Thoughts: A Contradiction in Terms

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I am in a good place just now.

A year into my marriage, I am still in love. My daughter has recently moved and started a new job where she wants to be. She’s ridiculously happy. My son is halfway through his college time, doing well and planning for an exciting future.

It’s spring and the lilacs are in bloom. In the evenings, when I leave the doors open in my house, their perfume fills the air. The cat, holed up through a long winter, wallows in the sun. Neighbors are emerging from their winter homes and we’re all reconnecting. Recently, I got a lesson in forgiveness from a long-ago friend and it’s been a good thing. (Not all lessons are, after all.).

I have interesting work, and the prospects of new challenges are in the air.

It’s a rare thing when pretty much all the aspects of a complex and rich life are aligned and doing well at the same time. Certainly, it seems more often than not life is a strange dissonance of good and bad, easy and hard, clear and confusing.

From time to time, I write of depression here. I write because I fight it. I write because I find writing about it helps me. And in recent years, after hearing from readers, I write because I have learned that sharing my story helps others, if in no other way than to let them know they are not alone. I’ve even written a small book about my story, which, if notes from readers can be believed, has been helpful.

Here’s another side of depression. Even when things are good, depression does not go away.

A lot of people think depression is brought on by events, and to some extent that can be true – events, physical or emotional trauma and the like can certainly trigger it. But it’s not that simple, because depression is also caused by chemistry in our bodies. Medication helps. (I love my happy pills.) and therapy helps (Our brain can do a lot of self-healing with help.), but it’s not a situation where Badthings = depression, and Goodthings = No depression. Good or bad things are just one of a lot of factors.

Life being wonderful is certainly a help. No doubt about it. And I am crazy grateful right now.  But it doesn’t go away. It’s a chronic illness and all you do it manage it.

So to say “Life is wonderful.” and “Getting going was a battle today.” are not contradictory statements. They are just a fact of life for us who live with depression. But mostly we’ve learned to shut up about the depression. People tend to say “But your life is so good, what have YOU got to be depressed about.”.

I can remember hiking along the Appalachian trail once when I was in college. It was well into summer and the trees and the brush were thick and green. I was high on a ridge somewhere near Front Royal, Va. I knew there had to be amazing views, but the undergrowth was so thick, I wasn’t able to see them.

After miles and miles of walking in the tunnel of trees and undergrowth, I finally couldn’t stand it any longer. I plunged into the undergrowth. I got whacked by branches and there were some thorny things that cut into my legs as I pushed through the green prison.

Finally, I got to the edge of the ridge. There were rock outcroppings and I climbed on one. The panoramic view went on for miles and miles. I could see forever. Other mountains. Farms in the valley. A crisscross of country roads cutting into the landscape. And sky. So much sky.

It was glorious.

That’s how it is with us people fighting depression. There’s joy out there. We know it. But we have to work to get to it. Fighting the chemicals in our brain and the effects of those chemicals, we have to push through the undergrowth of our own minds to get to that joy.

But when we do, it’s glorious. All the more so because we had to work for it.

I woke up feeling sludgy this morning. But a call to the woman I love (who was in Mass this morning.), some time on the back porch listening to some very happy birds. A prayer of thanksgiving, even when I wasn’t fully feeling it.). Meditation on the porch. All that and I had cut through the brush.

I could feel the joy I am surrounded by.

Don’t feel sorry for me. Depression has taught me the value of joy. It’s worth the work. And I feel blessed that I have the tools to cut through the underbrush, thorns and all. Not everyone does. I have found new strengths in my weakness. I have a sense of value for even the small things that I lacked before depression hit me so many years ago.

Life is good and I am going to savor the view. It’s glorious. And I’ve earned it.

Be well. Travel Wisely,

Tom

Poem: It is Dangerous Out There

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It is Dangerous Out There

Everything you know.
Everyone you know
tells you:

It is dangerous out there.

And so you live in your rock castle,
nursing your wounds,
barring your windows,
chaining your doors.

It is dangerous out there.

They will hurt you.
Again and again they tell you
so fearfully you draw the shades
and no longer peer out as you heal.

It is dangerous out there.

You are sure of it and live in fear behind strong walls
until you realized each scar and wound
came in this prison you have built,
in this safety you believed in.

It is dangerous out there.

That’s the lie.
It is no worse there than here,
and you tear the bars from the windows
and escape.

It is dangerous in there.

About this poem

Isolation is the enemy.

Tom

Poem: Almost Monochrome

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Almost Monochrome

Another day. Almost monochrome,
with just a touch of green cutting through the snow,
the slightest hint of spring.
due tomorrow, a date on the calendar,
something to laugh at as the temperature falls in the night.

Another day. Almost monochrome.
Your mood and the distant trees are kissing cousins,
not quite black, the markers of boundary lines
between land and moods.

You smile at them. At the grey.
At the evening fog rising from the creeks.
For this is what they do not know,
those who paint you and your depression in black and white
when it is anything but.

For after a long season of cold and grey,
your eyes change. You see color like a cat sees light
in the midnight air.
Even the smallest hue burns your retinas
and makes them tear down your cheeks,
a beauty more treasured in the grey season
than in any other.

Another day. Almost monochrome,
but not quite.

About this poem. 

One of the misconceptions about people with depression is that we feel no joy and are never happy. Those who know us know that is not true. Happiness is perhaps more rare in our lives, but it is treasured all the more because of that rareness.

The picture was taken near West Rupert, Vermont, a couple of small towns down the road from me.

Tom

Poem: Temporary Casualties

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Temporary Casualties 

I am dragging this morning. There is no poetry in me.
The words in me are discordant,
bully words,
the words of people who loved me intermittently,
intimate allies one minute,
aware of each weak point in body and soul,
intimate enemies the next, just as
aware of each weak point in body and soul.

That’s what I know. Bullies have a particular power.
They know best, just where to place the knife,
and they know they do not have to twist the blade.
They know
I will do it for them.

“Talk to me like you love me.” I once told one
of these off and on lovers.

It is confusing, love with a bully.
And in the end, they leave you,
their voices become yours.
You become them, far better
at evisceration than they ever were,
far more persistent.

At sixty-two, I know them well.
I listen to them,
just long enough
to separate out the voices,
to know which are yours,
and which belong to the devils
who wish so fervently to become demons
and possess us.

It’s not going to happen.
(not a poetic phrase is it? It sounds
more like a bad adventure movie, still)
They have had their moment.
But it is past.
Like a Celtic army, they can scream and paint themselves
with false righteousness before the charge.

I am no longer unarmed.
My mildness is no longer weakness.
It has been built of wounds and wisdom.
I have survived and I know the difference
between the devil’s insidious song
and my own.
Let them charge with their painted faces and spears.
I will laugh as I pull the trigger
and begin my day,
each word I do not feel is a roman discipline.
I write them and watch the lies fall,
temporary casualties.

Better them than me.
I stretch.
I push aside the cat at the foot of the bed.
I get up.
There is a life to lead.
Until tomorrow’s battle,
I am safe.

About this poem.

Another dark morning conquered. This is what I do. Every day. I left out the victory dance, but my kids call it dad dancing and it’s not a pretty sight.

Laughing with joy.

Tom

Poem: One Day Closer

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One Day Closer

It is the third day of a rare February melt
and still, the snow remains, grey in the morning,
the colors of old grass and wheat still buried,
just out of sight.

The creeks are high. Blocks of ice catch on fallen trees.
The water is angry, awakened from its winter sleep.

Today will tell the tale.
Another day of melt and the colors will return.
The landscape will burst with the browns and yellows,
almost dead things will become bright in comparison
to the smothering white snow.

You stand and look across the lake.
You feel the breeze for a hint of warmth
and find none. It is winter still
and you tighten your scarf around your neck.
The day will be a long one, cold and hard, but
one day closer to spring.

About this poem

About Winter. About life.

Tom

Poem: Manna, Diners and the Nick of Time

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Manna, Diners and the Nick of Time

Joplin on the stereo.
Coffee to the side.
At the counter, they talk of fish and childhoods.
The tables are empty.

Blues guitars fill the air
and you are tempted to sway,
eyes closed,
to lose yourself in the music,

It is hard this morning.
Hard to start. Hard to breathe and hard
to begin.  Darkness, like sludge,
fills your lungs and fills your mind

and you are nearly overwhelmed.
Even the music is your enemy,
penetrating too deep, too loud. a threat
to swallow you and beat you into the ground.

But you are old and tough.
A veteran of the dark wars.
Too dumb to surrender, too wrapped up in the battle
you begin to write, each work

another bar in the prison that will,
for a day at least,
keep the demons at bay, captured
by careful punctuation and word magic,

A thing stronger than you,
white magic, rarely beautiful, peculiarly powerful,
you weave them even when you do not feel them,
you grow stronger, less from effort than allowing,

of bearing your breast to the demons and God alike
and trusting God’s breath to come faster
and stronger, and always, only,
in the nick of time.

About this poem. 

Manna, for those of you who are not Christian, or are long lapsed, is the bread-like substance that God gave the Jews each day after they had left their slavery in Egypt. They could not save it, for it would rot. They had to trust that each day he would give them just enough. And he did.

That is the way I have led my life the past decade or so. Dark days or bright days, even when I am not feeling it days, I have to trust that I will get enough inspiration (literally “God’s breath”) to get through.

And when I am not feeling it? I do it anyway.

It’s amazing how that works. In the doing it anyway, in the trusting that by doing and living and creating, good happens. Energy comes. Depression is pushed back. Joy sneaks in. And from the little death of each morning, life creeps in. Always in the nick of time.

Rarely before.

Tom

PS – The picture has nothing to do with Manna or diners, but it reminded me of what my day feels like when I wake up each morning. Dark. Regimented. Lacking life. But if I put away how it looks and feels in the morning, also full of potential.  The picture was taken near my home in West Pawlet, Vermont.

Poem: Morning Snow

 

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Morning Snow

Early in the morning, you wake.
You walk outside,
clamber up the quarry,
survey the valley
that place you have come from.

There is snow on the moss,
on the slate,
a light feathering, no more,
and the clouds around you are dark.

You stare at the snow, unsure
whether it is melting, or
a harbinger of a storm yet unseen.

About this poem.

Often, when you fight depression, you wake in what most people would call a funk, and you have no idea if it will lift like fog or fall like a heavy winter snow. Most of the time, which way it ends up is up to me. Thus my early morning battle cry each day as I get out of bed: “It’s showtime!”

Outside there are several inches of fresh snow. But the picture was taken at Cape Cod in March.