The Limits of Knowing

This post is about suicide and mental health issues.

I was listening to the live stream of Roxane Gay speaking in New York last night at the PEN World Voices Festival. She said “When you write and gain attention for it, it can be really overwhelming because everyone thinks they know you when they do not.”

She writes about very personal issues  – of her sexual assault, her body issues, her feminism. Even with some intimate issues subjected to the public eye, she is a private person. She said that what she puts out in the world, she’s prepared to have out in the world. Managed discretion. Personal boundaries.

canstockphoto7950236I began to think about how much I’ve written on this blog about my childhood and my personal development struggles – about what gets edited out, the issues I skirt, the misdeeds that I leave in the recesses of my brain, but mostly the dark moments when I think I just want to rest. I don’t want to struggle anymore. I’m so tired of feeling this way.

I’m at a point in my life when I recognize this creature, this mental hobgoblin that lures me with the idea that it could all stop. It took my father in his late 30s, nearly took my mother in her teens, called to me repeatedly as a teenager, and beckoned me to sit on the bathroom floor with a straight razor in hand when I was 23.

Once, when I talked about my depression with a friend, she asked if I wanted her to call a crisis line. She didn’t realize that she was the crisis line. This embarrassed me and felt like a betrayal of intimacy, this lack of understanding. Some people don’t know that to say something out loud is to lessen its power in one’s head. Perhaps it is an unfair burden. That incident stigmatized me for several years, made me crack jokes even as I felt the darkness descending.

canstockphoto14959499People are still surprised when those with celebrity status and/or material fortunes commit suicide. It doesn’t surprise me at all. That suicide is on the rise in this country is also not a surprise. When we know people by their production values, their presentation, we don’t see the cutting room floor. We don’t see those moments of despair when the cameras are off and the distracting crowd goes away.

The only value in me writing about this perhaps lies in the fact that I am still here, at age 50, over a decade older than my father when he composed a 17-page suicide note, closed the garage door, attached a hose to the exhaust, and asphyxiated. I am here, writing, reading, living with a family who loves me. I am here, still in the struggle to stay out of the shadows. I am here to experience joy, surprise, delight, and sometimes a comforting sort of melancholy that does not overwhelm me, but fills me instead with words.

The odds were against me. My parents met as patients at an outpatient psychiatric clinic. My family history is riddled with mental illness. In my late teens and early twenties, I began to self-medicate with booze. A drunk who could go from an acquaintance’s bed to brawling to blackout in the course of one evening. I leaned on compulsive tendencies to fill this inexplicable void – a void that leaked like a sieve.

canstockphoto8316983On the outside, I showed up on time, I worked hard, I laughed and smiled. I had friends and boyfriends and ambitions. Then there were the weekends when I could not get out of bed. I would not answer the phone or the door. The curtains were drawn closed. Every nerve was dulled. I stayed in a cocoon of darkness and silence, because anything else took too much energy.

This absence of life, of feeling, this moment in space where nothing matters, is the stage needed for the hobgoblin to do his act. It starts out with the idea of darkness that seems warm and comforting compared to all the pain, the sharp edges, and the endless road of sameness ahead. It gives us visions of our futures – futures filled with the same kind of wounds we are experiencing at the moment. Why go on?

The thing is, we’re not very good at predicting outcomes and depression lies its ass off. I had no idea that I would go on to a life that gifts me every day. I had no idea that I would feel loved or that I’d wake up feeling pretty good. I had no idea that I’d get opportunities over and over to create a better life for myself. In the darkness, I could see nothing, just those emotions I had in that minute.

Like so many people, I’m tempted to write good advice, post suicide prevention numbers, go on about the state of our mental health system. That information is out there, everywhere now. But for the person who is in that moment, all of that means nothing. It takes energy and wherewithal to call a number, find a therapist, get help. Those are all good things to do, positive things to do, but those things rarely happen on the razor’s edge.

I am here now, because I waited.

Perhaps I understood something, because of my family, not in spite of them. I understood the volatility of emotion, the impermanence of situations, the idea of nothingness – the space where nothing would ever change again. I waited. And when I was able to get off that bathroom floor, it wasn’t with clarity of purpose. It was all based on maybe. Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow, maybe something will be different. I was not prepared to give up my maybes.

canstockphoto9737189When I was strong enough, I sought help. I learned tools to cope with the vagaries of my mind. I built a gentle life that gave me room to care for myself in those darker moments. I asked for help. I learned to give words to these feelings and found people who did not shy away when I spoke.

I did not know where my life would go and I don’t know what it will be in the future. Circumstances can change on a dime. What I do know, is that no hobgoblin gets to take away my maybe.

Anatomy of a Depression

It’s hard to write from a place of depression. Whatever anyone thinks they know about depression, they can really only know their own. Mine comes in many shades. This particular one is a verdant green. The gray dullness I feel is made more pallid by the contrast of a lush Minnesota summer, when the rain has come at all the right times.

Already I – have become tired of such a deep-colored summer.

In the grove the masses of royal fern – have grown up to

their full height and

underneath them

I suppose such things as beetles, frogs, and blue-green

dwarves are walking.

This greenness like a sea

must have totally dyed the expression of my eyes.

Sei Itō, Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry

canstockphoto43309768It’s like being in the middle of a really great party, but no one can hear or see you. I feel untouched by happiness, retreating further into the recesses of my mind. Life becomes this out-of-body experience and I used to fear that if I didn’t hold on, force myself back out, I’d just drift away. But my energy is low, even while my brain generates worst case scenarios by the second.

I’ve long ago abandoned the idea that I should feel this way or that. This is emotional freedom. My life is now constructed in such a way that my depression isn’t a spectator sport. I can pull weeds without expression, fold laundry mindlessly, make a meal in silence. I can think my dark thoughts and not have to apologize or try to ameliorate the worry of someone else. I can go dark and quiet and unnoticed.

My experience gives me the edge when it comes to the regular dead space that overtakes me. I know it will end. I’ve been through this so many times, that I know I will likely wake up tomorrow in an entirely different place. This keeps my depression from becoming something more dangerous. It makes it less dramatic or interesting, which is something I don’t take for granted.

canstockphoto5410688Some depressions I slide into, requiring days of numbness to finally force my acknowledgement. Some, like where I’m at now, happen snap-quick when an incident knocks away my self-assurance, uncorking tumble-down thoughts that I was filled with at a young age. I am not good enough and making mistakes just proves that.

In this case, I said something that I thought was funny, but I hurt the person’s feelings. I apologized and maybe in a differently-wired brain that would be the end of it. We moved on from it, but I stayed with the thought that I am mean-spirited and that I can’t trust myself to be around other people. That I can’t trust other people.

It triggered an anxiety attack. I would not be loved unless I made myself more worthy. How do I make myself worthy? Strive for perfection. Strive to be better. I put myself through a punishing workout. I worked harder getting the house in order. I tried not to speak unless necessary. Intellectually I know I’ve gone off my nut, but intellect is only one part of the human operating system. In less than 24 hours after an innocuous exchange, I am in the murky waters of depression.

Sometimes a depression is already brewing, in search of a trigger. I never know if I’m in the beginning or at the end, until the fog lifts.

I have a family history of depressive and personality disorders. Some of us have chosen medication and some, like me, have willingly allowed ourselves to live with it. And in some cases, embrace it. Not being a hugger, I’m willing to give it a pat on the arm and think, get on with it.

canstockphoto20314927It may be my superstition that if I give up the fog, I may not have the sharp clarity and energy that follows. It’s a common rationale for manic-depressives, unwilling to treat the depression because the treatment dulls the mania. With a milder version of it (cyclothymia), I am less willing to give up those moments when intricate thoughts wend themselves through my brain and words hurl themselves onto the page.

To an outsider, it might seem an untenable life and in the early years, when my life was less stable and circumstances more dire, it was. I would desperately try to medicate myself – booze, smoking, men, food, shopping, gambling. But at some point I made different choices and one of those choices was figuring out how to make room for my brain chemistry. I found people who didn’t press when I wanted to be alone. I sought help when I couldn’t help myself.

I learned to give myself permission to just be and observe. It has become a meditation canstockphoto26470846unto itself. I unwind the monologues that run through my head, acknowledging with gentleness each twisted perspective, diatribe, miscue, mistake, and loads of dubious self-pity. I’ve learned to tease myself “Yes, yes, you are a horrible person. Yes, that trip to Greece with the drunken boyfriend was a huge mistake. Yes, you really are quite the lumpy hausfrau. Yes, the world is an awful, awful place.” Yes, dear, lay it all out on the table.

And all these things that have been tucked away, the failures and the embarrassments, lay there, inert and powerless. And I see them for what they are – old stories. It reminds me of the Alfred Hitchcock short story collections: Stories to Stay Awake By, Stories to be Read with the Lights On, Stories to be Read with the Door Locked. These are my depression stories and I know them by heart.

And soon, they will shuffle back to their shelves, the fog will evaporate and I will remember the other stories where I do the best I can and that is enough.


The Nostalgia of Depression

canstockphoto8316983There are mornings when I wake up and I feel low. Something rotten I did years ago pops in my head and I cringe. Or I get a birds-eye view of my life and it looks less like happy mediocrity and more like grist for the mill of humanity. Small, unimportant, irrelevant, pointless. I remember news stories that illustrate how awful the world is and imagine all the cruelties happening at this very minute.

This is what depression looks like for me. It’s not debilitating. I recognize it for what it is, just a familiar shadow that darkens my doorstep on occasion. It’s the not-so-secret secret I’ve lived with my whole life.

As I’ve aged, my depression is less something I fight, get over, work through or fix. I lay down with it. I settle in. I ride it out. I end sentences in prepositions, smile slightly at my moroseness, eat comfort food and talk to friends.

Even in my depression, I recognize my good fortune. I know in the present that it will end. I know at my core that the next morning or the next or the next, I’ll wake up, the veil lifted from my eyes, the fog from my brain – everything will be okay.

I come from a family where everyone is officially and unofficially diagnosed with something. We talk about it openly, with an odd note of pride that we have a solid grasp of who we are.  We nurture twisted humor, a buffer against the realities of mental illnesses.

We speak of “funks” and moods, of OCD and bipolar as if talking about vacation plans. Some of us have tried medications, rehab, old-school sanitariums. We know the twelve steps, tough love, interventions and rock bottom. Many of us drank, did drugs, ate too much, gambled, slept around, lost jobs, lost children. Some of us died.

Dysfunctions, addictions, dcanstockphoto5275349isorders – this is the language we know each other by. We were ahead of the cultural shift, talking about things that other people were masking behind tight smiles. Sometimes I feel that my depression is all that binds me to my family history.

My father committed suicide. I didn’t know him well. He left when I was 5. I found him years later, but it was too late for a relationship. I was embittered by abandonment to an abusive stepfather. My nervous smile when meeting him masked a simmering rage.

A few months after seeing me for the first time since my childhood, he killed himself. It left an indelible scar. The 5-year-old in me saw causation, correlation. I was unlovable when he left and unlovable when I found him again. I learned years later that this hadn’t been his first attempt. It wasn’t about me… it wasn’t about me…

For the first decade and a half of my adult life, I drank a lot. I smoked. I took risks. I did not care for myself. I survived because I am a gritty soul, finding humor in the darkest corners and with a self-perception that was eventually my saving grace. I found friends along the way – crutches, muses, bandages, lost souls like me. I learned that whatever lurked in my mind, it was survivable.

History. Depression opens it wide. Every loss, every bad relationship, every thing I’ve ever done that was unkind, dishonest or thoughtless, rises to the surface. I’ve never found a way to settle those ghosts once and for all. Some of them, I just think wryly “hello, there old friends”. Others make me foul-tempered. Enough already.

It used to be that when I felt like this, I’d fix myself a hot cup of coffee and have a smoke. It soothed me, this ritual of caffeine and nicotine. The long, slow draw made me breathe, sighing smoke and sinking into thought.

canstockphoto23114415I gave up smoking years ago. I gave up regular booze about the same time. Then I couldn’t sleep and had to cut back on caffeine. I focus on getting exercise. I write the rawness away. I indulge myself with comfort food and entertainment until I can no longer sit still. Until the fog is burned off by the sunlight.

My depression isn’t what it used to be. Binge watching Burn Notice with a plate of mashed potatoes, is a far stretch from the good ole’ days of waking up hungover and wondering where I’m at or where I’ve been. These days, I know where I’ve been and I know the shadow that sits comfortably beside me. It won’t always be there, but it will likely always come back. I’ve traded in destructive coping for active self-care.

I’ve lived long enough so that this trickster of the mind, this misstep of synapses and neurotransmitters, has mellowed with age. I’m one of the lucky ones.


National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline:
1 (800) 950-6264

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

Forces of Nature, Forces of Nurture

Last Friday, I drove blindly home through monsoon-like conditions. There was no visibility, just the horizontal stream of rain and gale force winds. The storm came out of the blue. I left the Home Depot just as normal rain began. Five minutes later, I was jerking the steering wheel to avoid crashing tree branches and the rush of water across the road. I couldn’t see beyond the front of the car, but I feared rising water or falling power lines would strand me. I knew the roads by heart and could wend myself home at a crawl. Once I arrived home, closed the garage door and shut off the car, I rested my head on the steering wheel, shaken and relieved.

The storm came on the heels of a recent family visit. I drove hundreds of miles to see family members I had not seen for a few years. I had been anxious in the weeks prior. The separation of time and distance had allowed me to become more of who I wanted to be – to have the family that I wanted to have. My fear was that what I had grown, together with my husband and daughter – a family built on respect and love and kindness – would be made less than by an offhand comment or reminder of what kind of person I really was – angry, judgmental, unkind, selfish, fat, ugly, cruel and responsible for that which befell my family of origin.

It seems silly, at my age and with my life experience, to be turned into a sulky 14 year old with an axe to grind (albeit not the Lizzie Borden kind).  I’m perceptive enough to know that it might happen, intelligent enough to run through the emotional tools at my disposal and yet I still want to run away and hide my nose in a book. Every family has its history, both negative and positive, but as I recounted mine to a friend over coffee the other night, I realized that no – my family is pretty damned weird. Suicide, murder, mental illness, drug and alcohol addictions, unwanted pregnancies…some people would call it colorful. I find it weighty and gray and have spent my life trying to separate from it.

I once read that dealing with people who have mental illness is like dealing with a force of nature. Without blame, without negative characterization, with an acceptance that it just is. As a bystander, raised on fear and unpredictability, the best that I can do is to stay out of the way and not put myself in the path of destruction. I have many friends, off and online, who deal with depression and bipolar disorders. The key phrase is deal with. With borderline or narcissistic personality disorders, you, the bystander, are the one who gets dealt with and turned around, until you feel like the problem is yours. They take on a “what me worry?” persona, while you’re left scrambling to find your footing. Acceptance, compassion, self-protection  – it’s the necessary trifecta to come out the other side with your marbles intact.

Like the roads I crept down during the storm, the journey home, to the life I now live, is known to me. The path is well-trodden. The whispers that tell me I’m not good enough, that I should have done more, will sink into the crevices of my mind. I will be depressed and moody for awhile, until the present engulfs the past and I shove it back in the corner. Will I ever feel right? Will I ever feel like I belong in this fortunate life? Will I ever believe that it’s okay for me to be happy? My Buddha mind notices these recurring fears with curiosity and affection and softly reminds me that I have passed through the storm and that I am home. Shaken, but relieved.canstockphoto6502520

Ambivalent Love


It’s the month of February, a month for wiping out huge inventories of red roses and setting false romantic gestures in motion. I haven’t written much about love and romance, because, with the exception of my husband, I have a long history of being quite awful at it. That’s a subject for another day. Or never.

There’s a kind of love that is harder to practice than all the rest. There are people in my life that make love a challenge, a constant renegotiation to see their positive sides, to recognize their intent versus what actually happens or is said. We all have them – friends or family that don’t make it easy to love them.

Many years ago, shortly after having my daughter, I decided to talk to a family therapist. Some issues of childhood had reared their ugly Medusa-like heads and I desperately wanted to be a good parent. I was involved in a dysfunctional volley of exchanges with someone I wanted to believe could change. I quit acquiescing and started to challenge this person’s behavior.

I come from a long history of mental illnesses and substance addictions. The easiest people to love were the ones that married into our families, but often, due to the aforementioned issues, those people came and went on a fairly regular basis. We got glimpses of normal behavior – just enough to know that normal would be an ambitious goal for anyone in our family.

I have compassion and understanding for those that suffer from mental illnesses. I’m all for social justice and a better system to identify and support people who need assistance and kindness and compassion. When it’s in my face though, infiltrating every corner of my world, exhausting me at every turn, calling me names, stealing my money and holding me hostage to drama, I can feel very hardhearted.

It’s hard to love someone who can only take. They’re so knee-deep in their own shit that they can’t see anything else. You long for them to be interested in your smart, delightful daughter or what you have written or to appreciate what a kind, decent man you have married. But it doesn’t happen. They never ask about your life during phone calls and when they do, it’s a perfunctory nod before they go into their own tales of woe.

Growing up, I was good at being a fixer, a mediator of sorts. This role followed me and even after I left home, I’d get letters letting me know everything that was going wrong, being asked to intervene on this person’s behalf or that. As a kid, I felt important and needed and valued in that role. As an adult, I was frustrated and angry and I’d swear that I wouldn’t get sucked in again. Until the next desperate phone call.

This self-importance gave me a way of positioning myself, a way of seeing how I fit into the world, a false sense of superiority over those more troubled than I. Until my troubles came. Instead of saving everyone else, I had to save myself. If they threw me bricks instead of life preservers, I shut them out. I quit a dead-end job, an off-again on-again relationship, and moved farther away. Emotionally, I might as well have been in outer space, unreachable.

I needed that time to establish my own identity. It’s a natural process as we become adults to see those boundaries. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I recognized that it was even okay to have boundaries -that it was okay not to be a dumping ground for everything wrong in one’s family.

I got married. I became a parent. And my heart softened. I again longed for connections to those people that I had loved my whole life. I longed for some sense of normalcy – family holidays, pictures of all of us in one place, children laughing and playing together, running around the dining room table. I longed for stupid Norman Rockwell. I longed for something that never existed.

Re-entry was horrible and painful and left me heartbroken. The sickening realization came over me that there would never be another family gathering, except possibly for funerals. Even then, we’d stand shoulder to shoulder, like strangers on a subway.

My daughter would likely never know many of her cousins or aunts and uncles. People had begun dying in sad, awful ways before she was born. My father committed suicide. Alcoholism had killed several others. I was left with a handful of people with whom relationships were difficult, uncomfortable and frustrating.

Romantic love, when you’re both ready and right for each other, is easy. Day-to-day love can be challenging at times, but you learn and adjust to the others’ needs. Family love inside this house is very easy. We work together, squabble on occasion, but for the most part, we have each others’ backs.

Loving people that don’t have social skills, who are so mired in their own worlds that they can’t imagine you existing outside of their universe, who only come to you when they need something – that is a tougher kind of love. Loving people that seek to lash out, to cause harm, to damage everything in their path, is nearly impossible.

While in therapy,  I ran across a passage in a book (I wish I could recall the source) that has stayed with me for many years. It referred to treating someone with mental illness like a force of nature. You wouldn’t stay in the path of a tornado, just in case it changes direction. You’d get out of the way, seek shelter and protect yourself. You can’t love a mental illness away. You can’t empathize self-destruction out of someone.

I had more leeway in my life for drama before having my own family. I’m at a time of life when things are the busiest – a young child at home, aging relatives to care for, juggling career goals with family goals, trying to accept that it’s okay to be happy, even when those people that I love are not. But the longing never goes away, no matter how much I intellectualize things.

I love them and I miss them. I’ve helped all I could manage. I’ve listened for as long as I can listen. I will rally myself for another round. I don’t want to enable or to judge. I recognize that their lives can be painful and difficult and I do feel compassion. It’s a hard kind of love.


Being a Gentle Warrior

We seek happiness by believing that whole parts of what it is to be human are unacceptable. We feel that something has to change in ourselves. However, unconditional joy comes about through some kind of intelligence in which we allow ourselves to see clearly what we do with great honesty, combined with a tremendous kindness and gentleness.

Pema Chödrön, American Buddhist Nun

It’s been a long and challenging week, hence no posts the last few days. The flu plague that came to dinner has been reluctant to leave our house. Accumulating bodily injuries have left me limping and shuffling about like Quasimodo on his slow trek to the bell tower. No broken bones, just a foot injury, forced rehab and a break from high impact activities. Cumulatively, it has sent me into a mild depression.

I badly need that runner’s high and the adrenalin I get from sparring at taekwondo. I am so overwhelmed with “to do” lists that I do nothing. My desk pile has spread like some sort of mildewy growth. My writing is excruciating. My brain operates sluggishly, completely uncooperative, rife with doubt and dullness. This is where the bottom is for me.

When I hit mental bottom, it is in my nature to assume I must get up and duke it out with the saboteurs in my brain that make me unproductive and resistant to taking proper care of myself. I mean, haven’t we all been taught that it’s all about willpower and discipline? The problem with this reaction is that it usually doesn’t work and only ends up making me feel worse. I am learning to make friends with my dark, obstreperous side. And to gently coax myself into affirming behaviors, while riding out the malaise.

I turn to the very basics: Sleep, water, good nutrition and gentle exercise. I’ve made it through the first two steps, which explains why I was up once an hour last night. It’s like Rock, Paper, Scissors – small, aging bladder always beats restful sleep. Today, I’ve got to work on the last two steps. I’ve dutifully thawed out salmon, taken my vitamins and plan on doing some juicing today (the icky vegetable kind) and yoga is on the agenda after leaf-raking and pumpkin carving.

My sole work goal today: clear my desk, so that I start off the week with no hidden worries that I’ve forgotten something underneath that pile. My desk is wonderfully representative of my brain. I am concise and clear and organized when I have a pen and a notebook and little else on the desk. When not a clear spot can be seen on the desk, I’m overwhelmed and struggling. By cleaning it off, I’m taking a stand against paralyzing stress and shaking my mental cobwebs loose.

The approach of gentleness, compassion and curiosity about the destructive side of my nature is a relatively new idea for me. With my family history of mental illness and substance abuse, I have operated constantly on the defensive against any suggestion or possibility that I might have my own issues. I would force march myself out of bouts of depression and make too many commitments during periods of mild mania. It was demoralizing and I was always at odds with myself, constantly battling my demons.

Now, when the depression comes, I let it roll like a gentle wave over me. I know it will pass and I remind myself to focus on one step at a time. I try to be kind, not self-flagellating. When the mania comes, I have learned to say “no” even when my impulse is to say “yes”. I enjoy the energy and the level of productivity, and take advantage of the creativity. I am lucky to be able to manage things this way. Low environmental stressors and regular exercise keep the ups and downs as hills, not mountains.

I often write of battles and fights and struggles. I am learning that being strong does not mean showing physical toughness or saying hard words. Being a true warrior means that you have the courage to face who you are and to learn to work with your weaknesses, as well as your strengths. Sometimes that just means cleaning off your desk and giving your mind space to imagine life on the other side.