Depression narratives

I have been an avid and interested reader of books, usually memoirs, describing the authors’ experiences with depression, unmanageable grief, or depressive episodes. There are a number of reasons for my interest, one being that I have an interior depression narrative of my own and the other because of my passion for delving into concepts of consciousness. Consciousness and depression must be intimately linked, of course; a person cannot feel depressed if he or she lacks a reflective sense of self or Mind. Sorrow differs, but some grief is so deep that depression enters in and squeezes the soul dry. Each narrative contains parallels to other narratives, and yet each is as unique as the author. We are “storytelling animals,” and the impetus to tell the story of depression may be to help others or to assist in re-knitting the disjunctions depression creates in consciousness.

For example: This Close to Happy, Darkness Visible, An Unquiet Mind, H is for Hawk, Hyperbole and a Half, The Year of Magical Thinking, The Solace of Open Spaces…even in the relatively brief Chapter 75 of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run–there are dozens of such memoirs on my bookshelves, and this list does not even mention the books by poets, psychologists, and philosophers who have explored the human challenges of depression. [I have not yet read Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon; but it is on my list.]

Porcelain doll, “Rain,” by Alexandra Koukinova of “Alexandra” Company.

Because I am a writer, these narratives, and the lyric inventions crafted by poets, teach me much about how to explain the un-nameable, to describe–in words–the kind of numb grip that a depressive crash or a monumental grief exerts on a person’s sense of self, or even of language (which fails); the way depression shrinks into nothingness a person’s feeling of shared community/communion/communication with others, even with beloved others. There’s a story there, the story of how the story itself gets subsumed by stasis.

In these cases, metaphor: the person is the story; the story loses its narrative, tapers off, stands still. No longer interesting, expressive, alive.

Unfortunately, I know that feeling. I know how it arrests creativity and savages my ability to write.

~

Why do we “get” depressed? What does depression do to the brain? Does the brain itself cause depression? Despite the insights medical researchers have gleaned about neurological networks, cells, synapses, the anatomy of the organ we call “the brain,” there are no answers to these questions; the former can be tracked through scans to some extent, but there is seldom a “before” MRI or PET scan with which to compare “normal” and “depressed” in a unique individual. A New York Times Health & Science article from 2005 puts things pretty succinctly:

” ‘I think that, with some notable exceptions, the community of scientists was excessively optimistic about how quickly imaging would have an impact on psychiatry,’ said Dr. Steven Hyman, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard and the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health. ‘In their enthusiasm, people forgot that the human brain is the most complex object in the history of human inquiry, and it’s not at all easy to see what’s going wrong.’

For one thing, brains are as variable as personalities.”

brainOne of the problems is determining causation: which was first, the disease or a perceived (and possibly inaccurate) difference in brain structure or function? Is it chemical or hereditary, or is it traumatically-induced? Or are we not really seeing a difference in brain structure? Why do medications work for some people but not others? And why and how do medications work, exactly? Twelve years after Carey’s NYT article, psycho-neuro-biologist folks still do not know any definitive facts, though there is slow movement toward progress. [For a quite up-to-date and thorough but readable article about the complexities involved in depression, I recommend Harvard Health Publication’s online pamphlet “What Causes Depression?”]

~

From the standpoint of a person who has had a lifelong relationship with depression, I’m not sure I need a cure at this point. My depression narrative includes taking a pill that seems to help considerably; but that has not been the magic bullet that alleviated a chronic, possibly chemical, condition. What has balanced my conscious mind with my chemistry is at least as likely to be related to support, friendship, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral changes, personal motivation, love, reflection, experience, information, aging, writing, spiritual study, Zen, nature, environment, valuable work, art, and tai chi.

The Nautilus article (cited below–do consider reading it) suggests there may be an “up” side to depression:

In a study of 61 depressed subjects, 4 out of 5 reported at least one upside to their rumination, including self-insight, problem solving, and the prevention of future mistakes.

“It may be best to let depression work its miserable magic, under protective supervision.”

“Most episodes of depression end on their own—something known as spontaneous remission…” says Steven Hollon, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.

The Nautilus article cites several researchers who use the evolutionary model of fitness and bargaining, concepts that Marjorie Grene might caution us away from relying too heavily upon. Drake Baer of The Science of Us, whose article was certainly titled by editors, not scientists, writes “that, in some circumstances, depression may be, in the arc of a life, yielding of insights and personal meaning. All of this is in no way meant to minimize the suffering that depression can cause — but to suggest the uses that it may serve.”

Baer’s article dwells upon the idea that there are structural and cultural concepts at work in the identification of, experience of, and healing of depression; that the “illness” or disease resides in the subjective, non-empirical, non-testable world of human consciousness (interiority). I’m on board with that suggestion. Baer closes by relating depression to katabasis, an ancient Greek word that refers to the inexorable downhill slide, the descent into the underworld, the sinking down into darkness.

Baer writes that “Katabasis leads to catharsis; not coincidentally, there’s a shared theme in the personal narratives of people who reach midlife with a sense of well-being and generativity toward others: redemption.”

My personal depression narrative, just past mid-life (by some reckoning), suggests redemption. Which is to say there’s hope.

~

2011A-rainbow.jpg

Totally cheesy rainbow photo.

See also: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/rev/116/3/620/

http://nautil.us/issue/45/power/does-depression-have-an-evolutionary-purpose

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/02/a-new-way-to-understand-and-treat-depression.html

Please, if you or someone you know and care about has challenges with depression, read the Harvard article linked in the text at very least; and check out the other links as well. This is as close as I ever get to a public service announcement, but the urgency is explicit.

Prunes & store tea

I just returned from an extended family gathering where a conversation or two arose concerning specific, regional, well-known-to-the-family phrases and sayings perhaps invented by some ancestor. These idioms are outdated; the young people often find them hilarious, quaint, or mystifying.

“What does that even mean?” became a common refrain.

I have heard these terms and phrases since I was a very young child, and they usually don’t seem strange to my ears. But a cousin reminded me of the phrase “full of prunes and store tea,” and while I know it means that the person full of said comestibles is lively, wound up, and possibly talking nonsense (in the region where I now reside, the term might be ruchy), I had never really thought about its origin.

Ruchy is a combination of Polish and Pennsylvania German derived from the word ruch (meaning movement or motion). So that new-world regional neologism makes sense. But prunes and store tea?

I did a little hunting around on various etymology and idiom websites (yes, this is part of my job!) and found that being full of beans and being full of prunes are somewhat but not entirely synonymous, depending upon region. Both can mean being wiggly and mobile, and both can mean acting silly. The layperson’s theory is that beans and prunes cause intestinal gas, hence fidgeting about or, alternately, being full of hot air. *

Store tea. Okay, tea purchased at a store? I suppose there was, in the days when the US was thinly populated in many areas, a reason to differentiate that which was made at home from that which was purchased at a store. I remember my great-grandmother saying that someone well-off she knew in her childhood had a house with “boughten rugs” rather than rag, home-woven, or rush rugs.

As for the odd combination of prunes and tea…eventually I found success by changing the and to in.

Prunes can be stewed in tea! This delicacy goes back centuries and is–no surprise here–probably British in origin. If you are curious, here’s one of several recipe sites you can check out for methods of stewing prunes in tea: melecotte. The author provides links to other tea & prune confections.

So it turns out that, all along, the idiom is “You’re full of prunes in store tea!” Though I doubt that will change the way we say it–in the rare times we blurt out an old-fashioned regional phrase at a ruchy child or a bullshitting teenager.

StewedPrunes2

Thanks to Melecotte

* See comment below…

Untranslatable

Speaking of difficult books…and I know I told myself to read more poetry (and I am, really, most recently Michael Burkard’s Fictions from the Self)…I am entranced and overawed by Barbara Cassin’s amazing Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. Here’s a thorough and intelligent review by Michael Kinnucan, going into more depth than I have time to post on this blog. What I want to mention about the text is its beauty and its acknowledgment of ambiguity, a quality that translates (ha!) into every aspect of human existence: our ambiguous relationships with our environments, with other humans, with our foods and our governments, our psyches, our cosmos.

138701

We cannot write about the act of translation without encountering ambiguity. We cannot really address philosophy without acknowledging that differing perspectives [context, culture, era, psychology, and of course, language] pose serious complications to understanding across languages and cultures. And even within a culture! For jargon and specialized terms can make understanding by even the most educated layman very, very difficult indeed.

While Cassin’s tome–and it is a collaborative work, with many brilliant people as contributors–presents itself as a philosophical lexicon, the connections with other disciplines (psychoanalysis, for example, with Freud’s famous coinages, and certainly poetry) are unavoidable. It may be challenging to translate the German Schicksal, a Kantian form of the idea we call in English fate, but in such cases the reader is generally going to be familiar with Kant and perhaps aware that the subtle connotations may vary. Take the word sign, however, and each reader–even those who have linguistics or anthropology or philosophy as a background–brings his or her own connotations to the definition and to the problem of translating what any individual author means by the use of the word.

Maybe this doesn’t sound fascinating to you. I relish it! And who knew (I sure didn’t) that even the word reality is a neologism, “coined by Duns Scotus” in the 13th century?

At 1200 pages of small type, this text is a tool, not a beach read. What a find, though. I have no doubt I will be referring to it for years to come, and that it will keep me wallowing in marvelous ambiguities.

 

A whilom history major

In an effort to get myself to sleep during a recent spate of insomnia and to enrich my understanding of ancient Roman history after reading Beard’s SPQR earlier this year, I have been reading a 1904 anthology of historians writing on various topics pertaining to the early Roman republic. History writing has changed a great deal in the past century; perhaps the historians of yesteryear were entertaining and concise by the standards of the time, but perhaps there is a reason history has a reputation for being dry. It is an undeserved reputation, in my opinion, yet I admit to finding a few of these fin de siècle commentaries soporific.

These historians toss names around as though we readers could be expected to know one 3rd-century BC general from another and assume we are already well-versed in the Punic Wars. Admittedly, it is likely the average educated reader in 1904 had more Western Civ background than the educated reader has today. I have heard of the Punic Wars, but I was rather hoping the historians could frame them for me in a way a modern reader might understand. So far, no luck with this anthology.

Perhaps that is not possible anyway–a modern reader really cannot fathom what life was like so long ago, or what constituted “civilization;” although current re-creation attempts offer a sort of immersion, no one can know how accurate they are (see: experimental archaeology). Contemporary historians, however, seem more willing to do a bit of cultural speculation, relying on archeology and artifacts as much as–or more than–upon the ancient texts listing wars, generals, leaders and enemies. One reason I decided not to pursue a history major in college long ago is that the discipline required so much task-reading of names, dates, and places before the student could move into the interesting materials of everyday life, food, culture, livelihoods, skills, crafts, religion, the arts…the kinds of things that interest me. I lacked discipline.

~

But words interest me. Another reason the 1904 book is so helpful at bedtime is the general pacing of the prose, but the word choices are fascinating. I do not just refer here to archaic history jargon but to vocabulary in general. It’s what one of my colleagues among the English instructors terms “ornamental.” Ornamental prose has its place, and there are times I relish its languid character, but it tends to drag for the reader more accustomed to contemporary American-English conciseness. So I get sleepy.

There are charming rewards to this stuff. Last week, the word whilom kept me from slumber. I had to find out what it meant before going to sleep and was about to throw off the blankets and get my dictionary. My kind spouse had the smartphone on the bedstand, however, and dictionary.com identified it as “archaic; erstwhile.” Here’s a little bio of the word from worldwidewords. Reading a compendium such as this one offers me insights not only into ancient Rome but into the world of scholars of 100 years ago–quite a different culture from today.

~

Ann E. Michael is a whilom history student and umquhile psychology major who turned to philosophy and English and then earned a graduate degree in Creative Writing. She recommends The Historians’ History of the World Volume 5 (ed. Henry Smith Williams) as both educational and snooze-inducing.     🙂

Struggling with words

Some of the students I tutor in writing are English learners–advanced English learners, but still on the learning curve. They began speaking and writing English at age 10 or 14 or 16, or perhaps earlier, but in a family whose English defaulted to a “home” language. They often have vocabularies that far exceed my US-born students in scope, but they lack awareness of idiomatic preposition use or skills in standard English syntax.

My background is not in “ESL,” “ELL,” or the instruction of multi-lingual students. I have precious little training in that area, and no experience in translation. I do not even have fluency in any language other than my own; as a result, I have great respect for my students, who often are conversant in two, three, sometimes four languages or dialects. In truth, their language skills far outstrip my own. Yet they arrive at my door seeking help in writing, trying to understand how to write clear, concise sentences in a language they find mysterious and arbitrary in its grammar, its use of punctuation, and its rules about documentation, capitalization, and articles.bkmk-violet

The majority of them are from immigrant families, and they are among my hardest-working students. They take nothing for granted. Their frustration at not getting their ideas across on paper drives them to read more, to look words up in the dictionary (something few of my English-speaking students ever bother to do), to visit the writing tutors, to ask interesting questions about why the noun-count adjective comes before the color or quality adjective and when and why to use a rather than the as a preceding article.

They are excellent critical thinkers, probably because they have to solve problems continually: translating in their heads, figuring out whether a translator app will help them or not, deciphering figures of speech and cultural allusions, and navigating how to get around in the world outside their home base and home language.

Some of them have had to learn to handle stereotyping, ostracizing, bullying, and worse.

I admire their resilience and their youthful enthusiasm, and I recognize their dismay when nothing they try seems to work. The only aspect of their lives I am really privileged to help them with is their writing in English as they struggle with words. The rest they do on their own.

~

So here’s a story.

A student who has lived in the US for four years and who speaks one of the Asian languages regularly meets with me to go over her mathematics essays (these are basically chapter summaries with reflections). Her papers are usually well-structured and demonstrate considerable understanding of some complicated readings, but she does wrestle with article use and past-participle verb use in the various conditional tenses. Every once in awhile, though, she composes a sentence that completely throws me.

In a recent paper, her concluding paragraph contained the phrase “is not anhydrous warehouse confusion.”

[WTF?!] I had to wrap my brain around the possibilities of that one…so she pulled out her cell phone translator and we played around with it a bit: “without water,” a scientific term; I knew that had to mean “dry,” but why hadn’t she come up with the word “dry”? She knows that word. And “warehouse”? “Like store,” she said. [Storage? Dry storage? Confusion?]

After some laughter and some consternation, we realized that she was using a metaphor that means, essentially, dry facts. She wanted to write that mathematics is not just a set of confusing dry facts, as many people think it is. And we discovered that the metaphor in her language was not that different from the metaphor in English. But Google Translate doesn’t realize that!

~

I got home and said to myself: somehow I have to write a poem that contains the phrase anhydrous warehouse😀

~

Translation software, AutoCorrect and GrammarCheck are algorithms. They may be full of information, but they are not smart and they are not human beings. The genuine problem-solver, the best puzzler-outer, is the messy ol’ brain itself: human consciousness.brain

 

 

 

 

 

Words for pain

On Wednesday, I spent a long time in conversation with an anxious dear one who was despondent over US election results. I am not the only person who engaged in such dialogues that day, but what stays with me is the way I described the conversation later–to another friend. The phrase I used was “talking her down off a ledge.” It was, thankfully, just a harmless metaphor, an exaggeration (she was not suicidal, merely distressed). Nonetheless, having recently considered the ways we express pain linguistically and how hard it is to express pain of any kind in a manner that conveys anything to other people [see blog on Scarry], I stopped to think about the figure of speech I had employed.

Emotional pain hurts, after all, as much as physical pain. What else might I have said?

I could have said, “I spent 20 minutes calming her down.” Not as vivid, but less violent. Yet isn’t that what poets and writers want–vividness? Some sort of language that elicits visceral response…and the metaphors or war, violence, and harm are the default phrases and symbols to which we turn.spinal-cord-injury-pain

We learn these word-images when we are very young, often before we understand the violent origin of the metaphor. So I wonder whether the connection is as clear as some theorists suspect. But there’s no denying that pain = harming imagery, because pain is harm. Stabbing, throbbing, pounding. That’s pain. Emotionally, too: we feel wounded, we feel broken, damaged, hurt. Anxiety feels painful; stress feels painful– “The stress is killing me!” Pretty clear connections there.

I have been challenging myself to write poems about pain (physical, existential, mental, emotional) and to discover whether I can make the sense of pain come through in words as something other than self- or other-harm; whether I can use non-violent images to convey pain, and to reframe it in the body and in the consciousness.

So far?

Not a lot of success, but some interesting drafts that sound slightly surreal or hallucinatory. There is a bonus here, though, in that I have created a difficult writing prompt and, at the same time, given myself some insights into the connections between mind and body (Descartes, you old rascal) and language.

 

Language & violence

“To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.” Elaine Scarry

~

I have finally finished reading Elaine Scarry‘s difficult book The Body in Pain. The subtitle is “The Making and Unmaking of the World,” which offers some idea of how large a topic is under consideration in her text. She examines torture, war, sports as metaphor for war, the creation of god(s), the interiority of and thus the difficulty of assessing pain, the Marxist and Judeo-Christian structures of imagining the world (“making” through art, government, the creation of objects, religions, and concepts), to name a few of her subjects. She considers the utter “unmaking” of torture and war as world-destroying and, ultimately, word-destroying; when the human is in deep pain, the utterances are essentially word-less–moans, grunts, screams–and the experience remains internal and unique to each individual:

“Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language. ‘English,’ writes Virginia Woolf, ‘which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache.’ … Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.”

I love her theories (are they theories? explorations?) of imagination/imagining and creation/creativity. She develops this set of concepts in the transitional chapter “Pain and Imagining,” then applies her ideas to huge social constructs, not just to objects or individuals. I found it difficult to get my mind around the philosophical aspects of her argument–the denseness of her prose can  be tough, though never impenetrable. pain

What sprang to mind for me, among many other thoughts to mull over, is the pang I feel about recognizing that tools that change or make can also, almost always, be weapons as well. The hand or the fist. The sculptor’s knife or the assassin’s dirk. The stone that grinds corn or the projectile hurled at the opponent. The words that comfort, the words that wound. For a writer–a poet (“maker”)–that awareness hovers, always, in the background.

~

Also, Scarry’s book made me mindful of how pain and sorrow employ the language of war and torture. This is irrefutable, and it saddens me. I wonder: is there any way around that fact?

If I could rephrase my pain into words that were not violence-based, could I re-frame my pain? Certainly language has a relationship with consciousness; could there be a placebo effect on my interior sensations if I were to re-name my “pain sensations” as something other than burning, stabbing, numbing, sharp?

Could I unmake the world of pain through a mindful habit of personal language?

[Note: this speculation is not where Scarry goes in her text; it’s just a thought experiment that I have considered based upon some of her observations.]