Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Cruellest Month

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land…
“The Waste Land” T.S. Eliot

I’m no literature scholar. I don’t know what Eliot meant by these lines, or the long and complex poem they begin. But that first phrase clings to me on days like this, and I have my projections about what he may have meant by it.

April is the cruellest month, he said. But he didn’t live in northern California…if he had, might he have written that March is the cruellest month instead?

March (even the second half of February, but definitely March) is when spring explodes around here. The hills are carpeted with soft green grasses; the fruit trees are flowering, and the roadsides are dotted with mustard flowers and the first golden poppies.

What’s cruel about that? Shouldn’t this be a time of happiness? Don’t many people suffer depression in the darker times of winter and feel it lifting with spring?

I don’t have a good answer, but I know that, for me, spring hurts when my depression is heavy. Everything beautiful I see makes me aware of how little I have done to savor past springs; how I’m not doing enough to savor this one before it passes. Roses make me miss my old back yard and writhe with regret about losing it. Green hills taunt me with the hikes I’m not taking and the years I barely spent time outside at all.

The world is draped with a colorful mosaic of new life, but the darkness in me perverts it into Roses of Regret, Snowdrops of Shame and Forsythia of Failure scattered upon the Green Hills of Guilt.

Apologizing to Roses does a good job of explaining part of this; the part about regretting my inability to appreciate beauty fully.

I would like to become much better at living in the present…I want to revel in the spring. I want to spin in circles like Maria in The Sound of Music and sing about the beauty of nature around me. Why do I think I’m not allowed to unless I can do it all of the time?

Why does beauty hurt? Why does feeling good, or happy, or fully engaged with the world, hurt?

Every spring, multitudes of people journey to certain temples in Japan to view a breathtaking array of cherry blossoms. In some places, these flowers exist on the trees for a mere three days per spring. Some people come on the first day, when the blooms are fresh and newly budded. Many come on the second day, when the flowers are mature and at the height of their coloration. But the largest amount of travelers, by far, come on the third day. Come to watch the wilting blossoms falling from the trees and filling the breeze with their tiny petals.

To these watchers, the third day is the most beautiful. They relish the combination of beauty and transience. They know how to say hello and goodbye to something wonderful at the same time.

The Opaque Flask

I wouldn’t want my psychiatrist’s job.

Therapists have many challenges, as I know, but psychiatrists usually see their patients less often and for less time–and have to figure out what drugs to prescribe, choosing from a huge array of possibilities with an equally huge array of potential risks and benefits. Then they have to worry about whether the patient is going to take them as directed or not…when the stakes can be high indeed.

I saw mine this morning, and the poor fellow had to attempt to grasp in 20 minutes what any reader of mine knows is a rather eclectic picture. So much of my presentation varies with the energy flow of the moment–how to create a general picture and come up with a plan?

My psychiatrist has worked with me since shortly before I entered recovery, so he can see how I have changed and knows the importance of avoiding any inappropriate medications. I make sacrifices to keep seeing him, because a highly experienced and caring provider is hard to find inside the insurance networks (I’ve been assigned to people with whom I didn’t even share a language.) The trade-off is that I try to keep my visits to a minimum; not always a good idea.

But his experience matters; it’s not enough to ask a series of rote questions and consult a diagnostic manual and drug reference. Today he was able to read into not only what I said but how I said it, or what I did not say, or the lines my face fell into when I detached from the thread of the conversation.

And yes, he agrees with the diagnosis I had tentatively made…worsening levels of clinical depression and a need for a change in meds. I have a prescription for something brand new, and I need to figure out whether the insurance will cover it. Then, if all goes well, I need to start taking it–the sooner the better, in his opinion.

Anyone who’s been where I am knows what I am facing now, but for anyone who hasn’t:

Imagine that you’ve been handed a magic potion in an opaque flask. You know you need to drink it, but you have no idea what it’s going to do to you…caught between the misery of the moment and your fear of the unknown, you raise it to your lips. You swallow, and then you wait.

The next day you feel sick. And the day after that, and the day after that. Or you are semiconscious, or your mouth is so dry you can hardly speak, or you can’t have sex any more, or you’re hyperanxious, or you have sudden self-destructive thoughts, or you’re dizzy…but you obediently continue drinking from the flask, because you’ve been told these are normal and will pass soon. But when will I feel better, you plead with the wizard. In six to eight weeks we’ll see, is a common reply.

Yes, boys and girls, though many of the “big guns” of psych meds (such as tranquilizers and antipsychotics) have near-immediate effects, most antidepressants manifest side effects long before any therapeutic effect is felt. The popular misconception of popping a Prozac to lift one’s mood is a pile of crap; antidepressants are not mood-altering in that sense. I feel nothing, just as my bipolar meds don’t alter my state of mind in any short-term way.

After an eternal couple of months, it is at last time to assess whether this one seems to be helping–and perhaps have to start over with something different, beginning the cycle of side effects all over again.

Not everyone suffers this badly with every medication, but those who have ridden the medication merry-go-round have probably experienced this end of the spectrum. In A Bittersweet Pill I wrote about some of my experiences, and my gratitude for my current relatively benign regimen. Now that regimen is to be upset, and I must face the unknown.

A leap of faith, or a leap despite the absence of felt faith, as I wrote a couple of posts ago. A decision to try, knowing it might fail or do worse than fail. Resistance to the judgments of others, who might think I should be overcoming this depression with sheer will. Open-mindedness and willingness to take suggestions. These are what I’m trying to use today; these and the knowledge that I have many brothers and sisters contemplating mysterious flasks of their own.

Ghost Town

In most stories, when the main character becomes a ghost, they try very hard to send messages to the living. They get frustrated when they can’t, and they work on finding ways to affect the world despite their new state of being.

Some episodes of depression make me feel like this. I’m not on the same plane of existence as those around me, and it’s lonely. I want to communicate, but there’s a thick veil between me and the rest of the universe. Faintly, under the weight of the symptoms, this longing flickers and reminds me that there’s still something I want.

This isn’t how I feel now.
I feel like a ghost, but not that kind of ghost.
I feel like a ghost who’s been a ghost for a long, long time and is used to it.

Even as I write this, there’s a generous dose of unreality attached to the motion of my fingers…I observe rather than act. I am not really here.

I have not written. I have not cared much that I’m not writing, unlike other times when feeling blocked brings frustration or guilt. The essays I haven’t written flit around the streets of this ghost town, each with their title and premise. I see them, but they are no more real than I am.

I do and experience some “normal” things. I manifest anxiety and irritation in response to stressors, but a part of me is not present.

My knowledge and my observing ego still exist. I know that what professionals call “flat affect” can be a bad sign, and I know my current state might be this. My appointment with my psychiatrist is in a few days, and I will show up.

It is not obvious to most people around me that they are dealing with a ghost. I went to a meeting this morning, and carried on conversations, and even talked a little about the fact that my depression has been rising lately. I can talk to you, and move my face (usually) into appropriate expressions, and even (I think) care. But as soon as I’m not under direct observation, I fade again.

I even laugh if someone tells a joke. I play games with my family. But I’m really just another game piece–the “me” they think they are playing with is just an avatar, being moved around by the languid hand of the ghost.

Why am I writing this, then? Why would this kind of ghost try to form thoughts and record them this way? It’s taken me many days, and I am doing it in response to the part of me that knows being a ghost is most likely temporary. That part wants this description to exist for the same reasons I want my other writing to exist.

That part also insists on looking for evidence that I am not as much of a ghost as I feel myself to be. Its favorite clues are found in the library, where I sit and read while my daughter is in class. Though not writing, I read to kill the time…aha, says the inner detective; if you are a ghost why are you raiding the poetry section?

Why wouldn’t a ghost read poetry, I counter; ghosts observe humanity. And what is more human than poetry?

Reading, maybe, replies the detective. But three times I saw you hand-copy a poem from an anthology, onto the paper you use for your special storage. Why would a ghost bother to do that?

And so it goes, until I must acknowledge that this ghost is not totally cut away from our plane.

When the time, and the brain chemistry, are more suitable, I will look more deeply at what this state of consciousness means and what I can learn from it. Perhaps, later, I will be pleased with the new poets I discovered.