Thoughts: Honoring the Wounded

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The painting above is called Fractured. It’s by a local artist named Lynn Cummings.

I took the picture a few years ago and I keep it where I can find it and look at it often. Because if ever a painting captured my feelings when I am fighting depression, this is it. The flashes of color are the good things that leak into life. The browns and darks are the disease, working hard to stifle the best of me.  I like painting because, despite the preponderance of the dark monotones, for me, it’s the violets and yellows that I am drawn to, the reminders that those things are always there.

Last night, on the phone to someone dear to me, I was asked “so, I have been reading your blog. The depression is still there?”

Well, yeah.

Depression, I have learned, is misunderstood, or even not understood at all by most people.  Ever since I began writing of my own battles, people have been thanking me for telling their story, of reminding them that they are not alone.

Because that is one of the elements of it. The shame of it. A shame that comes from not understanding. My ex-wife was fond of telling my kids that my depression made me weak. My father, who had, I believe, a lifetime of depression, felt it was shameful, a weakness and that was part (only part) of why he drank so badly.

In a way, of course, it is a weakness. It’s a disease. A chronic disease. You can treat it. You can manage it. But it rarely goes away. You just learn to push it back. Or you succumb. Some people have bad cases. It cripples them. I spent a year or two in that place. It’s dark. Black. Horrifying. Consuming.

Others of us, most of us in fact, have medium to mild cases. You don’t even see the disease. We function fine. We plow through each day. We do our work. We laugh. We love. We do good stuff. We create. We raise kids, cut our lawns and help our neighbors. We’re invisible (at least until some loudmouth like me pipes up.)

But it’s not easy. Even those of us with medium to mild cases are fighting a battle the rest of the world does not have to fight. We have to consciously battle lies our minds tell us about our value, our ability, our worthiness as people. We have to fight to get up and get going in the morning. We have to smile when we don’t feel like it. Function when what we want to do is crawl into a bed and hide from the world. We have to fight the stigma and shame that people put on us for our depression. We feel the bad stuff more and the good stuff less than most people. Stuff that is simple for others is hard for us.

But we do it. We live lives that, unless you know us well, are perfectly normal. It’s just a battle to live those lives. We take medication to help, but all that medication does is lighten the load we carry. (unless we are doped to the gills, in which case we don’t function well at all.).

The rest of it is on us. If we are smart, or if we have the courage, we get psychological help and that lets us develop ways to battle our own minds so that we can live relatively normal lives. Invisible lives. It’s work. And no one sees it.

I’ve said it before. People who fight their depression to live normal lives are not weak. They are the strongest people I know. They are courageous, fighting a battle for normalcy that they will never win, a day by day battle where they know there is no rest, only now, only this moment of victory. They cannot let their guard down. Not for a day. Not for an hour, or this thing will swallow us, push us back. We are always subject to having it take us down.

And on top of that, we have to fight the stigma. The people who think we can just snap out of it. That we are just having a case of the blues. That we are weak.

Sorry boys, we carry weight that blissfully, you don’t have to carry.  I am not proud of my disease, but I’d damn proud of my battle, of each day I push through it and laugh and love and am, to most people, invisible. Put me down all you like. Put down those other people who fight the same fight. I know the truth. We are soldiers in civies. Your putdowns and insults are part of the battle, and honestly, they are the least part.

Depression has made me more compassionate. I have learned more about emotional trauma and disease than I ever thought I needed to know. I have become far better at listening to people’s stories. I have come to see how many of us are walking wounded. Anxiety. Abuse. Life

Anxiety. Abuse. Life trauma. Each of them literally leaves wounds on the brain, and the people battling them are my soldiers in arms. They fight their own wounded minds day in and day out, and for the most part, they do it. They function. They build lives. They do good work. It’s hard. They don’t do it easily. They have moments when it overwhelms them, but then they get up and start again.

I have never fought in a war. And I am glad of it. But I have listened to many soldiers talk about their time in battle.

In battle, there is no shame in being wounded. When one soldier is wounded, others gather around them, extract them, protect them. After the battle, they honor them.

Imagine that, honoring the wounded.

How did we miss that in regular life? How did we turn from honoring and helping and protecting those who battle on to stigmatizing them? To mocking them? To shaming them?  I simply don’t have the answers, but I find it sad.

In my favorite diner this morning, I had a conversation with an elderly couple. The husband fights depression. The woman fights anxiety. They have been married 50 years. They have three kids who they raised and who are doing well in life. He had a long career as a chemist. She’s a freelance writer and has done that for 40 years. They were delightful, wounds and all.

Don’t tell me they’re weak. They are crazy strong. They have fought the battle all their lives and made a good life for themselves and others. And they still fight it. Every day. If we were in a bar instead of a breakfast diner, I would have bought a round of drinks in their name. They made me smile. Such a loving couple, wounds and all.

So here’s to the walking wounded. The world may put you down and push you aside, but not me. Not today. I honor your strength. I honor your courage. I honor the battles fought and the battles to come. You are my heros.

Every day.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

Poem: No Cure for Autumn

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No Cure for Autumn

There is no cure for autumn.
No pretending the colors are anything but death,
temporary perhaps, but death none the less.
No pretending that Indian Summer
is anything but a reprieve
before the landscape is stripped
raw as winter.

There is no cure for autumn.
A fickle season, unpredictable
day to day, morning to night,
a new season every hour, a tease,
a torture, a gleeful child
with a knife.

There is no cure for autumn.
It comes. Year after year,
Slightly changed each season,
predictable as nightfall,
stealthy and silent, a slow, beautiful death.
And you are left to chronicle the colors,
to frame the season as a thing of beauty
anticipated
as you wait again for the spring.

About this poem

Across from my house, in the quarry, the leaves have already begun to change.

Depression is a chronic disease. You don’t cure it. You manage it. You fight it, but like the seasons, it comes. It goes. We are left to find the beauty in the season, or become a casualty.

It’s not romantic. It’s work.

From those two things, this poem.

Tom

Poem: Stagecraft

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Stagecraft

Back stage the lights are dim.
The theater is quiet, just you and the shadows
and the echoes of tragedy,
no costumes or backdrops.
No crowd,

just remembrances of performances past
and the gritty truth behind it all,
that you are neither king nor pauper,
neither baffoon or wise old priest.

There are no roles to play here.
You are exposed for what you are,
a stage prop, useful to further the story,
but lacking in life until the night comes
and the lights return.

About this poem. 

Mornings are sometimes hard. A black veil of depression colors my brightly lit room. And when it does, I shout to myself “It’s Showtime!” and pop out of bed.

Silly as it seems, it helps.

Tom

Poem: Dancing on the Hearth of Your Enemy

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Dancing on the Hearth of Your Enemy

It is evil.
Disregard what the textbooks say,
it is more than chemicals and response
to traumas old and new.
It is evil,

A thief of color and light,
of life and joy and all good things.
It kills.
I have seen it.
I have felt its knife and the slow leeching
of the soul’s blood.

I watched it kill my father,
and wound all he touched.
I have seen my own blood drip away,
tied to my chair,
tied to my bed,
tied by its ropes.

But I am an implacable foe.
I will not die, born
with a head more stubborn than my father’s
and a heart nearly as soft as my mother’s,
I persist,
and out of sight I live beyond the wounds,
calling on a strength beyond my own,
I break the bonds.

Perhaps only for this day.
Perhaps only for this moment.
but still, I cast them aside.
I mock them.
I sing.
I have the audacity to dance,
laughing like a child at a wedding,
uninhibited

and free.

About this poem

A medium bad bout of depression this morning. And the bible verse about David dancing as he returned the art of the covenant (2nd Samuel 6:14) back to Jerusalem that left me dancing a jig of my own.

Take that big boy. I got stuff to do.

Tom

Poem: The Great Dark Hole

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The Great Dark Hole

The great dark hole yaws open,
calls to you,
it’s black siren song familiar,
dangerous,
always there, just at the edge of your sight,
a reminder of your failed journey,
a challenge,
an evil magnet pulling you
from the journey ahead

About this poem

“Where is your depression?” a reader writes. “You wrote of it so often, and now you don’t”

Oh, it is there my friend. It never leaves. At times (like now in the midst of my joy at being an unexpected newlywed) it is beaten back, but even on the best of days, it lurks, waiting for its opportunity to draw me back into its dungeon.

The battle never ends.

Tom

Poem: The Myth of Light

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The Myth of Light

The window is covered with bars and spider webs.
An atmosphere of neglect fills your nostrils,
damp and cold and dusty.

This has been your home for too long,
this dank prison where you were left for dead
so many years ago.

This is where you wallowed,
where you railed in the night,
like a madman at the moon.

This is where you surrendered to the reality
of your abandonment and neglect,
surrender, but never quite, quite, acceptance.

And then, like Dantes began your re-education,
learning to read in the dark, painting in the dark,
masterpieces that would never see the light of day,

finding your strength in the dark,
where no one, not even your fellow prisoners,
perhaps especially them, could see.

Your eyes though, never adapted to the dark,
never accepted it. Your own frailness, yes,
but never the falsehood that darkness was eternal.

“I will not die here.” has become your mantra,
and each day you probed your walls,
you cleared your windows,

you found the rust and weakness of your captors
and pitted your weakness against theirs,
your only strength your persistence.

And persistence, it turned out, was enough,
more valuable than talent or intelligence,
more enduring.

And so you find yourself here, at the moment
where the bars begin at last to break,
where light ceases to be a myth and becomes something

tangible.

real.

Yours.

About this poem

There have been times in my depression when I thought joy and life were out of reach.

They are not,

Tom

PS: Dantes is the hero of “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas,  my favorite novel.  While it is a novel of justice and revenge, and I am not wired for revenge, the part of the novel where Dantes is in prison, and yet finds himself and grows into a formidible presence until given the chance to escape, has always been an inspiration to me.

Thoughts: Knocking Down the Wall

The Wall

It is seven twenty-five as I start writing this. I am sitting at my local diner, a cup of coffee set off to the left of my laptop. I am off to a late start.

It was the wall again. Waking up and it’s there. My daily dose of depression.

I wonder at it sometimes. Each day I beat it back. I am quite skilled, well medicated, well armed. I have a routine that works. Mostly, I am a happy little warrior, dealing with the day to day stuff of life with one hand, while with the other slashing away at my enemy.

I almost always win, and there is a lot of satisfaction in that, because I know how easy it is to lose, how easy it is to let my guard down, to surrender. For all the equipping, all the prayer, all the diligence, it’s still work, and a lot of people give in.

I don’t blame them.  At times I envy them. I get tired of the battle. That whole “just let it win” thing? Very attractive at times. I wasn’t born a warrior. I was born a poet. But I’ve become one.

Mostly because I am greedy.

I am greedy for life. I am greedy for joy. I want to feel fully, to rejoice with all that I am. To feel love and passion. To experience pride of work well done and battles won. To savor a good cup of coffee and deep conversation. To lose myself in the colors of nature and the colors of fine art.

I had all those things once, and lost them, a variety of factors beating them out of me for decades until finally, I was a shell. The depression had won. I was just another set of bones on Ezekiel’s valley. (See Ezekiel 37:1-14).

Most of us stay dead. A few of us don’t.

I didn’t. My path back is well documented, both here in my blog and in my book, Dancing with Depression. It’s old news to regular readers.

I wish my path back could be something heroic. That there was virtue and purpose in it. That it could be the stuff of movies. Mostly though, it’s because I was hard headed and greedy.

Hard headed, because as I finally got the help I needed and began learning the things that had torn me down, I got mad. I still get mad when I think of them. All sorts of contributing factors: people, circumstances, fate, my own body’s betrayal.

Something in me, an innate hard-headedness, got mad. Got angry. Stayed angry. You have to understand that I am not generally an angry person, so this was new to me. I didn’t know what to do with it. But angry I was. Angry I still am.

How dare they tear away at my essence like that? How dare they rip away at my joy? What right did they have to steal my energy, my drive, my purpose? The more I understood, the angrier I got.

Mostly, in today’s world, we think anger is a bad thing. And Lord knows, it can be. But, properly managed, harnessed, brought under our control, anger can be a magnificent tool. It has a power we lack in our day to day life, and brought to bear on problems and issues and even depression, it can help us overcome all odds. Because things tend to wilt under the barrage of anger.

Even Depression.

Depression sometimes makes people angry. If you have lived with a person suffering with depression, you might have experienced it. It’s an anger born of frustration, but often it is turned on the people around us, or worse, turned inward on ourselves.

But it can also be turned on depression itself. It can be weaponized and fuel our fight. It can be our secret weapon. It can give us a power to defeat something larger than ourselves.  You’ve seen those silly internet videos of the tiny cat terrifying the giant dog or even a bear?  It’s like that.

If we can learn to turn our anger against depression itself, we have a powerful weapon. I use it almost every day. I used it this morning, when I woke up and wanted to stay in bed, not in a healthy “isn’t this cozy” kind of way but in a “I wanna give up.” kind of way.

And I got pissed.

Please note the curse word. I am not a curser. People who know me well know this. So when I break bad and use a “bad” word, people know I mean business.

I got pissed. I threw the covers off with passion. I jumped out of bed and said, “Take that!”. I put on my clothes with purpose. I strode downstairs with a “Don’t mess with me” attitude. My cat ran ahead of me, wondering what had gotten into me.

And so did the depression. Like the coward it is. The wall fell down at my fury. It sounds silly, but as I rounded the corner into my office, I wanted to raise my arms in victory and shout a battle cry.  But that would have been silly. All I had done is get up.

But that’s not all I had done, is it? You who fight this battle know. You who intimately know others fighting this battle also know. I had won a great victory. I had fought for something I treasure – the joy of living life, the ability to savor everything and everyone around me, the ability to live life and do work just like everyone else.

And that my friends, is worth unleashing the beast for.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

PS – I had a reader ask me to write something about anger and depression. I have no idea what they expected. This is my personal experience, no more. But perhaps it will help someone. If not, it felt good writing it, like kicking the rubble from the wall after knocking it down. Like knowing I have a secret that will let others knock down their own walls. My contribution to the war.