Sunday, January 04, 2009

Best of, cont'd: On Depression and Grief

From 7/26:

Imagine that your brain was your liver and you had Hepatitis C. Or say you were a kidney that needed dialysis but couldn't’t afford it, or a hip joint whose pain no cane could ameliorate but without funds to be replaced. These are metaphors to help explain manic-depression to those who don’t suffer it.

Because the disease involves the brain directly, the ego, the consciousness that says “I,” the brain, in what normally would not be faulty logic, becomes convinced that it, the brain, is the cause of the disease rather than a victim of the disease. Imagine if the liver blamed itself for hepatitis when it was really a contaminated needle; if the kidney blamed itself when its demise was due to lupus; or if the hip named itself the guilty party when every septuagenarian suffers hip degeneration. The beauty of hepatitis, nephropathy and degenerative arthritis is that the organs and joints involved do not harbor consciousness, thus can’t blame themselves. Imagine: “I’m such a bad hip. I’m a complete fuck-up. Why did I let the protective cartilage wear down? I should have told her to stop jogging in her fifties. But would she have listened? Woe is me, I am only pain, pain is all I am; if only I could be replaced! If your brain were in your hip, that’s how it would sound.

This is an oversimplification of a complex disease, yet all metaphorical parallels for other processes suffer some distorting parallax; in this case I think the comparison apt.

From 8/23/07:


This morning, after my first cup of coffee, what I greatly feared came upon me. I had a brief thought about my disability and how I had failed to deliver myself from its charitable bondage through being a writer, or by returning to medicine, or in anyway becoming “a useful engine” as Thomas the Tank, my grandson’s favorite, advises. Inevitably this thought was followed by the familiar spiral of worthlessness and failure to which I had become accustomed in my depression. Then I began to think about my darling Rachel and how selfish it was of me to think about me and my failings, which made me erupt in tears, of course, during which the object of my tears changed to the loss of Rachel. But I don’t know if that change was genuine or engineered to escape my own guilt about grieving over myself and my failures instead of my loss.

I know all grieving is grieving for yourself, for how can you possibly grieve except for your loss? I suppose one can genuinely grieve about the lost potential of a life cut short, but that seems like a historical insight. The loss of a loved one can never be so intellectual at first touch. It is more of an emotional amputation, sometimes accompanied by a “phantom limb” syndrome. You imagine the person is there but they’re not. Where they were is an emptiness they used to fill. In searching that negative shape for memories, a cascade of images appears in my mind of Rachel from babyhood to adulthood: all the joy she gave me, how she stretched my love, how she taught me unconditional love simply by being my child. How can you lose that?

In Kenyon’s case it is easier. I look behind me in the car and he is not there. I walk beside a river and he is not swimming. I glance to my heel and he is no longer heeling.

I have two other daughters that need me. They are technically adults and don’t need me like they once did, and I try never to infantilize them in my mind. But right now I need to hold them, to see them, to believe in them. They are equally dear as Rachel. But are they? Nothing is as dear as that which has been lost, as in the parable of the lost sheep. Rachel, coincidentally, whose name meant “ewe,” has left a whole collection of stuffed animal sheep behind, of which Sarah has become the curator, just as I am now the curator of Rachel’s collection of Oz books.

Jacob’s dad did not even attend the memorial service and is incommunicado. I don’t know when I’ll be able to see Jacob again, the last living vestige of Rachel I can hold in my arms (though he doesn’t like that, preferring to scramble out of them).


I wish I could say I was in grief or depression; I think still more grief than depression; but as the grieving process proceeds, will grief simply be replaced by the obsession of depression, or will the two morph into some new thing?

I woke up afraid yesterday, not numb. That is more a symptom of
depression. I squired Sarah and her friend around to several beaches and enjoyed watching them enjoy themselves. Sarah is grieving, yes, but she is not depressed. She doesn’t cry about her own sense of failure and then segue to losing Rachel. She does have some guilt about her last conversation with Rachel, but her sad-feelings are all Rachel-oriented. Of course, she is lucky enough not to have a mood disorder, for which the whole family gives thanks.

At Glass Beach I let the wet particles of sunlit gravel and glass fall through my spread fingers over and over in a sort of hypnotic ritual. I lost myself in that. God bless the gravel.

I do not want to dishonor the memory of my daughter with a depression, though to ascribe any control to myself over that is ridiculous. Kathleen says, “Just let it all out. You can’t distinguish the two. This is not a time for that.” Good advice, I think. I try to take it.

Someday I will stop crying, I guess. Or maybe never. I was once a star in this world, a power, a doctor over other doctors, a paid musician and teacher of poets, and now I am what? A small voice in the wilderness? A pinpoint on the Net?

Did I mention how the Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference spent three days crushing my dreams during the weekend between Rachel’s viewing and memorial? I had paid extra to meet with an agent for half an hour. Her first words to me? “You’re in the wrong business.” And why did she say that? Because on my application I had the temerity to say “I want to make money writing.” Most writers don’t make money, so I was told. I think I knew that.

I gave the first ten pages of my thriller to another agent, and she e-mailed me to say it lacked “pageturnability,” that too soon I segued into some philosophical tangent. Me? C’mon. I’m as literal as concrete.

I was well received for my music at the Art in the Gardens festival, through which I sleepwalked just as I have been sleepwalking through life since Rachel died, except when I break down, which I think is a kind of waking. To stay busy, to move my body, to take the girls to interesting places, this is all good. But when the carousel stops the lack of motion assails me with all the inertia of death.

“Pray for us sinners at the hour of our death.”


Like Rachel, I am a dreamer. I, too, think the world is unfair and that Peter Pan should never grow old, that Puff the Dragon should not be deserted. Unfortunately, to be too enamored of childhood is against nature, which cautions: “grow or die.” Part of my great grief for Rachel is the knowledge of how painful it was for her to negotiate the world while her deepest psyche was dominated by a vision of an overidealized childhood, which became a lost paradise.

Expulsion from paradise is initially separation from the womb, after which comes psychological, and ultimately, with the cessation of nursing, a new kind of physical separation from the mother. Later childhood Freud called "the latent period," as ages 5 - 12 are fairly conflict free. It is the age of Tom Sawyer and Harry Potter. It is the adulthood of childhood, where the illusion of independence is encouraged and supported by the family on which the child actually depends.

The terror of independent identity dominates adolescence, which is the process of finding an adult personality: who you will be for the rest of your life. Failing this last stage means too much dependence on others for the rest of your life (though we are all dependent to a degree). Some remain, intrapsychically, at an earlier stage where separation and independence have not truly been achieved, where only merging insures safety. And the price of that missed stage is often drama, testing those who love you to reaffirm an intense merging, usually through reciprocal emotional pain--accusation, forgiveness and resolution--to be repeated over and over.

Unlike Rachel I grew up too independent, unable to ask for help, afraid to be a bother. Perhaps depression is in part nature's revenge for my claiming emotional independence at too early an age. But that's who I was; it's not as if I chose it.

Unfortunately my early independence did not make me any better at the practical details of life, since I, too, am essentially a dreamer. At 52 I have no money saved and no health insurance. I am often charged with overdraft fees of $35 from my bank. I have not bothered myself about the practical aspects of life; they have never particularly interested me, though when too long neglected they always bite me in the ass. This dereliction towards reality may or may not be part of a poet’s nature, though I now refer to myself as an ex-poet, though that newly assumed mantle has more to do with the practice of poetry than my nature. Even in my grief I have resisted the urge to poetry.

Here’s an unpublished poem about an interaction with Rachel when she was perhaps three years old, one editors have never favored but one that I won’t delete:

Home Surgery

Daughter, when I freed
the glass sliver from your heel
you screamed, you shook, your foot lurched—
so I gripped your ankle with all the firmness
love could muster.

Plucked from your sole, the fragment shone
like a jewel in the bathroom light
while blood streamed, mixed with water,
into the white altar of the sink.

At the moment you hurt more
from my maneuvering,
did you doubt me?

That thought wounds my heart
more deeply than the matador
can bury his long blade.

No doubt the poem is too direct, even maudlin for today’s sensibilities. It is what it is, a record of a parent who must inflict pain to deliver a child from more pain, which requires a great deal of trust. For all her trust in me, Rachel was the kind of child who would prefer to let a sliver fester than have it out due to her fear of pain. As she grew older, even the pain of a lecture or punishment was too much for her to bear so that her feeling of being hurt made her forget the point of the lesson. As I’ve said before, she was too much like the Princess and the Pea, except that she could do with an imaginary pea.

Kathleen and I had such trust with Kenyon. When I performed surgery on him in Mexico after the veterinarians had bungled the job twice, the anesthetic wore off before I finished stitching up his chest. He looked at me but never moved; his eyes trusted me implicitly. Animals are so much easier.

In her defense, Rachel could be convinced of the right thing to do, the right path to take, the responsible decision, and with all her heart she would commit herself to that course of action. But within a day she would usually forget her former resolve and go wandering about seeking another solution, as if the problem had never been addressed. I made so many lists for her in her life, partly due to her ADD, since she had only 20% of normal auditory memory, which makes teaching a difficult thing. I am amazed when my daughter, Sarah, does something after being asked once, and yet that is the norm (within the limits of willful disobedience).

I promised I would not turn this blog into a journal of grief about Rachel, but if I write from the heart I have little choice at present. And the writer’s drama is now, for those who have been following my blog: Will CE again succumb to depression? And for how long? And with the complication of grief, can his chemicals possibly be balanced? Will he feel hope again? Will he feel like a useful engine someday?

One thing I fear is that I may be down for the count, damaged and depressed in some fashion for the rest of my life. I’ve always come back before but I’ve never had a blow like this follow so soon after a nascent recovery from an extended depression.

Will I retreat into myself more and more, keeping the world at bay, avoiding participation? Or will I strike out once more in the hopes of feeling human again?




  1. Anonymous11:53 PM PST

    Hi C.E.,

    I found your blog and I am fascinated with your words, your "condition", your grief, your poetry.

    a thought you might like: I read how you feel about your daughters - aaah - how I wished I could have heard that from my father.

    A man who loves and needs his daughters is a man whose life is worth something.


  2. Indeed. I loved them so much that they rarely call me; I think good parents are often taken for granted in young adulthood. But they know they can call me anytime--though usually no news is good news. In a crisis I get a call right away.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!



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