Book Club: Unholy Ghost, #3

Today, we’re starting with “Toys in the Attic; An Ars Poetica Under the Influence” by Chase Twichell.

Twichell spent 15 years of her life taking 12 different prescription drugs for her depression. That’s not to say that she’s written a piece about medication or some sort of clinical discussion; she hasn’t. This is more of a philosophical exploration than a scientific dissection. I just remembered my own experience with antidepressants. I think we tried 7 of them in total. Some gave me insomnia. Some made me jumpy. Some fogged my brain out so thoroughly that I failed several classes and can’t remember multiple years of my life.

It makes me angry, you know. I took my prescribed drugs as instructed, and I lost all memories of several friends from the school I was in, all memories of family events, all memories of daily life. It’s all just gone! Why would doctors prescribe this for me? (Of course, it’s because they rely upon questioning the patient to evaluate the efficacy of psychiatric drugs, and in cases like mine, the patient is unable to accurately evaluate whether or not a drug or dosage is working because we don’t have a “normal” level to compare our treated brains to.) As the drug crippled my brain, the symptoms got worse, which I reported to my doctor, who increased the dosage, which made the symptoms worse. It was a nightmare. I still get upset over it.

But sorry- we were here to discuss Twichell’s life, not mine. 

Some pieces of it, I understand- feeling like you are watching yourself from outside of yourself, knowing you’re abnormal from childhood, watching your writing suffer or flourish based on the chemicals your doctor wants you to pump into your brain. Some pieces are utterly foreign and a good reminder that everyone’s experience is different- feeling joy mingled with loneliness, believing the essence of one’s self is inherently malleable, refusing the notion of self entirely. I suppose that Twichell’s experience with writing and antidepressants is more robust than mine, since she was likely a practicing poet throughout her medication experiments and I was only a college student who wrote for homework and catharsis. I enjoy this description in particular:

Before the long parade of drugs, words were like water- all I had to do was dip my mind and it would come up brimming with new excitements. I always thought of this ability as a “gift,” a part of my being. Now the river of words flows around me as it always has, but I write as a translator trespassing outside the boundaries of my original language, fluent but no longer a native speaker. It’s hard to explain. It feels like a new part of my brain has learned language, and the old part has atrophied. (24)

I’m not sure if this is what has happened to me as well- if this is why I don’t feel like I have stories to tell any longer, if this is why I can’t create worlds. I’ve wondered at my own lost ability- at the joy that has floated away from me and the gloom that settled in its place.

That sounds odd, doesn’t it? 

I used to love building worlds, holding places and people and governments and plants and animals and politics and languages in my head. I felt powerful, beautiful, and strong- but only within the tiny and secret confines of my writing. Beyond its walls, I was fat, ugly, stupid, boring, and a failure. Now, I’m… Now I just feel tired, worn out before the call to adventure even comes. Who would read a story where a washed out loser gets a chance to save the world but doesn’t and can’t because he or she is already worn out?

My final thoughts on Twichell’s piece were reflections on the different paths we have walked. She processed her depression through Buddhism (or pieces of it, at least), and I processed mine through Christianity. She survived by releasing her grasp on her self/identity, and I survived by reinforcing mine. We are very different people, and it has been interesting to read her account, because I could never have had those experiences myself.

Book Club: Unholy Ghost, #2

I’m back, and as promised, I’m starting with the first essay in the book: “A Delicious Placebo” by Virginia Heffernan.

Heffernan was not always depressed; she went through a difficult breakup and found herself in the clutches of depression afterwards. I was interested in her description of her descent into despair and of the changes occuring within her and around her. For me, as for some others, depression and despair came at birth, or at least, so early that we have no true concepts of “normal” or “healthy.” Depression is like breathing for us: it is simply a part of life, and existence without it is nearly impossible to imagine.

Even though Heffernan’s path and mine are different, they led us to a few similar places and feelings. For example, she found that explanations for why things happened in a particular way seemed more reliable if they found fault with her. (Such as: ‘Jimmy and I fought at the party because I am impossible to get along with or to like,’ being more plausible than ‘Jimmy and I both hold strong views regarding the environment and industry. Unless we both become more willing to listen to other views, it may be wisest to avoid a similar conversation in the future.’)

Another aspect of her experience that I understand is energy rationing: as depression squeezes its victim more tightly, that person wakes up with less and less energy in the morning, so they need to decide which one or two activities to accomplish that day. At her lowest point, Heffernan only had energy for 1 hour worth of life per day. At my darkest point, I slept for 20 hours per day and barely did more than eat and use the bathroom when I was awake. I couldn’t handle any more because the despair and agony of being awake was smothering. It’s awful.

Heffernan interpreted her depression through a personal philosophy and code of conduct, developing several “pillars” to build her daily life around. Essentially, they are activities that she decided were healthy or beneficial for her, so she completed them each day through sheer willpower. She looked for sad friends to relate with and non-medical treatments for a while, but it wasn’t enough. Eventually, she filled a prescription for antidepressants and went to a spa with her mother. Regarding this transitional time in her life, she wrote:

I could not find in myself a trace of love-of-life or even self-preservation. But a small readiness to be somewhere new- I found that. I envisioned a place that was not pining and not terrified, a view drained of the color saturation of bruised hearts. (18)

I liked this quote because of its honesty: life changes aren’t always motivated by things that make sense to healthy people. Love-of-life and self-preservation are much more important to happy people than they are to people who are miserable, or falling into delusion, or so sleep-deprived that they can’t process things, or so anxious that tiny changes from the norm causes panic or… 

Well, you understand.

So I appreciate that Heffernan was able to believe that things could be different, even if that existence had to be defined by what it was not, rather than what it was. (‘Not dangerous’ is different than ‘safe,’ because the concept of danger is more salient, more real, than the concept of safety is for the speaker.

In the end, she finds a different existence for herself, but the shadow of depression and the whispers of her pillars remain at the edges. This is true for me as well. I have moved past the worst part of my depression (I think) and into a healthier stage of life, but there are still remnants of my past littered around me. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll ever manage to forget it all or to move so far past my body’s frailty that I won’t be affected by depression or anxiety at all. Instead, I just want to be functional, even with the burdens that are welded onto my body and the weaknesses seared into my mind.

Book Club: Unholy Ghost, #1

I thought I’d try processing a book with you guys, reading chunks and writing about them. I’m going to start with Unholy Ghost; writers on depression, a collection of essays that was edited by Nell Casey and published by Harper Collins in 2001. This book is available on Amazon here.

Epigraph

This section consists of two poems by Jane Kenyon describing aspects of depression. I was struck by the poet’s sheer powerlessness in the face of her depression and by the way she captured how moments of beauty are wrapped in despair. It can be difficult to explain to someone why a joyful moment can turn sour so quickly, so I appreciated her words. I think that Kenyon understands that each time beauty or pleasure is discovered, even in something small, like a flower’s shape or a food’s flavor, those feelings are quickly followed by the realization that you have never felt this way, never noticed this phenomenon before. For years, or decades, you have walked these streets, eaten these foods, seen these people, but something invisible has kept you at a great distance from life’s pleasures.

This happened to me rather frequently when I was growing closer to my husband. The better that he treated me, the happier I was, but then the sadder that I became. It was wonderful to be loved, supported, listened to, respected, but… I also realized that I had not been treated like this before, which hurt. It’s like every time that my life gets fuller, richer, or better, I have to cry over all of the years when it wasn’t full or rich or good. When I first had antidepressents, I started seeing more colors than usual, like the world had suddenly become a vibrant place instead of a dull gray mess. It was the most magical afternoon of my life! I still remember the bright yellow flowers, the sunlight, the level of detail in my surroundings. It was… it’s very hard to describe.

Acknowledgments and Introduction

The most noteworthy part of this section is the backgroud  for the book. Each essay is written by someone who has depression or by someone within the blast zone (spouses, siblings, parents, friends). Every author has had their life changed by mental illness, has felt the changes in themselves or a loved one. The editor walked through her sister’s depression, and presumably created this collection because of those experiences.

The acknowledgments and edior’s note were written by Nell Casey, and the introduction by Kay Redfield Jamison.

——

Next time, I will cover “A Delicious Placebo” by Virginia Heffernan and see how far I get.

Many Points of View

On a lark, I borrowed a book called Book of Superstitious Stuff: Weird Happenings, Wacky Rites, Frightening Fears, Mysterious Myths, & Other Bizarre Beliefs by Joanne O’Sullivan. As may be inferred, the author does not take any of the contents terribly seriously, although at the very least, her blanket dismissal appears to apply equally to all culture’s beliefs. Consistency may be a minor virtue, but it is still a virtue.

(This is to say that my point of view includes some gray zones, where I don’t actually have a position on the validity of a particular phenomenon, because I lack the experience and information necessary for renderring judgment.)

That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to talk about today, however. I’ll pick a random topic from the book: colors. The symbolism and power ascribed to a specific color varies greatly from group to group. A color may symbolize sexual purity for one culture and death for another. Another color can mean prosperity and celebration for one people group and passion for another. Wealth, luck, life, death, faithfulness, lust, hope , friendship, religious devotion, and much more- we see what we are raised to see, and often, we may think that these associations are more universal than they truly are.

At the very least, purusing the contents of this book has reinforced for me that there are many points of view available. Why does that matter? It’s pretty simple. 

For the bulk of my life, I have seen only one point of view for most issues revolving around myself. I failed one course, so I am a failure. I did not get to spend this day with friends, so I don’t have any friends who care about me. My effort did not yield the desired results, so I don’t have what it takes. And so on.

A very large part of my growth process has been freeing myself from the trap of a single perspective. To that end, I read things, I talk to people that I respect, and I stretch my horizons, checking to see what actually is possible for me, and what is impossible. It has been very good for me overall. So why did I bring up the superstitions book? Isn’t this a very different topic? Well, yes it is.

For myself, I believe that the practices and beliefs in the book are either ture or false- either fairies really exist and we should take them seriously, or they don’t and we shouldn’t (and so on for every topic in the book.) But even so, someone out there will find something that predicts bad luck and grow wary and someone else will look at that same thing and grow excited about their imminent good luck. 

Perception affects action, and that holds true for a great many things.