Thursday, May 17, 2007

advanced calculus

About a month ago, I checked in with the doctor who monitors my antidepressants feeling reasonably confident: I made it all winter without feeling seriously depressed, which is a first in the last six years. I instigated a conversation about cutting back on one of my medications to see how I would tolerate it. He remained neutral about the idea, but willing to follow my hunch, so we set up a two or three month timetable to wean me off the pill. The first step was to cut the pills in half each morning. When I opened the bottle after breakfast the next morning, I couldn’t do it. This week, I’m grateful I trusted my second hunch. The storm clouds are gathering; they don’t call them tropical depressions for nothing, I guess.

Learning about my depression meant learning that sometimes it grew out of circumstance and sometimes it ambushed me through my body chemistry. The source doesn’t necessarily make a difference in how it feels for me (in me? to me?), and part of the beginning of making some meaning out of the darkness for me is found in knowing where I am. This time I know the ambiguity of my work situation is exacerbating things. Over the past six years, the one place I have always been able to find solace is in the kitchen and I’ve been scheduled out. I haven’t helped things by allowing myself to postpone going by The Inn to find out what’s really going on. Wednesday I stayed in the garden; today my car stayed in the shop. I’m determined that tomorrow be a Day of Non-Avoidance.

Gordon posted a link to an article on depression by Norman Bendroth posted at Christian Century online, which referenced William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, a book that has also been meaningful to me. Bendroth quotes Styron:

By far the great majority of the people who go through even the severest depression survive it, and live ever afterward at least as happily as their unafflicted counterparts. Save for the awfulness of certain memories it leaves, acute depression inflicts few permanent wounds.
Man, I hope that’s true. Tonight, it doesn’t feel true. Though I first found a name for it a little over six years ago, I can look back now and see a far less visible darkness present in my life for many, many years. I took the MMPI in 1987 and was on the borderline of being clinically depressed my psychologist told me. I knew nothing about depression then and couldn’t imagine that was me. To come to a place now where I can see the darkness has been a part of my life for almost half of my life compels me to see the depression as part of who I am because it has been a significant factor in the calculus of my humanity, to borrow last night’s phrase. It’s in my mind. It’s in my body. It’s in my heart, my soul. It’s not all of me – or even most of me – but it is part of who I am.

I’m six weeks into Weight Watchers and I’ve lost eighteen pounds. Going to the gym and getting on the elliptical trainer is becoming both habit and ritual for me. Though I’m not ready to claim I like working out, I’m happy to say I like the way I feel when I’m done and I can tell a difference because I’m working out. I’m figuring out how to alter my equation of body, mind, heart, and soul to come up with an answer to who I am that is something other than “the fat kid;” it’s working.

I work hard on the calculus of depression as well, but it’s advanced calculus and the truth is I suck at math. I was, however, always pretty good at the word problems because, I suppose, I always liked words better than numbers. The problem here is to figure out how to live with depression, I think, rather than how to get rid of it. When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I heard cancer patients talk about the importance of thinking of themselves as living with cancer rather than dying with cancer; the semantics changed the equation. My mother was clear of her bladder cancer for nine years – long enough to be regarded as officially cured – when it recurred. She beat it again and she lives with cancer.

I live with depression.

As I sat down to write tonight, Ginger was watching the season finale of ER in the other room. The only thing I heard were the strains of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah,” floating in to find me.
Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
That’s it: “It doesn't matter which you heard/ the holy or the broken hallelujah.” In the equation of my life – advanced calculus, if you will – with garden dirt under my fingernails, vocational uncertainty unsettling my brain, the blanket of Ginger’s love surrounding me, and the gathering storm of my depression daring to deluge, holy and broken feel like the same thing.




Jo Young said...

I love that song!
My prayers are with you and Ginger,


Don said...

Hi Milton
I've always loved K.D. Lang's version of that song. She OWNS it when she sings it.
Good luck today with your employment situation.

Anonymous said...

Dear Milton,

I wanted to tell you that your blog inspires me and I check in every day. I am trying to learn to love to cook, and yesterday I loved cooking dinner. My arroz con pollo didn't turn out perfectly, but I want to try again. I pray for sunny weather in your life.

I am grateful to you.

Satchel Pooch said...

Powerful essay, Milton. Thanks.

towanda said...

I think in some way, our human hallelujahs are always broken. That's what makes them so powerful, and so sacred.

Peace --

Cecilia said...

I thank you for your honesty here Milton. Holy and broken: the human condition.

Peace, friend.


Cynthia said...

Depression is a lifelong illness for me, and when I read this entry, I realized that I too have come through months without a serious spell. I disagree with Styron though on the lasting effects of depression. It has changed me, whether I'm deep in its grips or managing it well. I see the world differently. I think that hearts and minds, once broken by this joy sucking illness, heal with new and different sensitivities. Some feel like scars. Others are a blessing. Depression is something you live with, whether it's active or not, and realizing this was a gift for me. For now, all I can say is Praise the Lord and pass me my Prozac. Thanks for yet another wonderful post.

Karen said...

Thanks for the musical education; I only knew that song from a Shrek movie (I think) - who knew it had such awesome lyrics and was by Leonard Cohen?

Think of you two often, and wish there wasn't a big traffic-making city between us. Sympathize with those job issues (I am having some myself). Even went so far as to look around a bit - how would you feel about being a test cook for the Cooks Ilustrated/America's Test Kitchen folks? Check out their Web site:

if you find the thought amusing.

Be well.

aka lucy said...

thank you for this honest and vulnerable post. it felt like a step toward managing the depression rather than having it manage you.

i love the song!

blessings to you this week.