Pandemic Memories

This weekend’s weather is not favorable for outdoor photography, so I looked through images I captured last week to glean another one to offer here on Intensity Without Mastery. I gravitated toward a flag photo I took at a local park. The sight of it swirled my mind in moments of the pandemic.

Before I dig further into the recent past, I’d like to mention I understand the pandemic is far from over. Thousands of people all over the world are still dying from Covid-19 every single day. I speak in the present tense from a time of relative intermission in the American pandemic.

I am hesitant to offer my pandemic memories. I’d like to think that my position through the height of the U.S. pandemic is unusual in that I am both a blogger and an essential worker. I put my blogging aside to avoid writing much about my experiences. In all honesty, it wasn’t so much an avoidance but a sense of being utterly unequal to the task. This is a thing which happens to me when depression rolls in like a fog. I believe that I cannot write except in a basic, functional way, such as writing lists or relaying instructions.

The current tagline of this blog uses the phrase life after depression, but I do not mean to imply that I am free of the affliction. I still suffer from episodes of depression. I just know what to do about getting the condition treated before I slip into a major, abiding case of it.

Now I will walk back to the matter of believing that I cannot write while I am depressed. This sense of incapability is not a delusion, for it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. My diction becomes so halting and Yoda-tastic that I give up.

It did not help matters that my feelings about working away from home during the past crests of the pandemic were deeply ambivalent. I vacillated between resenting my predicament and feeling a sense of solidarity with my fellow workers. I very seldom felt sorry for myself. I’d notice that press accounts of essential workers were awash in varying degrees of pity, but I believe this sense of pity was a reflection of guilt some better-offs had toward the working class rather than the actual self-pity of the workers themselves. I know that’s a bold assertion for me, but that was my overall impression of mainstream press coverage of essential workers.

I haven’t begun to tell you the darkest parts of my pandemic life, about how I partook of and witnessed much myth-making of survival in hard times. I haven’t yet told you about how my mother went mad and raged like Lear against the storm of a Covid-tainted world, and how this madness exhausted her in a prelude to her death.

My sister and father would be far better equipped to tell Mom’s story, for she kept me away out of concern of contagion during the last three months of her life, until she was too worn out to protest my presence. The matter of who might infect whom changed day by day. Over the phone, she’d tell me she was worried she’d give me Covid, and the next day she’d say she wouldn’t go to the doctor because she might get Covid. Ultimately, the separation was futile. It is almost certain that she had been infected when my dad got it three months before she passed away. As for me, I tested positive for antibodies around the time she died, so I must have had an asymptomatic infection at some point.

In other words, we all got it anyway, which leads me to a frequent theme of the myth-making I mentioned above: We’re all going to get it anyway. Many times I’d counter that statement by saying or thinking it was deeply unreasonable, that at best it was false and at worst it was a mildly deluded way of risking infection. Then again, who am I to judge given that I too got it anyway?

The problem lies in how the myth of We’re all going to get it anyway reduces agency by treating the future as if it were the past.

The U.S. flag image I offer with this post reminds me of January 6, 2021, a day in which a crowd of people did the opposite by indulging in inappropriate agency by storming the Capitol. I tried to listen to the Electoral vote certification at work, but I turned it off after a few minutes because I couldn’t divide my attention between my tasks and listening to the broadcast. As I drove home, my first clue that something had went terribly wrong was spotting an upside-down U.S. flag flying at one of the houses I’d pass on the drive home. It had taken the place of a Gadsden flag that was usually aloft at the same address.

When I watched the news that evening, I mentioned to my husband how our city has a few of the same flags that the right-wing rioters proudly carried, and he replied, “They walk among us.”

When I think of my country’s complicated response to Covid, the first thing that comes to mind is that when some Americans say “Live Free or Die,” they mean it literally.

A Dutchman

In writing about my family tree, I have referred to my paternal grandfather several times, but I have hesitated to write about my mother’s father, Grandpa Bob. Every time I log into my DNA matching accounts, I see his legacy. On 23andMe, the great majority of my close matches are connected to me through him. It so happens that both of his siblings have done genetic genealogy tests. His family tree is so well represented in my matches that I have entertained the notion that the desire to know one’s genetic heritage may be associated with a hitherto nameless gene that happens to run through several of his family lines.

There is no reliably tactful way of raising the subject of a close ancestor with a checkered past. Feelings can still be so raw that the only simple way to refer to such an ancestor is through pictures, such as this one:

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Grandpa was afflicted with both alcoholism and depression. Even though I honestly cannot recall a time he hurt me intentionally, I turned away from him when I was 10 years old, when he bookended several years of sobriety with more drinking. One day I came from school and his voice sounded a half octave higher, like Joe Pesci halfway through a bottle of Ripple. Hearing him say my name in that funhouse voice bricked in my heart, and I couldn’t even look at him.

He pleaded with me, “Why won’t you look at me, Shelly?”

At that age, I did not have the words to explain to him that I couldn’t deal with him because I knew that his drinking had an been an earthquake in my mother’s youth. I loved him, but he had hurt my mother. That was all that mattered. I loved my mother more.

I have written before that there is no point in judging my ancestors because if they had lived their lives differently, I might not exist. But this neutrality is tough when that person’s behavior wounded some of the people I love most.

About a year and a half ago, I lost a friend to suicide, and she gave me the unintentional gift of forgiving Grandpa Bob. Her life had fallen apart by degrees, and she had descended to the outskirts of the local alcoholic culture. That life quickly wore on her; she ended her life three months later.

Through her, I understood that Grandpa’s triumph was his survival. To have been been so afflicted and resisted suicide for seven decades was a victory in itself. In researching his family tree, I discovered that two of his first cousins had ended their lives, one of whom did so in such a dramatic fashion that his end was the lead story in the local newspaper the day after his death. This headline-making cousin was also his best friend.

Depression and alcohol in tandem are a juggernaut. Each alone can drive a person to do or say the very things that push away the people who love you the most. Together this alienation is achieved with greater efficiency, like a carpet bomb that eventually wipes out everyone around you except for toxic strangers.

Grandpa has been gone for fifteen years. When I see the names of his family lines in so many of my genetic matches, I now think of the good times we had with him, which have grown precious in my memory. I remember when he taught me how to cook pancakes and slowly heat maple syrup in a sauce pan at the same time so the syrup would be perfect when all the pancakes were ready.

He told me a few times that he was a Dutchman. I asked him how he knew, and he told me, “Listen to your baby brother. He already knows how to speak Dutch.”

When I was building the outline of my family tree, I discovered that he really did have some Dutch ancestors and that he’d descended from some of the early Dutch settlers of New York:

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How such information is lost and found as family histories are passed down through generations is a mystery to me.

The week before I stopped talking to Grandpa, he surprised me by writing “E.T. phone home” on the chalkboard in my room. He was the kind of Grandpa who excelled at making quarters appear behind ears, so he didn’t reveal himself as the author for a few days. When I found out he was the one who wrote it, I sprayed the chalk board with hairspray so it would stay longer. Even after we stopped talking, I let his message fade in its own time.

10 Years Later

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After I wrote about my emergence from long-term welfare last week, I recalled that I still had a screen shot of my 2006 BVR-ordered psychological evaluation. The picture above shows the summary of my MMPI-2 results. Since my life has a perpetual soundtrack, this picture brings to mind a lyric from “Never Too Late” by Three Days Grace: “This world will never be what I expected, and if I don’t belong, who would have guessed it?”

I have considered that there is risk involved in disclosing such information, in particular the risk that this revelation could undermine the apparent legitimacy of my perspective on subjects that are unrelated to my history of mental illness. I think this risk is due to stigma about mental illness and that disclosure helps reduce this stigma. My history of clinical depression does not make me an unreliable narrator because if I were still suffering from disabling mental illness, I would not have the motivation to write this blog. There wouldn’t be enough of my writing for anyone to critique and dismiss on the grounds of my illness.

The highest score on my exam may be surprising considering that I’ve focused on depression in the history of this blog. My seventeen years of treatment (1992-2009) lent me a torn perspective on mental illness. While I do believe that mental illness can be disabling, I’ve also considered that there are symptoms that may be considered part of a “disease” but are not necessarily harmful to one’s happiness and productivity. With that aside, I will tell you that my occasional hallucinations have not been a burden to me. When I was seriously depressed, I had little relief from the drudgery of reality. I wished that I would hear or see something divorced from my everyday life, but it seemed the visions would not return, like a dark night of the soul. If I had no insight that I sometimes hear or see things that are not grounded in physical perception, then my hallucinations would indeed be part of a disease.

Yesterday evening I beheld a precious gift, a gold necklace that belonged to a friend of mine who passed away early this year. I was standing in my kitchen holding the necklace and looked toward the living room. Standing next to my couch was my departed friend. With a peaceful smile, she flickered away. I am grateful for such comfort. If this is a disease, I do not wish to be treated for it.

 

 

A letter I wrote to a now departed friend

Back in October, I wrote a letter to a troubled friend who has since passed away. I thought that I should copy it here (minus the first names of others mentioned in the letter) in the event that it is lost elsewhere. At the time, I thought it was a valiant attempt to help her, but now I know that I didn’t really understand how ill she was.

——

I’ve thought a long time about what to write back to you, and I’m not sure where to begin. There is much proverbial food for thought in your two messages. I can relate to the struggle of addiction. U2 captured the problem well with their lyric, “I feel numb/too much is not enough”. Perhaps numbness is not the core of addiction. Instead, it’s any feeling that seems inappropriate in the situations we face. So we stifle or soothe those feelings with whatever addiction we’re facing at the moment. I think I will be addicted to something for the rest of my life. For a long time I’ve restricted this problem to nicotine and caffeine (and sometimes food, which was easily my biggest problem). I avoid classically addictive things because I assume they would destroy me, e.g. gambling and narcotics.

The first and likely the easiest thing for you to drop would be alcohol. Alcohol never helps depression or anxiety. It also harms sleep. The rest one gets after drinking is poor, too.

I should also disclose that I don’t have much faith in psychiatric meds, at least the ones prescribed for depression. Every one I tried eventually stopped working. The list: prozac, effexor, celexa, lexapro, remeron, paxil, trazodone. I also tried Zyprexa and an anxiety med whose name I don’t recall at the moment. None of these meds did much for me.

The only things that worked were the opportunities to love with E** and R**. Also the habit of physically exhausting myself. Love and wearing myself out is what worked. I’d also like to mention that the healing power of love resides in loving more than in being loved. Love can heal even if you do not feel loved in return. Loving heals because it relieves us of the burden of thinking of oneself, however temporarily.

It sounds like you would need medical supervision to alter or reduce the medications you are taking. I don’t know much at all about medically induced comas in rehab. I’ve only heard reference to them in treating opiate addictions. Change or recovery will be challenging no matter what therapy is used, but it will be worth it.

I’d also like you to know that my recovery has not been perfect, but I’ve grown to accept my situation. Some days I wake up inexplicably pissed, afraid or downright depressed, but I move forward. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with post SSRI “brain shocks.” On occasion I also hallucinate. Last year I was home alone and saw a clown and R** walk through the kitchen. Neither of them were there. I’ve seen L*** and R** at work on their days off. This has been happening sporadically for years, and I’ve gotten used it.

I am flawed, but I survive. I am happy because I accept that I am a mess.

Weighty Matters

After my major depression dissipated (it lasted from 1992 to 2009), I also lost significant amounts of weight. I lost weight slowly over three years in hope that I would be at a healthy weight for the first time for my fortieth birthday. In this venture I was successful. For three years,  I’ve kept off all but 20 of the 135 pounds I lost. I wish there were some formula I could devise and follow so I can devote less of my psyche to this venture. There’s no denying the comfort of reaching and keeping a goal that was so elusive for most of my life, but I feel it is time to focus on something other than my size. I hope that in shifting my focus that I don’t reinflate. It is time to more fully consider matters deeper than my surface.