Today is/was/would have been my father’s ninety-second birthday. With my mom’s death ten months ago, most of my focus has been on that more recent loss and the attendant (and apparently never-ending) responsibilities. But I still miss my dad.
He died back in 2007 of cancer, but he was the soul of our family and I sometimes, even now, find myself reaching for the phone to call him.
Dad was a generally gentle man, but he always reminded us that he’d been born on the day Caesar was murdered. I think Dad hoped that being born on the Ides of March might give him an alluringly dangerous veneer.
When I was very young, my father would, once in a while, take me into Los Angeles, I think to give my mother a bit of break.
I remember a day when we went to Angels Flight, “the World’s Shortest Incorporated Railway.”
I remember holding tightly to my father’s hand because the car was so crowded and we didn’t want to get separated by the press. I was too small to see out the window and we were too packed in for Dad to be able to pick me up. (Maybe he was worried he’d drop me out the window.) Nevertheless, it was all so exciting and I was out with my father in the city and what could be better than that?
With my Dad on my mind and my inbox over-flowing, I was trying to catch up on my e-mails and saw that Jake Parker, the instigator of the annual Inktober challenge, has started issuing weekly prompts: Inktober52. So I took a peek to see what he’d posted, and saw that the first prompt was “Flight.” I guess because my dad was already on my mind, the word brought up the image Angels Flight and my memory of that day in L.A. So with the childish skills I have, I combined the first five Inktober52 prompts into a rough remembrance of my journey on the World’s Shortest Railway:
If you’re one of the few people who might be reading this, perhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve been away for a while. I wasn’t really abducted by aliens — that would have been all over the tabloids, right? — but I often feel as if I get transported to a place where I inexplicably lose time and all memory of what I was supposed to be doing.
It’s hard to know how to dive into this post, not because I don’t know what to write, but because others, especially Jenny Lawson and Wil Wheaton, have already said it better than I ever shall.
You’re back? Great. That was a pretty awesome speech, wasn’t it? OK: here we go.
I am Ruth Feiertag, and I live with Chronic Depression.
In many ways, my life has been very different from Mr. Wheaton’s. I rank among the least famous people on the planet. I do love Star Trek, but I never even got to be a neon-skinned alien with tentacles or antennae lurking, uncredited, in the background. But he and I do have some things in common. In my own way, I also have been fortunate. I have always had a place to live, enough to eat, clothes to wear, access to health care and decent schools, and almost all the books I wanted: you know, the basic necessities. I grew up in a stable home with parents and siblings who loved me. I went on to create a family of my own. Pretty damn lucky.
But like Wil Wheaton, I live with chronic depression and anxiety, what he aptly calls “the tag team champions of the World Wrestling With Mental Illness Federation.” (I also have myalgic encephalomyelitis, the condition formerly known as chronic fatigue, and a couple other door-prizes I’ve discovered or picked up along the way.) I’m offering up my story, in part, to add to my voice to the chorus1 of those trying to defuse the stigma around mental illness and, in part, to explain what happened to my Inktober tale.
Again like Mr. Wheaton, I got the message early and clearly that mental illness was a shameful character flaw, one that would redound to my family’s shame. My mother was particularly expressive on this subject. Over the years, even well into my adulthood, Mom told me that psychologists only mess people up, that they always blame the mothers (thank you, Dr. Freud), that they take children away from their parents — a prospect that frightened me horribly. People who have mental problems, my mom would say, need to be tough and get past to whatever they might be attributing their depression. Mom made it plain that if we ever sought help for mental issues, she would be the one to suffer.
To be fair, my mother’s fears were not entirely unfounded. She did have some damaging experiences, especially with school counselors who were quick to fault my mother for things beyond her control. It was not Mom’s fault that I was (am) shy and socially inept, tom-boyish and gawky, just as it was not her “fault” that I used to be tall for my age, liked books, and was good at catching lizards. My hair-cut, though — that was ENTIRELY Mom’s fault.
My anxiety manifested young. I got kicked out of nursery school for being so shy and anxious that I couldn’t make friends or interact with the other children. I remember standing on the margins of the playground, hoping equally that no one would notice me and that one of the other children would ask me to come play. I think I was there about three weeks before the teachers told Mom to keep me home. Mom attributed my behaviour to selfishness. There was a baby, and Mom said that I didn’t want to let her have time with him.
Grammar school was a little better. After all, public schools can’t kick out students for being socially awkward. I spent a lot of recesses tucked away in odd corners, reading. But my anxiety was still powerful enough to give me stomach aches. There was a day in first grade when I my stomach was cramping up painfully, but Mom insisted that I go to school anyway. She did tell me, however, to let my teacher know that if I didn’t feel better after a while, the teacher should let me call home.
Mrs. Persons was one of those firm teachers with high expectations and her opinion was immensely important to me. I was so shakingly nervous about conveying Mom’s message to her that I immediately burst into tears and couldn’t speak with any coherency. Mrs. Persons sent me to the nurse, the nurse called Mom, and Mom came to get me, and she was not amused.
Even worse, when I went back to school the next day, Mrs. Persons shamed me during circle time in front of the other students, chastising me for my “crocodile tears” and accusing me of lying about feeling ill. (That wasn’t even what I had been trying to tell her. I’d been trying to say that if I still felt ill later, then, Mom had said, I should get to call home.) Other than that one instance, Mrs. Persons was a wonderful teacher who encouraged me and celebrated my intelligence, but I realized that she felt I had been dishonest and, on some level, that I had made her look bad, and I was disappointed with myself, verging on being ashamed, for letting her down. I had been bad, not in need of understanding.
By junior high, I was talking with friends about whether I might be crazy. In high school, I would regularly miss a couple weeks of school due to a mysterious lethargy that my parents finally decided was caused by my allergies.
It wasn’t until after the birth of my first child that I saw a therapist. The beautiful cherub we brought home from the hospital turned out to be an adorable demon who didn’t — and as an adult, still doesn’t — need much sleep. For a year, I thought that my low mood was due to an exhaustion that would go away about the time our sleepless wonder went to college. All I had to do was hold up for another seventeen years…
Then, at the children’s used-clothing store up the street, I picked up a local parents’ newspaper that had an article on postpartum depression and I realized that sleep deprivation might not be my only problem.
This was back before health insurance had to offer behavioural health benefits and before we had money to spare for luxuries like counselling, so it was lucky that the article also listed organizations that would help new mothers find the support they needed. The local United Way found me a therapist and sent someone around to check on me every week or so until I regained my balance. It took only a few months, that time, for me to feel like myself again and to start to re-build my hopes and ambitions, and then to work to start bringing them about.
Over the next few years, I had bouts of melancholy that would come and go, but eventually the depression came to stay. I have now spent about a quarter-century living with the sadness, the self-doubt, and other emotional accessories that come with the second skin of melancholy.2
Because here’s what Mr. Wheaton’s speech doesn’t say: about a third of us who suffer from chronic depression are stuck with it. The drugs don’t work — all the ones I’ve tried had side-effects that made me worse, sometimes trip-to-the-ER worse — and counselling doesn’t scare away the depression either. (I have a brilliant therapist. While she hasn’t been able to disappear the depression, she does keep me from living under my covers.) And even those who do get relief from drugs or therapy usually find what some people call the Black Dog (not Sirius Black. This is a different black dog. Sirius Black would be cool) padding along beside them at times throughout their lives.
When my depression and fatigue become rampant, sometimes my mind walls off sections in an arbitrary fashion. And that’s what happened with my Inktober project. I kept up with writing the prompts, but not with typing up my ramblings and posting them. I have, slowly, over the past many weeks, gotten my Inktoberings into shape, and will start posting them, one every couple of days.3
So that’s where I’ve been, sorting out my mom’s estate (a Work In Progress) and living in my head (another WIP). But if you’d rather think I was abducted by aliens, go ahead. That would be a better story. Maybe I was aboard a UFO with aliens who found my Inktober efforts sufficiently amusing to let me bring my notebook and pens. Maybe the depression is just a cover story planted in my brain to account for my absence. Maybe I’m still on the ship and don’t know it, though I’d expect space-travelling aliens to have better WiFi than what we have at our house…
1. Mr. Wheaton, in addition to his NAMI speech, blogs about his depression (and other matters). Sarah Marsh, in the NAMI newsletter, tells us that “Mental Illness Should Not Be A Secret” in a story much like Mr. Wheaton’s. In one of the Rumpus’ Lettersin the Mail, Rion Amilcar Scott discusses the depression-troll that sits on his shoulder and has become a companion. And the Queen of Mental Illness, Jenny Lawson, thebloggess, writes about her own struggles on her blog and in her hysterically funny book, Furiously Happy. (I was going to quote something pertinent from the appendix in the middle of her book, but I couldn’t choose just one.)
2. I do have moments of joy, especially when my children come home, but also after a trip to the bookstore, or during an outing with friends.
3. I saddled poor Hannah with my chronic fatigue, sadness, and self-doubt, mostly to give a plausible reason for the days I couldn’t think up a plot-point.
I like to say that, just as Scrooge carried Christmas in his heart all year long, so I carry Hallowe’en in mine.
So even though Hallowe’en was over weeks ago, I want to tell you a story — a true story! — about the kindness that allowed me to put out a Jack-O’Lantern to welcome trick-or-treaters this year.
I had a busy October and didn’t get out to acquire a pumpkin until just before Hallowe’en. (OK: I am typically a last-minute kind of person, as I was unhelpfully reminded by the unnamed person who was with me). But the stores usually carry some pumpkins into November for Thanksgiving, so I thought I would at least be able to pick up a couple small ones. However, when we got to the King Soopers, the outdoor bins were nowhere to be seen.
There was not one pumpkin in sight.
Not any of those tiny decorative ones.
Not even one of those white ghost-pumpkins.
Not even one with a mushy spot.
However, it was a drizzly, cold evening, so I thought perhaps the pumpkins had been moved inside to keep them from freezing. With hope in my heart, I entered the store and went to the produce section. Alas! Here, too, all presence of pumpkins had been abolished. I resigned myself to a pumpkin-less All-Hallows and set about doing the rest of the grocery shopping.
When I had finished at the deli counter, the young man behind the counter asked if there were anything else I needed. So I said, “I don’t suppose there any pumpkins hiding somewhere in the store.” He said he didn’t think so, but offered to check.
He disappeared for a few minutes, then came back with the produce manager — Joseph I think his name was. Joseph explained that there weren’t any more pumpkins out, but that he did have one in the back he had been planning to take home. We did the “Are you sure?” exchange a couple times, but Joseph explained he already had seven Jack-O’-Lanterns at home, so I accepted his offer with profuse thanks and profound gratitude.
Joseph disappeared into the back for a moment, then came out carrying one of the biggest, most perfect pumpkins I have ever seen. That pumpkin glowed.
It was a truly magnificent pumpkin, and an equally magnificent act of generosity.
Well, I was sure that something awful would happen to that glorious squash on the way home, that my husband would drop it (even though he almost never drops things, especially when he’s being careful), that I would trip over a particularly strong up-swelling of gravity (all too likely; gravity has an unfortunately tendency to accumulate under my feet), that aliens would see my perfect pumpkin and beam it up to carve themselves (we keep hoping for something to get abducted because how X-Files would that be? — but not that pumpkin). But we got that orange orb into the house in one piece, so of course I proceeded to cut it up.
I wish I had had more time to do us to do justice to that pumpkin. I wish I had been able to carve an intricate visage with painstaking details, a well-thought-out face with tremendous expression. I wish I had been able to make a Jack-O’-Lantern that would have been entered into the annals of the Great Pumpkins of All Time.
But I didn’t. Because we have small children in our neighborhood, I wanted a lantern that would be rather welcoming, but also spooky enough to add to the atmosphere of the evening. I envisioned a sort of banshee, one with a wailing aspect and hair blown about her face. I’m not sure that my intentions came through entirely, but it was all right. Not what that pumpkin deserved, but I hope it was not too embarrassed by the countenance I carved.
I salvaged the seeds for roasting and used the sections I cut out for a light pumpkin soup.
The post-Hallowe’en weather was cool and the pumpkin-lantern held its shape for a solid week. No squirrel nibbled on it; no neighborhood hooligans laid a hand on it. It stayed on our front step until it suddenly collapsed on itself and had to be resigned to the compost bin. But with me I still carry the glow of that pumpkin, of the candle the lit it, and of the kindness of Joseph, king of the produce aisle.
Does anyone else remember this classic Far Side cartoon by the inimitable Gary Larson? It was a favourite of one of my closest college friends (hey, Sara!):
Well, I ran into my own Far Side moment the other day.
It was a lovely day in Colorado and I was walking along the West End of the Pearl Street Mall, headed for a coffee shop, talking on the phone with my friend and colleague Jaynie (hey, Jaynie!). I stopped outside Ozo’s to finish my conversation, and as I soaked up the bright autumn sunshine, I noticed a small, grey, slightly fuzzy spider valiantly trying to spin a web across the busy sidewalk. She was slightly larger than the top of a pencil eraser, and on a cloudy day probably would have been virtually invisible. But as I was standing there, the sun shone right down between the buildings and caught her like another strand of her web. Even so, no one else seemed to notice her.
What blew me away was that she had managed to get at least four long strands in place, one from the awning of the coffee shop, one from the wall next to the awning, and two others across the walk, attached to a low newspaper dispenser by the curb. The spider herself was hanging upside down, binding her anchor threads together, about four feet right above the middle of the sidewalk. There were a lot of people walking by in both directions and I have no idea why no one had torn through any of her threads.
(I couldn’t get a photo, so you’ll have to imagine the scene from my sketch.)
Alas! Her good fortune did not last. First a young man walked, all unaware, through the webbing that ran from the wall. The spider swung away, but not far, since she was still attached to three of her strands. Then, as the spider swung back, still working to tie together her workings, a woman in a coat of the same grey as the spider, ran into the weaver. I thought for sure that the spider would be off for a ride on the camouflaging coat, but after a second I saw her on the sidewalk, crawling back toward the wall. Dozens of people and a couple kids on bikes all came within a hair’s-breadth of squashing the little arachnid into oblivion, but she seemed to have a force-field around her because everyone swerved without even seeing the scrambling spider and she made it safely to the lea of the wall.
I don’t know what happened to her after that. And I don’t know what the moral of this story is. I guess I just have a fondness for the quixotic, for creatures that decide to tilt at windmills — or try to spin them for themselves.