bottom of that stupid hole, I would compare my sluggishness to how I'd felt the year before when I was excited about teaching my first poetry class. I got to design my own syllabus and talk with intelligent young people about the poetry I love: Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Yeats, Whitman, Ginsberg. But when I started back to work at the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, my attitude about work had changed utterly.

To get past this terrible slothing, you have to acknowledge and accept your condition, lower your standards and admit that something real is keeping you from performing the way you'd like to. There's a sliding scale of accomplishment at play when you get depressed. Healthy people don't have any problem walking two blocks to get on the metro to ride to work. Healthy teachers are able to plan the next day's lesson without feeling like their entire world is caving in on their airways. But judging yourself when you are sick based on what you can accomplish healthy is a recipe for a dysfunctional thinking disaster. Thinking this way creates added pressure and obstacles that make recovery harder. To get out of the hole, you have to find ways to feel good about the tiny things you do manage to do. Once you've gone through the fall and climb back out to normal healthy living, you might understand that daily tasks when depressed were harder than running a marathon healthy. When you're in the shit, especially the first time, it is very difficult to realize that you've accomplished something difficult by making it to the shower. Good therapy often works to restore a sense of self-worth attached to these miniscule accomplishments, but it is very hard to build confidence when you can so readily compare your sick and healthy selves. If you can acknowledge and appreciate how depression changes degree of difficulty, you can perhaps avoid the counterproductive stress of feeling like you should be able to charge full speed like a healthy man. If you accept, you might cut down on the useless railings at yourself about what an unproductive asshole you've become. These railings only set you back. But it's not an easy shift to make in the way you think. I mean I've run a marathon (twice) for Christ's sake. And I'm supposed to pat myself on the back for taking a damn shower? Fucking absurd. Absurd like the irrational attacks of the beast that's trying to crush you.