(this post originally appeared on The Gloria Sirens)
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
—Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
In the wake of the 2016 U.S. election—I was going to write “the election,” which has come to be capitalized in my circles, The Election like The Great Depression or The Moon, but then I remembered that people from other countries and, if I’m lucky, other times will read this post—I, like many of my friends, have struggled with my own depression and anxiety. It does not help that I already struggle with those issues, but I know several people who do not have a history with depression yet are having powerful emotional responses to The Election. The U.S. is likely to be led by a person who condoned hatred and violence during his campaign, whose misogyny and bigotry of all varieties is, unfortunately, being confirmed by his choices for political appointees, and who is against a free and truthful press.
I am not normally a particularly political person. Even now, I don’t remember the names of people the president elect has appointed. But I have read books. A lot of books. I took classes on the Holocaust in college. I taught The Handmaid’s Tale. I have always read science fiction, which is often a thinly veiled commentary on contemporary events, as authors spin out what futures might occur if humanity continues in this way. I have some sense of history, and a great imagination. So I cannot help the fear that envelops me when I think about where things in this country could go from here.
And I can’t stop thinking about where things could go from here. My social media feeds are filled with political articles, analysis, and calls-to-action. I don’t watch television, but every online news source features Trump’s newest ridiculous or dangerous act. Public spaces like restaurants, bars, and airports are filled with tvs tuned to news (or “news”). The poet Matthew Zapruder talks about this in his excellent article “Poetry and Poets in a Time of Crisis”:
“…there is a point where it becomes too much, a kind of roar of opinions and fears that does not truly stir us to action or make us more aware. There is a danger to unfettered catastrophizing, which will sap our energy and distract and drain us. On social media and elsewhere, our attention has been monetized, not figuratively but literally, to a personally and societally harmful degree. We are fully in danger of succumbing to the rope-a-dope of the outrage machine. If we aren’t careful, we’ll punch ourselves out by Inauguration.”
The question then becomes, How should we cope?
Zapruder argues for poetry, and I confess that, as a poet, that is precisely where I have gone. Having let my own poetry languish for months, I am recently back to writing poems and revising my old poetry manuscript. I find I need poetry, the way it embraces paradox and contradiction, the way its metaphors encompass my rage and fear and sorrow and make something out of them. Some of the poems I’m writing are “political” in topic, and some aren’t. (Although, as the poet Carl Philips asks, “Can we only be political when we are speaking to specific issues of identity, exclusion, injustice?” In other words: who defines what is a “political” poem and what isn’t?) No doubt, as usual, some of my new poems will end up feeling good enough to submit to magazines, and some won’t. I’m finding that what I need is the act of creation, the turning of my thoughts and feelings and experiences into something. Without this act of creation, I am merely enduring.
Paraphrasing Wallace Stevens, Zapruder also claims that poetry is the way to “preserve within ourselves the necessary space of imagination, possibility, humanity, love, a space that can help us live our lives.” And some of you will know the words of Stevens’ foil, William Carlos Williams, who wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
In that same poem, Williams wrote, “I was cheered / when I came first to know / that there were flowers also / in hell.” Flowers, poetry—these are metaphors, I believe, for what is beautiful, mysterious, created but also somehow a reflection of the human condition, the search for meaning. These are metaphors for all types of art. Others can debate what art is and isn’t, what is the best kind of art, and all the rest of the spectrum of scholarly inquiry and discussion.
What I believe: when you create, you are resisting.Whether it’s music or dance, fiction or poetry or creative nonfiction or plays, paintings or sculpture or film or any number of other art forms, creation is resistance. Creation resists oppression and suppression. Creation resists apathy and nihilism. Creation resists tyrants and control. Because creation is unpredictable. It surprises even the one creating. It makes us smarter. It makes room for a bigger life, an interior life more complex and subtle than the noise of standard media allows. Creation snatches us out of the fast-moving current of mundane daily tasks and deposits us on the riverbank for a time, so we can really look around us, so we can breathe.
So if you have an urge, even a small one, to create—do it now. It doesn’t have to be for public consumption. Make that perfect holiday decoration. Choreograph dance moves with your friends to your favorite song. Sing your own song while you’re folding laundry. And, if you do create for public consumption, don’t listen to the inner voice telling you that now isn’t the right time for such selfish or frivolous pursuits. Now is exactly the time.
Meditation teachers will tell you to find a room and shut your animals out before you sit down to meditate. Too much distraction, they say. You should concentrate on yourself, they say.
I often wonder if those teachers have any pets. Because if you shut a dog out of a room, that’s the only room they want to be in. They scratch at the door, whine, and bark. There’s absolutely no way to meditate with that noise, even if you were so heartless as to keep that door closed when your beloved canine just wants to be with you.
But I’ve had dogs for my entire life. I know what to do when I sit down on my cushion and my little brown-eyed, waggy-tailed wonder comes over for a pat: I pat them, of course. And then I say, “Settle down. Settle down, now.” That’s one of the few commands my little spaniel actually obeys. It helps that she’s a grown up dog and I’ve had her for 9 years.
Cats, on the other hand, do not respond to commands. I’ve lived with this one for a year, and though she’s shy, she’s determined when she wants what my British husband calls “a fuss.” She meows and rubs against my knee, my foot. She flops down on her back and rolls on the carpet, wanting her neck scratched—though not her stomach, not for more than 3 scratches before she gives me a gentle bite to let me know to redirect my attention.
This is my meditation time. I need this meditation to get my head straight, to push loss and worry to the background and exist, for this time, in the present. The present is beautiful and comfortable, with the sun coming through the bedroom window and the lingering smell of my husband’s deodorant and, of course, my two beloved pets adding their contentment to the energy of the room.
I sit cross-legged on my cushion, which a friend gave to me and is just the right height. The dog lies down behind me with a sigh. The cat pushes against my hands, so I fuss her for a minute. I can afford a little time before meditating, and studies show that touching a pet animal lowers blood pressure and contributes in other significant ways to a feeling of calm.
Then I deliberately put my hands on my knees, and close my eyes. I take a deep breath in, centering my attention on the breath, the feel of it going in my throat and expanding my lungs. (Most practitioners feel it going in through the nostrils, but I haven’t been able to breathe regularly through my nose since the 4th grade because of allergies.) I exhale slowly, and—
there’s the cat again. She rubs against my knee and flops down across my bare foot, tickling it. I open my eyes. She’s staring up at me, little white paws drawn up under her chin, in a classic “Aren’t I cute?” pose. I scratch under her chin and on the back of her neck, which is hard to reach but actually where she wants me to scratch. She purrs loudly and squirms around on the floor. My back complains at curling forward, so I straighten up, tucking my chin, lengthening my spine, and close my eyes.
I focus on my breath. In, out. I notice the cat walking away. Good. My mind starts to do that meditation dance, thinking of what I have to do after this (write, get my hair cut, walk the dog, plan the trip out of town next month, figure out a new life plan…) and then, when I notice myself thinking, I gently bring my mind back to focus on my breath. In, out. In, out. And then the dance starts again, replaying a memory jarred loose by my dream last night about clovers, so vivid I get caught up in it until I notice I’m caught in the memory and—
paws on my knee and very loud purring. I open my eyes to a curious, innocent little cat face wondering why I am not fussing her. Why else would I be sitting on the floor?
There’s nothing for it. Today, the cat is part of the meditation. The dance, usually between my thinking mind (“monkey mind” in Buddhist terms) and my observing mind, is, today, between the “fussing the cat” mind and my observing mind. It’s…different from my usual meditation. But maybe it can work. There’s not one single way to meditate. You can’t do it wrong. And the cat gets a lot out of it.
I recently got back from vacation (see my last post!) and one of my friends, as friends will, asked how I was readjusting to being home. I said, “On vacation, every day was about planning how much fun to pack into the day. I wish every day was about that still.”
My friend said, “So how does every day become about how much fun you can pack in? How can we get there?”
It’s easy to blow off a question like that, to joke permanent vacation or win the lotteryor heavy drug use. It’s easy to give up, to accept the “real world” in which vacation is supposed to be different from regular life—the dessert, as it were, to regular life’s green beans and white meat.
But what if we actually think about the question?
So how does every day become about how much fun you can pack in? How can we get there?
. . .
I just spent two hours writing possible ways to “get there,” and then cut it all. Because it all sounds like shallow, vapid advice. I don’t want to be that annoying person trying to cheer you on with a bullhorn and cheap plastic pompoms while you slog through your wild, boring, challenging, excruciating, muscle-straining, eyeball-searing, hilarious, paradoxical days. Life is complex, my friends. I don’t have all the answers. Most days I don’t feel like I have any answers. Most days I don’t think there are any answers.
But I believe, passionately, in asking the questions. I believe in all the uncomfortable pushing and pulling and cutting and sewing involved in making a life. I believe in rejecting the status quo, pushing institutions towards change, and continuing to dream even when it feels like a bully has his boot on your neck and is trying to make you say, “Yes, I accept that this is just the way the world is.” I believe in eating the damn piece of chocolate cake and eating it slowly, savoring every bite. I believe in students majoring in creative writing, literature, music, art, and philosophy. I believe some of my days in the real world of work and home and bills and humidhot Memphis can be like vacation, if I remember to try to have fun, and tell myself it’s ok to want to have fun.
How can we get there? I don’t know. For me, maybe it starts with taking the dog to a nice park for a walk. Or a quiet 30 minutes of meditation. Maybe tomorrow I’ll start a “diary of fun,” a record and a plan. Maybe I’ll set a timer on my phone to go off every 15 minutes, each time displaying the very Buddhist message, “You’re already there.”
A voice on the Orlando shootings that’s full of love and humanity, not politics.
“In my little sheltered American life, I’ve lived through bomb threats, lockdowns, and a few shootings. Most were false alarms. Some kid called in a bomb threat to get out of a test, or a general threat was made to the entire county. An “armed gunman” turned out to be someone from the color guard whose fake rifle was mistaken for a real one by someone. I always figured statistics were on my side.
Tragedy like this, especially when it strikes so near, can make us all afraid again. I hope I find the strength not to become more frightened than I need to be.”
Today is the 12th day since I stopped taking my anti-depressant. Before that I went on half the dose for a month. Before that I was on that particular drug for perhaps 5 months.
I know it is the 12th day because every day for the past 12 days I’ve felt like I had the flu: all the muscles and joints in my body ache, intensely. In fact, for the first 3 days, I thought I did have the flu, because for those days I also had stomach pain. But then the stomach pain receded a good bit while the muscle and joint pain went on, and on. Standing or sitting or lying down, morning or night, with painkillers having negligible effects. The other symptoms include a slight dizziness/fuzziness in my head, which comes and goes, and the tendency to cry, very suddenly, at a stray thought.
And I’m lucky. I don’t have the rages, irritability, brain zaps (hard to describe, apparently, but people know them when they have them), or irrationality that are also common. I did realize there was a good possibility I would have some withdrawal symptoms—research on the web suggests 50-75 percent or more of patients quitting this drug will have symptoms—but I confess, I thought maybe I’d be the exception. I’ve never had a reaction to quitting an anti-depressant—or any drug, really—before. I’m hardly a pale, frail, wispy kind of person; I figured my heft might stand me in good stead, for once. But I was wrong.
It’s scary, how little doctors and scientists seem to know about the brain. Mess with a few chemicals in the brain—ones supposedly having to do with mood, and maybe sleep—and you get…intense physical pain? How does that work, again?
The truly wonderful thing—the thing that makes me know I made the right decision—is that my mood is improved. It improved on the first day after I stopped taking the medicine. Yes, I cry suddenly, and with little provocation—but I bounce back. I cry for a minute or two, but those tears don’t lead down the same old depression-paved path of my own worthlessness that used to waylay me for hours, days, or longer. Any ongoing tears in the last 12 days have been due to the physical pain. And yeah, I do consider that an improvement—though it also reaffirms my admiration for those who live with physical pain daily.
This is NOT an anti-drug rant. I want to make that clear. Whether you take medications to help with your depression or not is up to you and your doctor. The brain, as I said, is complex and little-known, and if individuals can respond so differently to drugs as basic as antibiotics, then you know damn sure individuals will respond differently to anti-depressants.
But for me, it was time to try out my brain without the chemicals. I’ve been grieving my dream career for nearly a year now. I’ve done a lot of work—practicing, reading, attending groups—on meditation and mindfulness. And deep down, I just had an intuition that the drugs were not helping. In fact, I felt like they might be actively hurting my mental health and balance. They had become a heavy weight in the canoe, moving too sluggishly from one side to the other to try to counterbalance my negative thoughts and feelings. In doing so, they kept the canoe from doing what a canoe is, innately, capable of: recovering from the small-to-medium tips after a few dicey moments.
Of course, this was after A LOT of different ways I dealt with, or didn’t deal with, my depression. I tried different prescription medications; vitamins and supplements; exercise; meditation; talk therapy; yoga; and more. Everything had some effect, though it wasn’t always easy to tell what the effect was. Like nearly everyone with depression, my moods weren’t always cause-and-effect. I might not even be able to articulate what made me unable to get out of bed that day—and generally I’m all too good at talking, or at least writing, what I’m thinking and feeling.
How did I get to the point where I was brave or crazy enough to try going off anti-depressants altogether? I’m not entirely sure. Time was a big factor, no doubt. And some amazing things I read and heard and thought and felt. Interestingly, one of the sets of ideas I’m most excited about came after I went off the medicine, when I stumbled on the podcast Invisibilia. If you’ve tried therapy, meditation, or mindfulness—if you’re just interested in thoughts and mood and mental health—listen to the first episode. The examples they include seem extreme at first, not related to most of us, but trust me, the ideas will come back to us “regular folks” and our dark thoughts. (I’ve got too much to say about that episode and how the ideas put some of my own concepts together in new ways, so look for another post about that in the future!)
But here’s the thing: this post has taken me over 10 days to write. To even begin writing. Why? Because writing about my personal experiences with depression is difficult. It’s embarrassing, somehow. I imagine the faces of people as they read this, and their judgments and “solutions” (please remember, problem-solvers out there, how oppressive your suggestions can be to those who are struggling with something as complex as depression). Writing about my experiences with mental health makes me feel inferior, activates my worries about burdening or boring other people, and feels, in short, like walking naked around the grocery store.
So I started a community for people to talk to each other about meditation, mindfulness, and mental health. I know, I know—it seems anti-mindfulness to give you yet another online social network to check. But this isn’t like Facebook or Twitter; the people at Inner Weather have joined specifically because they are interested in these topics. You don’t need to be into all of these things—meditation, mindfulness, and mental health. Maybe just one of them relates to you. Maybe the connections between them are intriguing. Maybe you just want a place where you feel safe telling other people which drug you just went off, and why, and how it’s going, and maybe ask if anyone knows how long the withdrawal symptoms might last. (In my case, it’s very unclear—the company’s own research says that “at least 50 percent will continue to have withdrawal symptoms after two weeks” but not how long after. And yes, if you join Inner Weather, and ask, I’ll tell you which drug it is.)
“I’m working on a memoir about mental illness, and, at times, the process feels like a long, combative, and slightly schizophrenic therapy session. One part of me lies on the couch, reluctant to divulge details. The other part of me sits in the chair, pen poised, grilling my prone self: What did you mean by that? Are you telling the truth? Why are you so defensive? What’s wrong with you?
The analyst part of me can be rather brutal. That’s why me, quivering on the couch, eventually pops up, storms to the door, and cries, You’re just trying to embarrass me. While me in the chair shouts, Wait! We were just getting to the good stuff…”
By Debbie Hagan
I’m working on a memoir about mental illness, and, at times, the process feels like a long, combative, and slightly schizophrenic therapy session. One part of me lies on the couch, reluctant to divulge details. The other part of me sits in the chair, pen poised, grilling my prone self: What did you mean by that? Are you telling the truth? Why are you so defensive? What’s wrong with you?
The analyst part of me can be rather brutal. That’s why me, quivering on the couch, eventually pops up, storms to the door, and cries, You’re just trying to embarrass me. While me in the chair shouts, Wait! We were just getting to the good stuff.
After a few hours of this, I sit back and wonder, have I at last fallen into the black abyss?
Reading Amy Archer’s sassy memoir Fat Girl, Skinny (Big Table…
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