Ruminant With A View
by Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
Note: This column, in a slightly different form, appeared in another international publication in 2010.
I am in my crib, in a warm, comfortable room filled with light and toys and the morning sounds of Southern California wafting in through a lace-curtained window, and I have awakened screaming from a terrible, terrible dream. Crushed by the weight and soft mass of toys—belovéd stuffed animals—I have been smothered to death in my own little bed.
How I could even imagine this thing before the advent of any darkness in my life, I still have no clear idea. Perhaps the toys did, in fact, fall down around me one night, and I woke in a breathless panic. But how could I imagine death, my own, at two or three? How could I imagine and fear something I had no name for?
And this is not the only dream. There is, was, another that dates from before childhood, from infancy.
I am caught in the middle of what I can only describe as a plain, a vast, flat, dark plain, and I am moving to and fro between two forces, light and dark, which, advancing upon one another, catch me in the middle. There is no escape, I know, and my destruction is assured. The space in which I can negotiate—back and forth, back and forth—narrows, and the immense forces (I would later call them “armies”) that soon clash crush insignificant me between them. (A Freudian might lecture that this is why infants should not sleep between their parents . . . .)
And, as I say, both these dreams came—and the second, again and again—before I had even language, as though language would be any defense when it came.
So, my life began in luxurious comfort, and fear, in equal measures, with a nightmare at the end of each bright, warm day. The certainty of death, of absolute loss, of annihilation, was there from the very beginning, hovering. And it was a certainty that snuffed out any others, taking all warmth out of the comfort that surrounded me; all sweet distraction out of each stuffed animal.
Whatever metaphor I could imagine for myself, for life, and I imagined them one after another, was existentially dark. I was a happy, funny, loving and belovéd—and “brilliant”; never forget brilliant—but very depressed child. From the very beginning. I had a wry sense of humor, an explosive talent for language, but wore also a rictus of pain, if only sometimes visible. If most of us are granted the gift of unknowing in our early years, I was outside that pale, my small mouth opened in a Munchian scream.
My father was a therapist, and there would be many subsequent therapists in my life, beginning in early adolescence, when my-father-wearing-his-professional-hat determined, beyond doubt, that what his daughter suffered from was depression.
Even this simple diagnosis was tricky largely because I have “grown up alongside psychiatry” in my half-century—and even feel I’ve stolen an intellectual march on the “science” over the course of the last decade. But, finally, what I suffer from is simply, undeniably, and largely incurably, depression.
Not a rose, by any name.
At first, the diagnostics and the therapeutic options were all too bulky and primitive for this particular patient and her illness. Hard to pick up a small, sick, fragile insect to treat it without killing it. Now, diagnosis has matured and psychiatrists have largely emerged from the vast forests of their formerly idiosyncratic and egotistical -isms and schisms: now, they can actually see the trees (and handle the insects with more precise instruments).
But that doesn’t mean the medications have kept pace. In my five decades as an impatient outpatient mental patient, I have suffered professional fools of all stripes, landing, at long last, in the office of a
man who knows he’s trying to perform intracranial surgery with fire tongs when he comes at me with the 21st century’s drugs. But it’s all we have, he and I, and, sometimes, things get bad enough for me to submit to rough expediencies.
I have called depression my “indigo twin” and, sometimes, the name, the metaphor, is useful, if imprecise. It is as though I had been born with a twin only superficially human, and decidedly blue; a sibling who shadows me night and day, always there, always “mine,” and like mein every respect (when emergent) but one. Color. She is blue. Dead.
Cold. With hands of ice. And her fingers are round my neck in a loving embrace. I am alive. She is dead. And I carry her always with me, her dead, dead weight. She is my past, and my certain future. I lie down with her every evening, and pull up and away from her every morning. And one morning, we will both fail to rise, and she will have “won,” dragging me down into the blue depths from which she, but not I, came, but to which we will both certainly, inevitably descend.
If there was—were?—ever a causal event, an occurrence, that set this poison adrift in my system, which “depressed me, I have no memory of it. But, surely, I experienced far less in terms of early loss, grief and anguish than 99 percent of the beings on my planet. Even The Buddha’s beginnings were less comfortable, less cosseted, I believe.
But, if I search for a “cause,” a “prime mover” in my depression, it is not in the realm of events, I think; nor even, though I go right against the grain here, in biology. I was born looking death in the teeth. But the condition is not quite like diabetes (juvenile), nor childhood epilepsy—not quite. It’s not a question of brain or bones, but of mind, and our species hasn’t really got round to what to call mind, yet, though I doubt it’s a “thing.”
I simply feel I was born “knowing”: Fey, in some way. I was born old, informed, well before my time, of the existential dilemma. In on a bad secret. To carry the metaphor just a step further, I was born with two minds, of two minds, one of which repeated, over and over, to the other, and not therapeutically: “This, too, shall pass: and then there will be nothing.”
All losses, all deaths, all sorrows that I experienced in life were not causes of this depression, this world view, this bleak certitude, but merely served to validate it. They were evidence, proof, for a premise I latched on to at birth.
In 1972, my father, an uncle, two aunts and a great aunt all died. In a year’s time. I divorced the homosexual classmate I had, unwitting, married at 19. I succumbed to an autoimmune illness and was hospitalized, crippled. But I was depressed long before these “events,” these so-called “life experiences.”
In my case, the horse came well before the cart.
Still, it was in that year that I made my first attempt on my life, my indigo twin whispering to me that, if I would only come with her, the pain would cease. I, and my therapist at the time, made valiant efforts to mount a defense, and I came up with the one line of prose that I have used as a weapon (or a spell?) against my “sibling” ever since (in all subsequent tangles with her): “Today is not tomorrow.” In other words, the prognosis (for us all) is bleak, but we have a little time before the curtain comes down.
“Today is not tomorrow” is something like “Make hay while the sun shines,” or “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” It is me pleading with my twin, with death, to let me live out my little proscribed span on earth, but to let me live it till the end. It is the only weapon I can use to prize my twin’s strong fingers from about my jugular.
“Let up, will you, Sis! Don’t kill me, us, while we still have some breath in us! You, Death,will have your day—and perhaps even tomorrow. But not, I think, today.”
And who knows, perhaps tomorrow will bring some new approach, some new therapy, some pill, that will relax the blue one’s embrace; still her chilly lips in their constant hissing kiss; silence my determined twin; release me.
My fondest hope is that I really was born an only child, and will be once again. Alone. Hopeful. And fully alive, if only for the moment.
Note: Early in March, the author entered an N.I.H. drug trial which will consider two drugs in the battle against depression (as well as recalcitrant post-operative back pain): Ketamine (an anesthetic gaining new, 21st-century attention as a “club drug” called “Special K”); and a second medication currently approved only for the treatment of A.L.S., or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” (for further information on the Ketamine study, see: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/science-news/2007/faster-acting-antidepressants-closer-to-becoming-a-reality.shtml and http://www.psychweekly.com/aspx/article/ArticleDetail.aspx?articleid=463 and http://www.technologyreview.com/Biotech/19156/?a=f). Watch this space for updates, as this depressed Yogini, with her recently fused and still excruciatingly painful broken back, heads off to Washington DC.