Friday, August 25, 2006

Hearing from families

My original essay, the first entry on this blog, was recently published on the website of The Blueprint, a non-denominational newspaper for young Jews in Manhattan. I received a very touching e-mail in response:

I just read your open letter to the community, and I am filled with deep respect for you, what you wrote and what you have become. It also filled me with tears as I recall my sister and the exact depression she suffered that you so vividly describe.

Unfortunately, she "successfully" took her own life at age 50; it's been ten years since I gave the eulogy at her funeral. She was a published author and winner of literary awards, a magazine poetry editor, a Ph.D in English literature, fluent in Hebrew, a lifetime student and teacher of Jewish texts... so very accomplished, but always feeling unaccomplished and unworthy.

In the eulogy, I referred to a Chassidic saying that "all descents lead to ascents," and went on to say that my sister's life was filled with descents, and did indeed lead to ascents that would bring peace and joy for many of the rest of us, but didn't for her. I hoped that her final ascent brought her the happiness and joy that so eluded her in this world.

I applaud you for sharing what you did for us to learn about depression and to hopefully be motivated to help others. Kol haKavod and may your life continue to be blessed.

I was so glad to hear from him, although I feel terrible for his loss. It's another tragic example of how badly depression can distort a person's thinking and self-image. Depression is more than just feeling sad. It's a tremendous amount of guilt, and feeling worthless.

When I was depressed, I used to think that all the money that had been expended on my upbringing and education -- trips to Europe, tuition at an expensive private university, braces, piano lessons, and so on -- had been wasted on me, because I was a worthless loafer who'd never amounted to anything. Making Phi Beta Kappa and graduating Magna cum Laude didn't mean anything, because I hadn't accomplished anything after college. Even though I was (usually) employed and self-supporting, I believed I was a complete failure. I hadn't gone to graduate school, as all my family and most of my friends had. I didn't have a career.

But the story of this woman, whose grieving brother wrote me, proves that no amount of achievement can impress a person who is depressed.

William Styron, the acclaimed award-winning author of Sophie's Choice and other novels, has written and spoken openly about coping with depression. Struck for the first time at the age of 60, Styron describes depression thusly:

In depression this faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come -– not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. So the decision-making of daily life involves not, as in normal affairs, shifting from one annoying situation to another less annoying -– or from discomfort to relative comfort, or from boredom to activity -– but moving from pain to pain. One does not abandon, even briefly, one's bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes.

Styron, of course, is one of many artists struck by the disease. It's tempting to imagine that mental illness mostly targets creative people. However, when I was in the mental hospital, I wasn't sharing space with a bevy of strikingly talented people. Most were middle- to lower-middle-class ordinary folks. One guy owned a dance studio with his wife, but he wasn't a dancer; he handled the books and other management details. Another was a cattle farmer, who suffered from depression and anorexia. One was a mathemetician and composed music. Others were secretaries, housewives, college students.

Depression doesn't discriminate. It's just that artistic types create lasting mementos of their illness in the form of poems, books, paintings, plays, or musical compositions.

Learning about other families' experiences can provide some good perspective. During my last depression, my mother went with me to a Mood Disorder Support Group meeting. They have simultaneous sessions for people with unipolar depression, bipolar disorder, kids in their twenties, and friends and family members.

As we left the building where the groups meet, I asked her how it was.

"I just felt so sorry for all of those people," she said. "There was a young woman with a new baby whose husband is in the hospital with depression, and a woman whose ex-husband has bipolar disorder and is making her life miserable...."

For some reason, that made me feel a little better -- to know that I haven't done the worst possible thing to my mother by overdosing and spending a week in a coma. Other families have it worse.

And I feel lucky. Which is the right perspective to keep, because when you have a mental illness, it's easy to feel unlucky. I have to say, though, that I'm very lucky. Even though my illness is difficult to manage, I don't fall into the category they call "severely and persistently mentally ill." I live independently; I worked full-time and earned a master's degree; I'm in a doctoral program. And my dating life, while frustrating, is no worse than the average single West Sider's; I have dates, and I've had relationships.

As hard as my life is, it's not as bad as it could be. I have to remind myself of that every day. That's what Albert Ellis taught me; it's the REBT (rational-emotive behavior therapy) approach. During one session, when I was kvetching about how hard my life was, he brought up the late Christy Brown, author of My Left Foot. Despite his "gruesome" disability (Al's words, not mine), Brown became a painter, poet, novelist, and husband. In Al's opinion, my disability was nothing I couldn't learn to live with; if Christy could hack it, so could I.
Copyright (c) 2006 "Ayelet Survivor"

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