Friday, March 14, 2008

ECT Failure

The following was written over a number of days. I see little merit in posting it, then I see little merit in anything these days. I am not just a depresso; I am an ECT failure. It doesn't get much worse than that, does it (excluding all the evils one can think of)?

3/12 How am I doing? I was tearful when I spoke with my shrink today; he added another medicine to my collection of wonder drugs that aren't working. He also encouraged me to seize any activity I can, which I'm already doing. In blogging right now, for instance, I'm hanging out at a mini-mall with wireless service, because it's better to be around people than to be alone.

Craig cries when trying to explain how he feels. Even the smallest task or decision can burden Craig with anxiety, which often requires relief through tears. Craig feels that life is a wasteland, a desert devoid of succor or employment, a vast blank canvas on which he leaves no mark. But he's better than when he first finished his ECT treatments. Marginally, at least.

How does one get stuck in an emotional hell for two years? And does the very use of the word “hell” mitigate against healing? Perhaps I should call my feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness and all the rest just a “persistent dysphoria,” instead of tagging the experience with a negative value judgment.

This is always a conundrum in depression; you must accept it as your present condition but not as your permanent condition, because you have known better. Thus you cannot accept your present mood as normal, though you must accept it as your present mood in order to take the sting out of the condition.

I know my mood isn't normal. How? Because I've had a life. And because I've recovered from previous depressions, though I'll admit each one takes a big chunk out of me and leaves a large scar behind.

The great fear is that I will be like this until I die. I couldn't face that. But if it turns out that way, I will have to face it, just not yet—there's always something else to try (like Kromart, an herb from Southeast Asia one reader recommended).

3/13 For four days I have been unable to blog beyond the desultory remarks above. I sat in front of my screen yesterday and had virtually nothing to say, so I posted nothing, having written the last part when I got home. I'm looking forward to getting a new laptop, possibly this week, as this Acer bottom-of-the-line model is always gobbling text, and the screen is so dim I fear I shall go blind if I continue to stare at it. I have to play with the angle of the display screen to read the writing for many programs on my desktop. I got this machine as a hand-me-down, and trust me, it ought to be handed further down. Most irritating is the wandering cursor effect, where I am typing text and suddenly, without warning, the cursor pops up in another part of the text and starts inscribing there. Also, at times, large blocks of text have been lost that were irrecoverable for reasons unknown.

I think I said something important last night to Kathleen, and although not the cause of my depression, it does form a nice backdrop. I have not worked as a doctor since late 1995 other than some brief volunteer work in Mexico which my back could not endure. The reason for my not working was bipolar disease and chronic spinal pain. I took advantage of my enforced sabbatical from medicine as an opportunity to pursue my dream of being a poet and writer. I can't say how hard I've worked at my dream; of course I could always have worked harder. But since 1996, when I recovered enough to begin writing, I have written two book-length manuscripts of short stories, one mystery novel, two books of opinion columns, a book on the major poems of T. S. Eliot and another book on general literary criticism and a book of theology on the Holy Spirit. So much for the prose, not my main feature. As for the poetry, my chief ambition, I had one book published by Mellen Press but have failed to interest any publisher in a second book. Yet I have certainly written enough poetry for three additional collections, in order: Sine Wave, Unexpected Light, and Wear Me Like a River. And in paging through my files, my records indicate that I have published over 600 poems since 1996. That's prolific. To give you a touchstone for comparison, Yeats' collected poems number less than 500. So for twelve years, pretty consistently, I have averaged 50 published poems a year, and this does not include the many columns and essays I published, along with some short fiction. (Fiction is my most difficult genre.) The most I've been paid for an individual poem during this time was $100; the most I was paid for a group of poems was $250. I used to be on the LA reading circuit but despaired of the quality at the open mic venues and quit that scene years ago.

It's been said that if you can pay for your postage as a poet, you are successful indeed. I've done much better than that. Yet I have not done well enough to be a “name,” to be a somebody in the literary universe, somebody an editor will consider closely before rejecting simply on the basis of his name.

It's time to take a good, hard look in the mirror. My thriller, The Abomination, I've been re-reading and I don't think it is of marketable quality. The book on Eliot ought to be published, it's well-done, but I haven't promoted it adequately. My unpublished books of poems I consider better than my only published one; each book gets better, IMHO, and the book of love poems could really achieve some success if someone would publish it. But I'm getting into too much detail here.

Simply said, if I look in the mirror, in pursuing my dream of being a poet, I have not succeeded. I have not succeeded to the extent I wanted to succeed, namely to be fairly well-known and desired at conferences and readings and so forth, and published in the leading journals.

Poetry is not the kind of work you can measure in hours. Inspiration comes when it comes; the mind must be ready to receive it. You cannot compare the work of a poet to the work of a doctor. They differ in kind, not just degree.

Here's the thought I'm trying to work myself up to: Craig, you have not succeeded as a poet despite ample time and a workmanlike effort, of which your publications speak. Maybe it's time to pack in this ambition and take up work “by the sweat of the brow” once more. There was a time writing did occupy you sufficiently to say you were working, but here in this two-year depression you can, perhaps, see the writing on the wall. It would be better for you to be engaged in an outside, worldly endeavor than to continue on your interior journey, which is bankrupt at present in any case. You're only 53. Do you want to go on not earning money until you're 65? Wouldn't involvement in the world benefit you biochemically? You've had a good run as a minor net poet, why not be happy with that? But is this the right thing to do, to shut down the full-time pursuit of my dream in the interest of participating in “reality?” Remember, before I became depressed, I used to take my writing work seriously. Now I've lost faith in my work as a writer. Now I suffer from the summer syndrome, “What's there to do, Mom?”

When I'm healthy there is usually no shortage of things for me to do, gainfully employed or not.

And here, again, we have the question of what's good for Craig and what Craig is good for. There are many fine family doctors equal to or better than I. Practicing medicine would not be a special calling for me. It's not that I want to return to medicine per se as that I want to do whatever I need to do to get out of the clutches of my depression. Perhaps I can scare up enough volunteer work, provided my back can endure it, to keep me involved in the world, without having to desert my artist's world entirely for Mammon's arena. I do not claim the following is a good poem, only reflective of this meditation:

The Poet Bids His Muse Farewell

With the grace of a cat
you have patrolled my shoulders,
clawing me when I failed to see
the nimbus around
the blue-faced turkey
or the pink algae
spread like a holy blanket
on the brown stream.
If only I could see
what you see!
But that would be surfeit,
as in a Van Gogh painting.
There can be too much light;
a man can only take so much.

You also inspire by connections
that make all exceptional!
Hurrah for our interconnectedness!
That last bird that sang, what was it?
A meadowlark! I knew you'd know
I never tire of his song
but you can tire of mine,
yes, you can tire of mine.

To sum up: I am depressed. I don't have enough to do and I don't have a car during the week, which limits my options. I don't believe in my writing anymore as a viable pursuit beyond a hobby, so the main thing that had justified my continued existence and slaked my Protestant thirst for productivity feels as if it has been disqualified. Obviously no one should feel sorry for me, if I have the time to do what I want but fail to believe in the thing I was doing. Most would consider that an extreme luxury. The irony is, it is my bipolar disease that makes such freedom possible (through my disability), while at the same time rendering me incapable of enjoying such freedom. What good is freedom if you are too depressed to take advantage of it?

When they handed out the happiness glow sticks there must have been a hole in my bag. It's getting hard for me to remember ever being happy, but I know I have been, most memorably when Kathleen and I fell in love. And I'm always “happy” to be published. And I'm “happy” to see my close friends, but now I am using “happy” as the cliche' it's become. What would it be like to have an unshakable self-love and self-acceptance? In that case it wouldn't matter if you watched TV all day, you'd still feel good about yourself. You would not be haunted by the specter of self-justification, of Protestant productivity What you did would be acceptable because of who you are, not what you have done. And that includes doing nothing.

All this is making my head hurt.

But are you one of the blessed who accepts yourself regardless of situation or performance, one who embraces and loves the inimitable you through all its incarnations? If you are there, write me, or better, direct me to your blog.

A point about religion: When I get desperate I want to imagine some divine healing from God, so I go to churches in a near psychotically expectant state. This naturally makes my mental illness worse, though even today I'm tempted to go to some healing service. What could it hurt?

When I don't get well, then I can add God to the list of things I have failed or have failed me, and I don't want to do that. I must hold on to something apart from my illness, and my intellectual faith in Christianity, however battered, remains. If you have joy in your type of faith, consider yourself blessed.

5 kilorats,



  1. One line in your post stands out to me: "When they handed out the happiness glow sticks there must have been a hole in my bag".

    Knowing the illness so well, having worked all my working life on behalf of those who have it, I realize how blessed I've been to be in the glow stick line. My father used to say I stood in the smile line twice, even fretted about that, thinking it made me too gullible, vulnerable...he didn't know how lucky I'd turn out to be.

    Let's take your talent and my luck, my optimism, your skill and do something local...focus our combined talent on something needed here...the first thing that comes to mind taps your skills, not mine. We need an acute care clinic...a cough and cold, get two stitches clinic...what we called in St. Louis a Doc in the should not cost folks a $700 ER visit to listen to a chest, know if a minor cut needs stitches. That kind of care is sorely lacking here, pal. I am sure it would be welcomed. Not suggesting you do the doctoring, but you could head it, oversee it. I can't believe an over-whelmed hospital wouldn't welcome it.


  2. Anonymous5:39 PM PDT


    Let me ask the previously unaskable: Are there cases in the medical record of people whose depression simply didn't lift? Can depression become a permanent state instead of an episodic malady?

    Sorry, I had to ask.


  3. Anonymous5:40 PM PDT

    Let me also say (as I suddenly see Pat above me), that she had a wonderful poem appear in the Guardian.

    Congrats Pat!


  4. Sorry to see you've fallen upon very rough times.
    I think your lines of thought on this post, CE, are sound. Pursue them, even if you only start with baby steps. One of the elements of depression, as you know, is the feeling of inertia.
    In the cause of truth, the answer to Norm's "unaskable" question is Yes. William Styron would have given that answer.

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  6. It is hard to read these posts, but not as hard as it is for you to live and write them. I was heartened, though, to read Pat's comments. What a good idea for both of you. You need to be useful and she has a plan. What a good and wise friend she is.

  7. Thanks all-- sorry LKD if you are nearing the black hole in your own experience--yes, Norm, there are those who never recover, though I have seen one bipolar friend come out of a depression after seven years, and a unipolar recover at ten years. And Pat, I'm a virtual expert at Doc-in-the-Boxes, having supplied and staffed several and even helped design one. And that sort of work doesn't bother me. But I need to first secure my inactive license, and this time I mean to do it. That is the first step, anyway, whether I ever work again as a doctor or not.

  8. Anonymous1:35 PM PDT

    you mention that ect was a disaster for you. My dr has tried every anti depressant, every mood stabilizer, every drug he can think of and is now recommending ect. my biggest problem is anxiety which ect doesnt even help, although i suffer from bipolar and depression as well. how did ect effect you? do you feel like your brain will recover and you will be able to do dr. type stuff again, or did the ect screw you up for life?

  9. Have no fear of ECT; a recent study showed that any memory impairment was only associated with the acute treatment, and that by 12 weeks, when compared to those only treatd with drugs, the cognitive testing showed no differences.

    ECT helped me when I was first diagnosed at 30; it gave me my life back. It has the highest remission rate of any treatment for depression, around 80%. My advice is to go through it but make sure your anti-anxiety medications are working full bore before you do so.




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