parenthood, Sam, things that make you sad

On Being The Parent Of A Sick Child

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Kids get sick all the time. Sam has been, by all accounts, an extremely healthy baby. No birth complications. No ER trips. Clean bill of health with every check-up. The occasional cold and one ear infection, but that’s it.

Yesterday, around four o’clock, after a day of perfectly happy eating, pooping, napping and crawling, he suddenly had a meltdown. His temperature spiked. He wouldn’t eat anything. All he did was cry.

I (Ben) heard about all this from work. Erin was the one who had to calm him down, try to feed him, and rock him to bed. When I got home, he was sound asleep — and, I hoped, just in need of a little extra rest.

I tend to be oblivious about what life-changing episodes are like until they happen to me. Marriage, buying a home, having kids — numerous friends beat me to all these milestones, and although I celebrated with them, it has always been difficult for me to make the empathic leap to really, truly share in that moment of celebration.

Of course, then these things happen to you, and you think to yourself, “Wow! This is a big deal!” I remember the first wedding Erin and I attended after our own, and how completely different it was from any wedding I’d previously attended. The ritual you’re commemorating means something different once you’ve done it yourself.

Last night, at two in the morning, I understood what it meant to be the parent of a sick child.

Sam woke up throughout the night, and sometime after midnight we went into his room to check on him. He was boiling. His hair was matted and his face was red and he felt like he’d just come out of the oven. We took his temperature (102.6), gave him tylenol and peeled him out of his sleep sack. He went back down for another hour or so.

At two I went in to check on him. He was crying, and still hot. I picked him up and we sat down in the glider. I started to rock him. He was sitting in my lap facing me. His arms were splayed out around my neck. He held his head up for a second to look at me, in a manner that suggested this was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life, and then — in one swift, dramatic motion — plopped it down against my chest.

That thud against my breastbone; the uncomfortable warmth of his whole body, like holding a giant eighteen pound hot water bottle with arms and legs; the utter dependence he had on me in that moment; and my heart just broke.

So now I know what this feels like.

Erin has written about the experience of breastfeeding Sam, and I’ve wondered what connection I’ve missed since he doesn’t depend on me physically the way he does his mom. Last night was a little glimpse of that for me. I know this is just a fever, with maybe another ear infection thrown in. Tomorrow I’ll take him in to see the doctor, and she’ll prescribe something to make him better, and within days he’ll be back to chasing the cat and dropping food on the floor. I know all of this.

Still, there’s the part of me that wishes no harm would ever come to him. There’s also the part of me that knows babies get sick, and grow up to become teenagers who will make terrible decisions (because that is, by definition, what all teenagers do sooner or later). Just the other day we were talking with friends who are parents of toddlers about the need for kids to experience pain. Our friends have a four-year-old who wanted to touch a hot tea kettle. They told her repeatedly not to; she kept testing them by moving her finger inches away from it. Finally they let her touch it, with the results you’d expect. “She needed to understand the boundaries of pain,” our friends said, “and she had to learn it herself.”

I know I cannot stop my son from getting sick. I cannot stop him from growing up and feeling pain. But I can, when he needs me at two in the morning, rock him until he falls asleep, and whisper in his ear. It’s all right, Sammy. It’s all right. Your dad is here.

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books, Friday Recommends, things that make you sad

Friday Recommends: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky

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In the words of David Lipsky, David Foster Wallace “wrote with eyes and a voice that seemed to be a condensed form of everyone’s lives — it was the stuff you semi-thought, the background action you blinked through at supermarkets and commutes — and readers curled up in the nooks and clearings of his style.” Lipsky, on assignment for Rolling Stone, spent five days with Wallace during the final leg of his book tour for Infinite Jest. Although Of Course is a transcript from their time together — road-tripping, playing chess, being stranded in airports, walking dogs, talking about fiction and fame — and it is, once you settle into its off-the-cuff style, an intimate account of a man who was astonishingly brilliant and deeply humane.

In an introductory essay (entitled “afterword”), Lipsky addresses Wallace’s suicide in 2008, noting that “suicide is such a powerful end, it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. It has an event gravity: Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction.” Wallace — who spent time in a psychiatric hospital in the late 80s and began taking a first-generation antidepressant called Nardil in 1989 — emerges in this book as a hyperaware character: He seems to see, and to feel, almost everything. And he is anything but a sad sack — funny, generous, infinitely curious, with the ability to express perfectly formed thoughts on the first draft out of his mouth. (Wallace, says Lipsky, “was such a natural writer he could talk in prose.”)

Although Infinite Jest had the literary world buzzing, Wallace was wary of the fame and attention. Charis Conn, an editor at Harper’s, was Wallace’s tour guide when Wallace came to New York. “Him in New York City — that was a show on its own,” Conn tells Lipsky. “Sort of gee-whizzing everything, amazed by everything. He was so much smarter than anyone, including you, and yet his attitude was, he was genuinely pleased to be wherever he was, most of the time. If he was with a congenial companion.”

Lipsky proves himself just that, while acknowledging how intimidating it is to write about someone who could write circles around him. Lipsky never published the piece he was sent to write. (“Thank God,” he says. “I tried to write it, and kept imagining David reading it, and seeing through it, through me, and spotting some questionable stuff on the X-ray.”) But now, with Wallace gone (his posthumous novel The Pale King is slated to release in 2011), Lipsky’s biography succeeds in giving us a portrait of the artist as a young man, whose brilliance and humor showed through even in the mundane. “Are you done in the bathroom?” Wallace asks toward the end of the book. “Because I’ve gotta wreak some havoc in there.”

depression, music, things that make you sad

Depression’s Downside

Mark Linkous, best known as the leader of Sparklehorse, committed suicide one week ago. An immensely gifted and chronically depressed fellow, Linkous’s music was an acquired taste — the sound of sadness itself, usually, which meant it was best taken in small doses and with a little sunshine after the fact. As this tribute from Robin Hilton at the All Songs Considered blog notes, however, Linkous’s death was hardly a surprise — a sad fact in and of itself.

His last album was the Dark Night of the Soul collaboration with David Lynch and Danger Mouse, exactly the sort of gloomy gorgeousness that was his hallmark.

David Hajdu uncovers this version of Sparklehorse’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” set to a video by Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, whose work seems a perfect match for the music.

depression, things that make you sad

Depression’s Upside

Jonah Lehrer has an article in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine entitled “Depression’s Upside.” He begins with an anecdote about Charles Darwin, who suffered from, variously, “fits,” “excitements,” “flurries,” “air fatigues,” “extreme spasmodic daily and nightly flatulence” and “hysterical crying” — all Victorian classifications for depression. (Flatulence?) More recognizable in today’s vocabulary of mental illness is this sentiment from Darwin: “[I] am not able to do anything one day out of three.” Once he even remarked, “I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others made in Science.”

Lehrer uses Darwin as a jumping off point to discuss the potential evolutionary benefits of depression, i.e. “depression’s upside.” He cites two psychologists, Paul Andrews and Andy Thomson, whose work suggests that rumination — the mental habit of turning over and over a particular thought or problem, the way livestock chew and rechew their food — yields a clarity of thought that enhances one’s understanding of the world. As Lehrer puts it, summarizing their view, “If depression didn’t exist — if we didn’t react to stress and trauma with endless rumination — then we would be less likely to solve our predicaments. Wisdom isn’t cheap, and we pay for it with pain.”

This is not a controversial statement, and yet Andrews and Thomson’s work has earned them critics who note, correctly, that depression is not always interchangeable with sadness or melancholy. There is a bitter clarity that heartbreak and tragedy can bring — sadness borne largely out of circumstances like grief or death — but, as Peter Kramer (the author of Listening to Prozac) says, “Depression is not really like sadness. It’s more an oppressive flattening of feeling.”

It’s a fascinating article, and Lehrer does a fine job making these different theories and studies accessible and easy to understand. He articulates a bothersome riddle — how can something so awful still yield, in scientific terms, an evolutionary benefit? Or, in religious terms, how can God redeem such suffering? Can something so painful ever be a gift? Lehrer writes,

To say that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its awfulness. A fever, after all, might have benefits, but we still take pills to make it go away. This is the paradox of evolution: even if our pain is useful, the urge to escape from the pain remains the most powerful instinct of all.

books, music, things that make you sad

Sophomore Efforts

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Two much-anticipated January releases — The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris, and Vampire Weekend’s Contra — are case studies in The Sophomore Effort. Then We Came To The End, the 2007 debut novel from Ferris, is one of the funniest, and richest, novels in recent memory. It was easy to bill it as “The Office” in novel form, but it’s much more than that: It’s a story about life and death that just happens to take place at work. Vampire Weekend’s self-titled 2008 album was, despite its hype and the invitation to resent four Columbia grads borrowing Afro-pop and transforming it into “Upper West Side Sowetto,” a blast. After such noteworthy debuts, what do you do for an encore?

If you’re Ferris, you take a risk. The Unnamed shares little in common with Then We Came To The End. Tim Farnsworth is a successful partner at a Manhattan law firm who has a curious affliction: He cannot stop walking. His spells come and go, but when they hit they are severe: Tim awakes in parking lots and backyards, exhausted and unable to recall how he got there. Doctors cannot cure him, and his wife, Jane, dreads waking up in the night to find he is gone again. Their marriage is tested time and again as Tim recovers only to relapse years later.

Whether Tim’s walking is a metaphor — for ennui, mental illness or marital drift — or not is a question Ferris leaves up to the reader. It is a confounding book, resistant to classification, and yet there are transcendent moments — Tim and Jane’s reunions after months apart, a father-daughter bonding time over “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” a perverse anecdote about a lawyer named Lev — sprinkled along the way. Ferris writes about sadness and melancholy with a deep respect for its mystery. He also probes at mental vs. physical pain and the dichotomy between mind and body, soul and flesh. While the ending is ultimately unsatisfying — the book, like its protagonist, just seems to stop, exhausted — it’s encouraging that Ferris still had the discipline to follow the story where it went, away from cliche or tidy resolution. It’s a promising sign for whatever he tackles next.

Contra, at first listen, doesn’t sound like much of a departure from Vampire Weekend. It actually sounds like the band has become more itself: there are more genres — reggae, calypso, ska, synth-pop — packed into these efficient, breezy songs; more hyper-literate wordplay (rhyming “horchata” with “balaclava”; the line “your Tokugawa smile”); and more lyrics about privilege, wealth, self-image and social status, though a close reading shows that lead singer Ezra Koenig is less enthralled by than conflicted about these subjects.

The two most ambitious songs are the last two. “Diplomat’s Son” samples M.I.A. and Toots and the Maytals and unfolds like a short story; it has quickly become our favorite. The closer, “I Think UR A Contra,” is hazy and diffuse, but ends with Koenig laying his heart on his sleeve: “Never pick sides/Never choose between two/Well I just wanted you/I just wanted you.” For an album that initially sounds so similar to its predecessor, Contra ends up surprising with its depth, range, confidence and maturity. Once again, Vampire Weekend has given itself a tough act to follow.

books, depression, faith, things that make you sad

Hurry Down Sunshine, Michael Greenberg

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When I (Ben) wrote about my ongoing battle with depression recently, several people responded with the same question: Are we crummy friends? They expressed that they didn’t realize the extent of my mental illness. They wondered if they had been aloof or unresponsive in a time of need. (One wrote, “I can just imagine I said something horrifically unhelpful like, ‘Dude, you just gotta cheer up, dude.'”) They may have felt betrayed that I didn’t open up to them. (One said — I hope sarcastically — “Uhg! I’m going to have nightmares! Thank you for reminding me again that I’m the worst person in world.”)

None of my friends are the worst people in the world, and betrayal is the last thing I want anyone to feel. As I told everyone who expressed this to me, my friends have done more to help me than they’ll ever realize. It is my own failure that I’ll never be able to articulate that fully to everyone who has saved me in ways both large and small. But it’s the truth.

It’s also the truth that I did what I suspect most everyone with a mental illness does to their friends: I hid. I elided. I told partial truths. I omitted key facts. (Like, in my case, going to the hospital.)

What’s hard for me to convey, but what I also desperately want my friends to know, is that my behavior had nothing to do with them. It was not a lack of character or trust that made me divulge something to one person but not another. It was, if anything, a matter of practicality. Anyone I saw on a daily basis, I probably had to tell. I calculated who needed to know what in order for me to keep my job, my living arrangement, a social life that I desperately needed outside of work. If I was brave enough, I talked about my depression with those outside my day-to-day life. But talking about it also made it real, which is why not talking about it was such an appealing option. Out of sight, out of mind.

One friend wrote this in response to my post:

Maybe this is something that you can address in future posts. How do we, as your friends, respond? What is helpful and what is just intrusive or annoying or completely missing the point? (Are these questions missing the point?) There is a history of depression in my family which seems to have skipped me, but when I talk to my sisters about the things that they feel and are going through, I feel helplessly inept. That last thing I want is for you to feel that I am cold and aloof and uncaring about your depression.

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I thought about these questions as I read Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg. The book is a lyrical meditation on what it takes to support and love someone with mental illness. The first two sentences give you a pretty good idea of what it’s about:

On July 5, 1996, my daughter was struck mad. She was fifteen and her crack-up marked a turning point in both our lives.

From there, Greenberg details his daughter Sally’s manic flights, her hospitalization in a Manhattan psych ward, the suffering he endures as a parent, and the healing and grieving that must be shared as a family. It is a hard, unflinching book, honest about pain and patience. That Sally (and Greenberg) comes out alive in the end is a testament to endurance.

But even after reading it, I didn’t have a good answer for my friend’s question. How do you respond to someone with mental illness?

The first thing I should say is that I did some awful things to friends and family when I was hurting. So I’d rank forgive high on the list.

Right up there with forgive I’d add listen. The truth is you’ll never compel someone to open up about his mental illness if he’s not ready. And no one wants to begin a conversation, “So, how’s the manic depression been treating you lately?” (Mental illness, unlike the weather, doesn’t make for good small talk.) But being there, at that strange and sudden moment when we do want to talk, is a gift that only friends can give.

A corollary to this: You don’t need to be a counselor. We’re already seeing counselors. We don’t need more, trust us. (Hopefully that takes a little weight off your shoulders.)

A caution, particularly if you have your own mental illness to battle: You don’t need to share someone’s pain. After Sally is out of the hospital, Greenberg goes so far as to take a full dose of her medication to “try to see the world as she does.” (This scene — uncomfortable and comical, as Greenberg becomes lethargic but keeps a scheduled meeting with his agent — ends with Greenberg getting a screenplay deal though he can barely put together a sentence.) He sees the world as she does, and in doing so becomes completely useless as a caretaker. The gesture is a noble one, but you don’t have to feel sick to help the sick.

Greenberg makes this point when he says,

Later, when the meds have worn off and I have time to see Sally in the context of my few hours in that numbed world, I realize that the drugs release her not from her cares, but from caring itself. For caring, exorbitant caring — about the meaning of a passing glance from a stranger, the look in a news broadcaster’s eye on television, the fixed fired thoughts in one’s head — is the psychotic’s curse.

Manic depressives can be given to exorbitant caring. If you are one, be wary of just how much caring you can shoulder for another.

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That said, nothing has given me better insight into mental illness than reading accounts from others who have survived it. Let’s call this one understand. This is Atticus Finch’s “You never really understand a person … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” How you do this without falling into “exorbitant caring” is the trick.

What Hurry Down Sunshine adds to “the contemporary texts of mental disturbance” (Greenberg’s own phrase for the likes of Darkness Visible, The Bell Jar and An Unquiet Mind, among others) is an understanding of mental illness as something more than mere chemistry. There is a spirituality and humanity to madness as Greenberg conceives it. In the hospital he befriends an Orthodox Jew named Yankel, whose brother Noah is on the same ward as Sally. Yankel asks Greenberg,

“What do they know from ‘mental illness’ in this place? Maybe you can explain to me what such an expression means. I took Noah to the rebbe who said that he has become lost in his pleading to God. ‘I can’t help you with this,’ he told me. ‘Go see a psychiatrist.’ Our own rebbe! He should know better. There is no medicine for this.”

Another character from the book — Gato, a Dominican doorman — offers his own poetic insight, no less profound for its profanity: “Look, I got a loco of my own at home, it isn’t easy, I know the score, you got to keep loving ’em when what you want to do is shoot ’em between the fucking eyes.” That may not be the wording I’d use to answer my friend’s question, but the wisdom of that sentiment is hard to argue with.

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Rachel Donadio offered an excellent review of Hurry Down Sunshine when it appeared in hardcover a year ago. “What sets Hurry Down Sunshine apart from the great horde of mediocre memoirs, with their sitcom emotions and too neatly resolved fights and reconciliations,” she wrote, “is Greenberg’s frank pessimism, dark humor and fundamental incapacity to make sense of his daughter’s ordeal, let alone to derive an uplifting moral from it.” A hearty amen. You can read the full review here.

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I realize now that my three suggestions — forgive, listen, understand — form the nice little acronym, FLU. So there you go.

depression, faith, things that make you sad

The Deepest Silence, Part 2

This is my sixth attempt to write this post. The first three times I (Ben) stopped because I thought, “The people who won’t be freaked out by depression will be freaked out by faith/Christianity. And the very few who may not be freaked out by either will likely be freaked out by both together.” I don’t mean that as underestimating my audience, only as an illustration of the mental roadblocks I had to navigate getting this out on paper.

I stopped during times #4 and #5 because I tried writing something about depression without addressing spirituality. Those detours dead-ended quickly and disastrously. I knew what I wanted to write about even if I didn’t know how to write it. I was in denial.

Here goes draft #6:

The most troubling question I have had to reconcile about being a Christian who suffers from depression isn’t why God allows it. It’s why God is silent.

John Updike said that God saves his deepest silence for the saints. This is, on one hand, perverse. But it is also, as one reads the Bible, true. Some of God’s most beloved were also seemingly the most cursed: Jacob, Jeremiah, Elijah, Paul, David, Moses, Job, to say nothing of Jesus himself. In crucial moments of their stories, God disappears, none more so than when Jesus feels forsaken on the cross. Why?

I want to be very clear before we go any farther: Depression — any mental illness, for that matter — does not make one a saint. Nor am I saint for feeling as though I have been intimate with God’s absence. Many, many people can attest to my failings, the co-writer of this blog being tops on the list.

I have known from a young age that my depression was tied up in my faith. Over time I have come to understand chemical imbalances and serotonin levels and hereditary defects; I acknowledge that these too are vital components. My frame of reference, however, has first and foremost been a spiritual one. (And I acknowledge, certainly, that there are those who believe that religious belief is its own mental illness.) This could be a tremendously harmful thing, as I often concluded that a bout of depression was something I deserved — punishment from God. I have matured enough by now to realize this is bad theology. The Christian God is not one of retribution. But this is another post for another time.

I am one of those kids who grew up in the church and would answer, when asked, that I had been a Christian all my life. But when pressed, I can trace my one conversion moment to my sophomore year at college, when I walked to the Church of the Holy Spirit on Kenyon’s campus at three in the morning, unable to sleep or get out of my own head. (Hell! I tell you.) In exquisite mental anguish, I sat in the stillness of an empty sanctuary and heard, for the first time in my life, God’s silence. I walked out of the church that night utterly defeated — what Frederick Buechner called “the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.”

The following summer was my first at Summer’s Best Two Weeks, where I’d meet Erin five years later. (Fun fact: We were actually both there for two weeks that summer, me as a 19-year-old counselor and she as a 17-year-old kitchen crew member. We never met.) That summer was the first time everything clicked for me spiritually. I realized Christianity was not about being right or moral but about being alive, and I had never felt more alive than I did those three months. Not coincidentally, my mental health was almost spotless. This only confirmed to me that there was a spiritual component that couldn’t be ignored. Also, that healing was possible.

When I began seeing a counselor the fall after I graduated college, I was so desperate that I picked one out of the phonebook at random. It didn’t matter who or where. (The one I picked was a 45-minute drive from my apartment.) As we met and I began talking about depression and my spiritual beliefs, it was obvious my counselor didn’t see the same connections I did, or feel as though she was able to address them in a satisfactory way. She did what any good counselor should — she recommended me to someone else.

This man was a Christian, and over the three years I met with him he treated me both mentally and spiritually. Much of what I needed to learn then (and still do) are simple cognitive habits that discourage, rather than invite, spells of sadness. He taught me these things. But other days he saw, as no one else had, that what troubled my spirit was, in fact, a spiritual affliction. Some sessions he prayed with me. Other times he told me what his experience of God had been. At no point did he ever preach, judge or condemn. I may not be alive today if not for this man.

Faith and mental illness is the subject of a new book called Wrestling With Our Inner Angels; Faith, Mental Illness, and The Journey to Wholeness by Nancy Kehoe. It has, like virtually every “Christian” book on depression, a terrible title (though the Biblical moment it alludes to — Jacob wrestling the angel — is one of the most accurate pictures of depression in scripture). It is, however, smart and sharply written, a humane account from a woman who is both a clinical instructor in psychology and a nun. Back in 1981, when Kehoe agreed to a consultation with a psychiatric director at one of Harvard Medical School’s teaching hospitals, she made a startling discovery:

When I met with the staff to debrief the session, to my bewilderment, they said that many clients referred to religion, but the therapists simply ignored it, not knowing how to handle the topic. This was an amazing admission for mental health professionals, who are trained to explore every aspect of a person’s life, from the most intimate areas, such as sexuality, finances, and abuse histories, to the most public, such as work histories. Listening to, making sense of, and helping a person reframe the narrative of his or her life is the essence of therapy.

This conversation, however, suggested that the chapter that concerned religion was being omitted: that the whole story could never be told because no one wanted to listen. The image that came to mind was that of archaeologists on a dig, unearthing sacred artifacts and tossing them aside because they were focused solely on certain aspects of a culture.

Kehoe’s book is an account of her experiences reconciling faith and mental illness, and it is rich with wisdom and, for those of us standing at those crossroads, encouragement. One patient articulates exactly what I have felt too many times to count: “I pray, but I don’t know if God hears my prayers, because I have a mental illness.”

The path I am very carefully walking right now is one that acknowledges two contradictions: 1) mental illness is an affliction, but 2)  it can, in fact, be a gift. I am not saying it is a blessing to have it. I am saying that having it has taught me things about faith that I would otherwise never have learned. People with depression can be quite attuned to the needs of those around them. They can be quicker to, as one of my fellow inmates in the psych hospital put it every night, “let go and let God.” They can be slower to judge and quicker to forgive. They can, for reasons that still mystify me, sometimes be saints. When Mother Teresa’s Come Be My Light was published, many were startled at just how bleak and despairing her journals were. “I am told God lives in me,” she wrote, “and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” And yet she still did what she did.

The night I admitted myself to the hospital, I walked to the church where I worked and sat in an empty chapel. I couldn’t pray. I could hear only God’s silence. I cursed and cried. Then I called my counselor and told him I needed to go to the hospital. Waiting outside the church for him to arrive, I heard sirens in the distance. I wondered if those were the ones on the ambulance that would be coming to take me away. What a screwed up life I’ve got, I thought. I feel like I’m watching someone else’s. Then I looked up at the stars and thought of all the Psalms that were inspired by the same view. So many routes to the foot of the cross, I thought, and this is the one I chose, or the one that chose me.