Being Mortal

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I doubt it is possible to have access to the internet and be unaware that suicide has once again floated to the top of the news. If you were online and missed the fact that two famous and deeply gifted people took their lives this week, I’d like to know which filters you’re using in your various news feeds. You could sell it as a formula for downer-proof digital life.

In the several of the news reports about the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, there were references to a CDC study which indicated a couple startling trends. First, the suicide rate has risen 30 percent or more in half of the United States. Second, the CDC found that about half of the people who committed suicide did not have a history of mental health diagnosis or treatment. This bit of information startled me.

Before hearing about this study I assumed that two things are true about suicide: that the person is indeed deceased, and that he or she had an untreated or undertreated mental illness. I even went so far as to consider that 40,000+ yearly suicides in the U.S. could indicate that we are still living in a stone age of sorts in mental health treatment, that for some people mental illness can indeed be a terminal condition.

Sadly enough, it is true that some people suffer from mental illness so resistant to available treatments that they face a real and persistent threat of death due to suicide. One of my friends committed suicide in 2016 for just such a reason. Combine a deeply disabling mental illness like bipolar or schizoaffective disorder with substance abuse (which can sometimes involve escalating dependence on prescribed, controlled substances like Xanax), and suicide is a definite risk. For individuals with a clinical picture like that, mental illness can become a terminal condition.

Now is the point where I realize that I am taking entirely too long to develop the notion that arose in my mind from reading references to the CDC study that indicated about half of people who commit suicide have no mental health treatment history. Long story short, I believe that we are living in an age where it is becoming harder to conceal serious mental illness. You don’t have to crack open very wide to intersect with a mental health diagnosis. In the case of my friend who took her life, she had an 18-year-long treatment history before her suicide. She lived in small, conservative communities for her entire life. She was a born and bred Rustbelt Republican, and she grew up knowing that mental illnesses are just as valid as physical ones.

If half of U.S. suicides involve people with no mental health diagnoses, I cannot escape the notion that a rising number of people are deciding that their lives aren’t worth living. It is possible that some people are making a rational choice to stop living for trivial reasons. Why? Because they do not value human life enough to preserve their own.

I believe that everyone does a fairly complex yet intuitive cost/benefit analysis of human life and that this analysis informs the value we place on our own lives. For example, if you believe that a blind person is worthy of a dignified, happy life, you would eventually adapt to life as a blind person if you happened to lose your vision. If in your heart of hearts, you believe that such a disability leads to a useless life, you could very well choose to end your life due to loss of vision and have no mental illness at all.

While it is vital to continue the battle of easing stigma and increasing access to mental health treatment, I also believe that is time to start a cultural discussion of the value of human life. As this value declines in our culture, it becomes more rational to think that one should stay alive only as long as one is healthy, young, wealthy, famous, or some combination of all that is prized in the here and now.

Both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were well into middle age. I can’t help but think that whatever their personal reasons for suicide, their passing is symptomatic of our culture’s discomfort with aging. At 45, I am well into the long, rude awakening that aging is hard work. Have I broken some unspoken rule in advertising that I am already getting old? I’ve written several posts about my struggle with lumbar degeneration. In reality, my problem is just advanced aging of the spine. If you get old enough, there’s a good likelihood that your back will be just as bad as mine is.

I can’t be the only one who was so ill-prepared for getting older. I grew up in an era when looking young was paramount, with little regard for one’s insides– if you can be mistaken for a 30-year-old, then your insides must be that healthy, too. I am going to transgress once again in revealing that we start falling apart by degrees from the moment we are born. Ask anyone who’s had their wisdom teeth extracted after age 30, and you will hear that 30 is not so young.

In thinking of the rising suicide rate, I must remind myself that I decided long ago that life is worth living until its natural or accidental end, however hard one’s circumstances may be. Life is worth living even one is severely disabled, profoundly poor, or impossibly old.

Turn this thinking inside out. Consider a weather-beaten man wandering about downtown who looks like he has nothing but where the day may take him. No matter how he landed in such a life, his survival shows that he values his life against all odds. How much do you value yours?

Another image from yesterday’s photo walk

This one is from my budget smart phone. Who still uses “budget” as an adjective? I think such usage is a symptom of impending middle age. 

A Moving Postcard from 45

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I turned 45 this month. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve asked myself a crucial question several times: are you old enough to withstand seeing yourself as other people see you?

I admit that this question is a bit strange, but it is in my nature to wonder over such oddball notions. When I was a child, I wished and wished that I could shrink myself small enough to fit inside my toy shopping cart, just to see the world like my stuffed animals did as I walked them down the street in that cart. I imagined that I could have heard their soft banter had I been their size.

For all that we share selfies and short updates about daily life, are we any more efficient at conveying our selves to the world than we were before the internet existed as we now know it?

Think of the sense we gain of someone by watching that person enter a room or move down the street. When I look at the online profiles of my friends and family, I’ve hardly ever seen such footage, and I hadn’t thought to share such moments online until today.

This afternoon I remembered what the world was like when I became an adult in the early 90’s. The options in communicating over a distance with a kindred spirit were limited. Long distance telephone calls were pricey, so like many of my generation, I’d record mix tapes and write letters packed with inside jokes.

Back then, I could not have imagined what it would be like to have a real-time, multimedia communication device at my disposal. If smartphones had materialized back in the early 90’s, I’d have wanted to see ordinary moments of those who were and still are dear to me.

I remember being 19 years old and living 600 miles away from my mother. How delightful it would have been to watch a video of her lighting a cigarette in the morning and sipping her coffee.

Why is that we have this technology at our disposal but it is so seldom used in this way? Is movement reserved as that last shred of privacy in lives lived ever increasingly online?

I set up my tripod in my backyard after I returned home from work this afternoon. I wondered if I could stand to see myself walk across the yard. Believe it or not, if you haven’t seen a video of yourself walking before, the experience is just as jarring as hearing your recorded voice for the first time. Both experiences beg two questions: Is that really me? and How much do I like that person?

In seeing my video, I had to confront how I felt about myself. At first, I recoiled at the sight of it. Then I considered that my distaste was not a reflection of reality but of how I perceived myself. When I go about the business of daily living, people don’t react to me like I am a bloated absurdity come to life, and the odds are slim indeed that most people I encounter are wearing a poker face until I am out of sight.

I rewatched the video with the thought: imagine that you are watching somebody’s mother, daughter, wife, or best friend. Then I realized that I was doing just that. The people who are dearest to me don’t love me in spite of how I look, sound, and move. They love me in part because of those things.

I share this because the same thing is true of you, dear reader. At this moment, there are people in your life who would love to see moments of your life today as you lived them. Will you let them see you, or will you wait until some perfect moment in the future, when your hair, clothes, and size have reached some mythical standard?

There is no reason to wait, for you are already perfect enough for those who love you.

Here is my video:

Almost 45

I haven’t taken my picture in five years. At that point, the phenomenon of selfies reached a point of supersaturation. I decided to halt the habit unless inspiration hit me to take a true self-portrait (which hasn’t happened yet).

I figured that I am overdue to update my general profile picture online. Presenting a self from five years ago isn’t the most genuine window dressing on a blog.

I’m all about being candid with my appearance. This insistence borders on laziness I suppose, but long ago I decided that if a man can present his physical self to the world as he really is, then I could too. I do not wear makeup or color my hair (I think my hair is still exhausted from all the colors I forced on it between the ages of 16 and 35). My hair care regime is wash-and-wear.

Implied in this is an acceptance that I am no longer as young as I used to be. Wrinkles and gray hair have begun their slow takeover. My gray hairs must have been on break when I took this picture. They aren’t too apparent in this shot.

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The Knee Mystery

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It’s cold enough here to see frozen grass in the morning.

Over the past eight years, I’ve grown used to being well. This was not a natural condition for me, especially considering my lengthy history of depression. There were spans of physical wellness during those years, but I felt like these times free of illness were just eyes in the hurricane of faltering health. Then I was well for long enough, both in body and mind, that I embraced an identity that was not tainted with fragile health.

Fast forward to summer 2016, and I could no longer deny odd sensations from my left leg. I’d have alternating periods of moderate pain broken by numbness in the knee joint. I had a diagnosis of a sprained knee, but I had no accident that precipitated that injury. I figured the problem was strain due to overuse, and I did a month of physical therapy for the problem. Last week I was back to the doctor to report that therapy had resolved my pain but not the numb feeling in the joint. There are also times when it feels hot or cold, but not to the touch. Sometimes it feels like blood is rushing back to it to wake it up.

I haven’t the slightest idea of what is going on, but I do know it is disconcerting to have almost constant waking awareness of my left leg. Why can’t it just cooperate like the right leg, useful and hardly noticed? My doctor ordered an MRI, which revealed a perfectly normal knee joint.

This causes me to doubt my perceptions. If there was something physically wrong with this leg, surely there would be some evidence of damage on an MRI. I’ve been referred to an orthopedist solely as precautionary measure, and the likely result will be nothing amiss. This investigation will be over, the odd parethesia part of a “new normal” for me.

I did sprain this knee twenty six years ago, yet the scan reveals no legacy of damage. Is it possible for the brain to resurrect memory of an injury even after healing is complete?

Maybe this is one of those things about growing older that is kept secret from the young. Your body may start feeling different in unexpected ways, and answers can be so hard to find that they seem hardly worth pursuing.

Successful Aging?

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One of the assisted living facilities in my area is airing a TV commercial that mentions workshops on successful aging. I won’t blame this local facility for coining the term, for it seems to be the invention of a shadowy Illuminati designed to make us feel inadequate and ready to buy remedies for our shortcomings. Perhaps the same folks who decided to oppress us with BMI goals are now suggesting that we could fail in our twilight years as well. The term successful aging implies that someone could fail at it. Everyone since the dawn of humanity has succeeded at aging for as long as their lives have lasted. Furthermore, no one who had a short life should be considered a failure based on their lifespan.

I recall watching Cheek to Cheek on TV last year, an impressive duet performance between Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett. I remarked to my husband, who has aged successfully for sixteen more years than I have, “Tony Bennett has an amazing voice for his age. I don’t think most people his age can still sing.”

My husband said, “Most people his age are dead.”

Blessing

This evening I watched a recent NOVA documentary on Alzheimer’s research, and I suddenly recalled a blessing I said to my daughter in the hours after she was born. In my first moments alone with her, I skipped over introducing myself to her, for I figured that I was no stranger to her. I held her facing me and said, “may people feel as much pride and joy in caring for you when you are old as they did when you were so young.”

Can there be any better fortune than to be cherished at our end as much as we were at our beginning?