Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Might as well keep going now

Courtesy of s/v Estrellita 5.10b
Okay, so I’m going to move on to what I’m supposed to be working on and writing about:  the boat.

Spirit, not at sea
A boat under progress is not very photogenic.  Note the pine needles, the antifreeze bottles full of tap water  used as weights, the carelessly hung rags and ratchet straps and cleaning accoutrements.  Doing boat work in the middle of a pine forest is likewise not very easy.  Every day starts with clearing the pine needles from whatever needs to be worked on.

I am resentful and angry about boat work.  I didn’t want to buy a boat.  I was happy with my little farmstead and office in Maine, and I was burned so badly by the last boat that I didn’t think I could ever trust a new boat.  I remember how my heart broke last time.

I remember that the day-to-day reality of boat life involves mammoth amounts of brute physical labor.  Cleaning.  Plumbing maintenance.  Cooking with limited ingredients and space.

And still I want to sail, not because I actually want to sail, but because I am still hungry for adventure, for travel, because my peripatetic urge is never satisfied.  I want to cross an ocean.  I want to drop luffing sails in the harbor of the Azores.  I want to traverse the Suez and Panama Canals, cruise the Mediterranean, round the great Capes, cross from Newfoundland to Ireland.  These are things I hunger after.

In Stephen King’s “On Writing” he says, of his wife:
In the end it was Tabby who cast the deciding vote, as she so often has at crucial moments in my life. I'd like to think I've done the same for her from time to time, because it seems to me that one of the things marriage is about is casting the tie-breaking vote when you just can't decide what you should do next.
As with a writing life, what really matters in cruising is who you choose to do it with.  I know, from meeting many grounded sailors, that what most often gets in the way of achieving a sailing dream is not hurricanes, or pirates, or broaching whales—but unwilling partners.  Your feet get tied up to the ground, not by roots, but by people.

And now I am one of those people.

I believe that the thing that entranced so many [elderly, male, ex-] sailors about the voyage of sailing vessel Secret is that I—the nubile female blog heroine—wanted so desperately to keep sailing and my partner did not.

This indecision has been a problem for a long time between us.

A Wharram catamaran sings her siren song for me, at her port in Phuket.  So does the idea of a beach camping cruise along the Mexican coast.  The Continental Divide Trail.  Cyprus, where my grandfather is from.  Bangkok, always.  Not to mention the best gift K. ever gave me, a writing room.  Again, King:  “Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream.”

Also, famously, he said:  “Write with the door closed.”

Virginia Woolf, much more famously, said:  “All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point — a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.”

Worst of all, I remember that a boat has no door that closes.

[Well, there’s a head, smelling of holding tank, but certainly not a private writing room, not a place where you go to dream.]

I’ve been reading boat blogs, trying to get a handle again on this life that I’m not sure I’ve quite chosen again, and all of the sunniest cruising and travel blogs open with whimsical romantic stories of carpenters meeting bookworms, or spur-of-the-moment decisions over beer and pizza, or one partner convincing the other that what they really needed was a sailboat:

“I have long had a dream of going cruising in a sailboat and have gradually lured Mark into this dream.  His response has ranged from all smiles to the rare bout of kicking and screaming, but he finally agreed to purchase a boat a year ago.”  —s/v Groovy

“In May 2011 Tammara and I made the decision to purchase a sailboat to sail and live on and eventually take her down the west coast…  It is our dream to one day voyage across oceans to distant and foreign lands.  We hope to achieve this with our new boat.”  —s/v Lynn-Marie

“Have you ever dreamt of running away to live on a tropical island, spending your days basking in the warm sunshine while sipping piña coladas? We have. In fact, our dream included running away to live on a sailboat in the tropics, even though when we started we had never even sailed before!  Zero to Cruising is the story of how we took that dream and made it a reality. Follow along... you can do it too!”  --s/v Zero to Cruising

“Our goal is to share meaningful thoughts on simple living, to help sailors with life aboard, and to inspire others to chase their own creative dream through honest and uplifting writing.”  —s/v Sailing Simplicity

I find that so much of actual life aboard—which is constant interpersonal decision-making—gets left out of these blogs.

Then there’s the much more honest s/v More Joy Everywhere, posting shortly before deciding to sell:

“These blogs are all written by people who are younger and prettier and smarter and more creative than we are.  They fix engines, install solar panels, sew cushions, grow sprouts, revarnish their teak, and understand how their systems work.  In their spare time, they sketch, make jewelry, write poetry, play the banjo, kayak, scuba dive, take fabulous underwater pictures, and never watch television.”

It’s easy to paint a romantic vision of life aboard—all sunsets and dolphins and glowing teak and tranquil anchorages.  It’s easy, when one is parsing a life a post or two at a time, to focus only on the beautiful things.  It’s why everyone, in our age of social networks, has a chronic diagnosis of FOMO.  We see everyone else’s gorgeous handmade children’s crafts, or snapshots of family vacations—we don’t see the dirty dishes, the arguments, the days spent in front of the television, the exhaustion, the chaos.

Some of the most inspirational and optimistic blogs drift slowly off into the ether with no explanation as to what exactly happened to the pina colada dream.  Some others, as with the second example above, have posts stop soon before the Sailboat Listing appears.  [Click here for a great collection of blog posts about cruisers who decide to quit.]

You’ll know, if you’ve read for a long time, that I love to write about being covered in poison oak, or boat poop explosions, or frigid Maine winters.  It’s the part of life that’s interesting to me.  What interests me about life—what interests me about travel—what interests me in literature and film and art—are the things that are difficult, the things that are hard, the challenges remaining to be overcome.

I know that I want to write, as I’ve always known, but as I said to Karl, when we first met:  I can do that anywhere.

He asked me what I did for a living, what I was, and I said:  a bum.

He asked me to live aboard a boat with him, on our first date, and I said, with no hesitation:  yes.

Sailing is a full-time job.  Boat work is a full-time job.  Writing, too, is a full-time job.  So what then?  I wrestle what time I can from the ether, and I use it to put words on paper, or onto a screen, or I stare into space and avoid putting words on paper or onscreen.  I miss my grandmother’s typewriter.  I miss my office and my desk and my view of the drained beaver pond.  I miss my literary dog and cat.

Can I really do it anywhere?  I guess we’ll find out.

And I guess, dear reader, you can always trust me, yours truly, to delve my hands deep down into the dirty painful nitty gritty of life, can you not?  I commit to you that I’ll continue to explore the dark side of life afoot or a-sail—at least a sunny post or two a month at a time.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

One too many mornings

A big part of me doesn’t believe, still, that “depression” exists.  According to the New Yorker:
There is little agreement about what causes depression and no consensus about what cures it…  There is suspicion that the pharmaceutical industry is cooking the studies that prove that antidepressant drugs are safe and effective, and that the industry’s direct-to-consumer advertising is encouraging people to demand pills to cure conditions that are not diseases (like shyness) or to get through ordinary life problems (like being laid off).
Louis Menand’s article, a review of Gary Greenberg’s book, “Manufacturing Depression,” continues:
Greenberg basically regards the pathologizing of melancholy and despair, and the invention of pills designed to relieve people of those feelings, as a vast capitalist conspiracy to paste a big smiley face over a world that we have good reason to feel sick about. The aim of the conspiracy is to convince us that it’s all in our heads, or, specifically, in our brains—that our unhappiness is a chemical problem, not an existential one. Greenberg is critical of psychopharmacology, but he is even more critical of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or C.B.T., a form of talk therapy that helps patients build coping strategies, and does not rely on medication. He calls C.B.T. “a method of indoctrination into the pieties of American optimism, an ideology as much as a medical treatment."
In other words, “depression is not a mental illness. It’s a sane response to a crazy world.”

According to Wikipedia:
The term "depression" is used in a number of different ways. It is often used to mean major depressive disorder but may refer to other mood disorders or simply to a low mood…  The diagnosis of major depressive disorder is based on the patient's self-reported experiences, behavior reported by relatives or friends, and a mental status examination. There is no laboratory test for major depression.
Essentially, it doesn’t exist, right?  But then there are days I wake up when I am unable to move.  Not literally, of course—I can roll over in bed, wiggle my fingers—but I don’t.  I lie there and I don’t move.  I think of all of the reasons I should move, or the things I could do that’d make me feel better, but I don’t do them.  I can’t bring myself to.  I rehearse a list of things I know to do, things I know help—heat, light, reading, baking, sitting in the sun, yoga, taking a long hot bath or a shower, going to a cafe or a library—but all of them, even the thought of them, even the first step towards them, feels like dust in my mouth.  I can’t move.  I don’t even pee when I need to pee because it requires too much energy to move to the bathroom.

In an earlier New Yorker article, “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” Andrew Solomon writes about his experience with his depression:  “My vision began to close.  It was like trying to watch TV through terrible static, where you can’t distinguish faces, where nothing has edges.  The air, too, seemed thick and resistant, as though it were full of mushed-up bread.”

I know that feeling.  For me the air feels resistant like mud, or like trying to swim against a current.  Motivation is a central problem.  I can think of a lot of things that make me feel better (writing, sunlight, a walk) but it is impossible to motivate myself to do them.  Or it’s possible but I can never do it.  Or I can do it sometimes, just not when I’m in the darkness.  In the hole, the bottomless pit, that Townes Van Zandt sings about above, so effortlessly.  The old lady catches me.

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” asks the Psalmist.

When I’m in the pit, pulling myself out is like trying to find pull myself from quicksand, use my own body as leverage.  It’s impossible to find any purchase.

Of course I can get out of bed.  It is possible.  It is not impossible.  And yet I don’t.  I lie in bed for hours—literally—not moving, thinking about doing something and not doing it.  Some days I can.  Some days I get up and take arms against the sea of troubles, even when it feels like moving through molasses.  Like swimming while drowning in a sea of mud.  Other days it is impossible.

In the wake of Robin Williams’s death, everyone is talking about depression, but not many people are saying anything useful.  Several times I’ve heard commentators say:  “just so we’re clear, ‘depression’ is a mental illness, not ordinary sadness or ‘feeling blue.’”  And I think:  oh, so what I have is just ordinary sadness.  Even when I’m not feeling sad at all.  Even when I’m feeling nothing inside but darkness, and heat and pain inside my head without actually experiencing heat or pain.

I’m sure Robin Williams and David Foster Wallace and everyone all thought they had ordinary sadness right up till the end.  How can we tell the difference when we’re in the middle of it?

Even Solomon writes, as he recovers, with the help of a vast pharmacopeia:  “I have felt blue sometimes, and on some days I have chosen not to work on this difficult subject…”  But how does he tell the difference?

I find it challenging to talk about, not because I feel guilty or ashamed, but because I don’t believe it exists.  I do feel guilty about my coping mechanisms—computer games and television and food—all things that other people assist me in feeling guilty about.  I feel guilty about my presence on the planet, about myself as a waste of space.  I feel “all the typical symptoms—hatred, anguish, guilt, self-loathing.”  But I don’t feel ashamed of the presence of the miasma itself because I don’t believe in it.

It’s also difficult to talk about because there’s nothing anyone can do to help.  Antidepressants don’t work.  Talking to other people just spreads the disease, if it exists.  Depression is contagious.  Why should I drag anyone down inside the pit with me?  I hate reaching out for help because then I have to admit that the only thing inside is an echo because all that exists in there is a big black hole and I can’t tell anyone without dragging them down too.

I’ve been feeling this way for twenty years, if not longer.  I wept the night before I turned ten because I realized my childhood was over.  Oh, wait—I was just feeling blue, right?  Even as a child, I felt something like nostalgia, a deep eternal grief at the passage of time.  I remember learning the word “melancholy,” and the idea that someone could be a “melancholic.”  I remember thinking, oh, so that’s what I am.  I developed obsessions that I treasured close to my chest, and when I shared them, carefully, and was rejected, I plunged into despair.  I lay in bed crying, before the age of eleven, telling my mother and sister that I had people who loved me, but no one who liked me.  How could they?  I remember listening to Puff the Magic Dragon and weeping:  Jackie Paper came no more!  Therein lay the essence of life’s tragedy!

Some days I wake up okay.  Other days I wake up unable to move.  Everyone blames negative thoughts, as proponents of CBT, and the power of positive thinking, believers in the pieties of American optimism, do:  change your thinking, change your life.

Andrew Solomon writes:
Once upon a time, depression was generally seen as a purely psychological disturbance;  these days, people are likely to think of it as a tidy biological syndrome.  In fact, it’s hard to make sense of the distinction.  Most depressive disorders are now thought to involve a mixture of reactive and internal factors;  depression is seldom a simple genetic disease or a simple response to external troubles.  Resolving the biological and psychological understanding of depression is as difficult as reconciling predestination and free will.  If you remember the beginning of this paragraph well enough to make sense of the end of it, that is a chemical process;  love, faith, and despair all have chemical manifestations, and chemistry can make you feel things.  Treatments have to accommodate this binary structure—the interplay between vulnerability and external events.

Vulnerability need not be genetic.  Ellen Frank says, "Experiences in childhood can scar the brain and leave on vulnerable to depression."  As with asthma, predisposition and environment conspire.  Syndrome and symptom cause each other:  loneliness is depressing, but depression causes loneliness.
For me, negative thinking is merely a symptom.  If I feel like things are hopeless I find a reason for why things are hopeless and I can find plenty.  But the hopeless feeling comes before the negative thoughts.  Sometimes the negative thinking catches me in a cycle and drags me deeper into the hole, but it’s almost worse when I feel nothing but emptiness and just like there’s nothing inside, not even negative thoughts.  And I can’t convince myself to do anything.

Since I was a child I’ve felt like suicide is a brave move, a way of using actual physical weapons against the sea of troubles, as Hamlet is the first to suggest.  “The ultimate hallmark of depression,” an “obsession with suicide.”  I think of those who have—Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, David Foster Wallace, Aaron Swartz, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf—as secret brothers and sisters.  On bad days I pore over their Wikipedia pages.  Those who had the courage to tell the truth to an empty, hopeless world.

…the particular kind of depression I had undergone has a higher morbidity rate than heart disease or any cancer.  According to a recent study by researchers at Harvard and the World Health Organization, only respiratory infections, diarrhea, and newborn infections cost more years of useful life than major depression.  It is projected that by the year 2020 depression could claim more years than war and AIDS put together.  Ant its incidence is rising fast.  Between six and ten per cent of all Americans now living are battling some form of this illness;  one study indicates that nearly fifty per cent have experienced at least one psychiatric disorder in their lifetime.  Treatments are proliferating, but only twenty-eight per cent of all people who have a major depression seek help from a specialist;  fifteen per cent of hospitalized patients succeed in killing themselves.
Watching Robin Williams movies helps.  It’s odd to me how many of them deal intimately and sensitively with depression and suicide. My favorite movie as a teenager, and maybe still, is "Dead Poets Society," and I was powerfully affected by two of his other movies, not as well known:  "What Dreams May Come" and "World’s Greatest Dad."

In “World’s Greatest Dad” Robin’s character writes a suicide note and then gets to see what happens afterward—in some ways, it’s a suicide’s watching of his own funeral, a fantasy wish fulfillment.  He says, presciently and half-sarcastic:  “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”  But what if the problem’s not so temporary? 

In “What Dreams May Come” we get to see what happens after a suicide, too.  But this time from the other perspective.  From below the ground.

“What Dreams May Come” was horribly reviewed when it came out and still has a 44% rating on Metacritic.  I beg to differ with the reviewers.  Many parts of it terrified and entranced me when I originally saw it—joyful jumps through big messy wet swaths of color in heaven, walking on the disembodied faces of those in purgatory who don’t realize they’re there.  Since Robin’s suicide, I can’t stop thinking about the part when he dives down from heaven into hell, through an increasingly creepy and macabre dreamscape, where finally, at its very bottom, he finds his wife, who committed suicide.  She’s been sent to hell not because of her suicide but because of her own tendency to create “nightmare” worlds, the same tendency that led her to suicide to begin with.  She’s all alone, in darkness, living in a twisted version of their house, visibly tortured by her surroundings.

That part stays with me.  Because it’s what depression is.  When I’m there, I’m all alone, and nothing anyone could say could help or change anything.  Suicide and depression are really the same thing, because depression is already hell.

Jane Kenyon, a depressive and a poet, writes:  “Unholy ghost, you are certain to come again… and turn me into someone who can’t take the trouble to speak;  someone who can’t sleep, or who does nothing but sleep;  can’t read, or call for an appointment for help.  There is nothing I can do against your coming.”

In “Brothers Karamazov” Dostoevsky posits that heaven and hell are now, determined only by our frame of reference.  We are not condemned to hell in some future time;  if we are condemned to hell, we live there now.  The same with heaven.  Christ Jesus said:  “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Here, now.

“That life is heaven,” he said to me suddenly, “that I have long been thinking about;” and all at once he added, “I think of nothing else indeed…  Heaven,” he went on, “lies hidden within all of us—here it lies hidden in me now… we are all responsible to all for all, apart from our own sins, you were quite right in thinking that, and it is wonderful how you could comprehend it in all its significance at once. And in very truth, so soon as men understand that, the Kingdom of Heaven will be for them not a dream, but a living reality.”
Spoken by a character who committed murder, a murder he’s been hiding:  “I know it will be heaven for me, heaven, the moment I confess. Fourteen years I've been in hell.”

And here are words spoken by Father Zosima a prophet, a poet, a priest—someone who echoes both Christ and Buddha for me:
My brother asked the birds to forgive him; that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending…  I ponder, “What is hell?” I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love...  there are some fearful ones who have given themselves over to Satan and his proud spirit entirely. For such, hell is voluntary and ever consuming; they are tortured by their own choice. For they have cursed themselves, cursing God and life.
Those "fearful ones" stay with me. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a Spirit of love, of power, and of a strong mind.”  2 Timothy 1:7

I love that trinity.  Love, power, and a strong mind.  If I can have love and power and a strong mind, then I live already in the kingdom of heaven.  If I fear, then I live in an ever-consuming and voluntary hell.

But I fear so much, all of the time.  As Solomon writes:  "It’s possible to distinguish between anxiety and depression, but according to... a leading expert on anxiety, 'they’re fraternal twins.'"
A quote from Tina Berger:
I often explain it this way. If you go and visit a Western-trained psychologist for seemingly inexplicable anxiety, he or she will most likely ask you about your life and your job and your family of origin. You may receive a diagnosis and plan of treatment. The treatment will likely involve relaxation and stress reduction, perhaps some additional talk therapy to address past emotional wounding, and you may be referred to a psychiatrist for medical treatment with anti-anxiety medication. You may or may not find the source of your anxiety. Whatever the recommended course of treatment, unexplained anxiety is generally seen as a pathology here in the West. If you have anxiety and you can’t source it to an immediate and direct problem in your life, the general assumption is: something is wrong with you.

An ecopsychology-based perspective takes a much bigger picture view of anxiety, considering questions like, “How sane is it, to have no anxiety as such beautiful species of plants and animals disappear from the planet one by one?” “How sane is it to have no anxiety when we know children are dying unnecessarily from starvation in many parts of the world?” “How sane is it that we work such long hours to continue acquiring so many things that we will throw away in less than a year?”
How sane am I?  Not very.

One last Solomon quote:
At a cocktail party in London, I saw an acquaintance and mentioned to her that I was writing this article. 
"I had terrible depression,’ she said. 
I asked her what she had done about it.  
"I didn’t like the idea of medication,’ she said.  "My problem was stress-related.  So I decided to eliminate all the stresses in my life."  She counted off on her fingers.  "I quit my job," she said.  "I broke up with my boyfriend and never really looked for another one.  I gave up my roommate and moved to a smaller place.  I stopped going to parties that run late.  I dropped most of my friends.  I gave up, pretty much, on makeup and clothes."  I was looking at her in bewilderment.  "It may sound bad, but I’m much less afraid than before," she went on, and she looked proud.  "I’m in perfect health, really, and I did it without pills."
Someone who was standing in our group grabbed her by the arm. 
"That’s completely crazy.  That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.  You must be crazy to be doing that to your life," he said. 
Is it crazy to avoid the behaviors that make you crazy?
Jane Kenyon writes, of emerging from a devastating depression:  “With the wonder and bitterness of someone pardoned for a crime she did not commit I come back to marriage and friends…  to my desk, books, and chair.”  She writes, of ordinary contentment:  “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?  How I love the small, swiftly beating heart of the bird singing in the great maples;  its bright, unequivocal eye.”

So I make plans for a half-suicidal foray across the Atlantic.  Or I make sense of the world through art, as Townes van Zandt, the patron singer of depressives, did.  He also drank himself to death aged 53. Ernest Hemingway, with his shotgun, beat him by nine years.  Robin Williams beat him by ten.