On Depression, Privilege and Staying Strong

I finally worked up my courage to write this post after reading Matt Haig’s outstanding book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ and David Mark’s article a few days ago about access to mental health services in the UK.

Image from socialworktutor.com
Image from socialworktutor.com

‘Well, the blood tests seem fine. It’s just age – you’re not getting any younger, you know.’

And my French family doctor smiles ruefully, as if to apologise for being so ridiculously young and glamorous in the face of my galloping infirmity. I had been complaining of weight gain, migraines, insomnia, lack of energy, occasional palpitations. She suspects menopause or a shade of hypochondria.

I cannot complain that she is not helpful. After all, I am not entirely honest with her as a patient. I am reluctant to share my whole story, and not just because I fear breaking down in tears and using up all of the tissues from the box she has so thoughtfully placed on her desk. I also fear being labelled, once and for all, as mentally deficient or unstable or somehow missing that even keel that most people seem to be able to find. If most people can balance on choppy waters and tack against strong winds, why can’t I?

My mother tells me off each time we speak on the phone: ‘You’re just too bloody sensitive. It’s all in your head. Stop dwelling on things.’ This comes amidst many other helpful suggestions on how to fight obesity, be a better parent, earn more money and be more docile, loving wife. Unsurprisingly, our telephone conversations often end in shouting matches, so are becoming less and less frequent. But I fear she may be right (about the sensitivity bit) and I chide myself for being so weak, so helpless.

The other thing I fear is being given pills to dull my senses and make me gain even more weight. Pills speak of lifelong dependency rather than a temporary measure: it’s about acknowledging a long-term condition rather than a momentary blip in the system. Visions of 1984 hover in the sidelines. Fears of being sanitised and lobotomised swim towards me like shark fins. How will I be able to keep up with my children’s sprightly chatter and constant requests if I am dull as a cow laid out in pastures with grass too high for her to comprehend?

When I was younger, the periods of grim depression beset me mainly in winter, and were offset by manic bursts of activity for the rest of the year. As I get older, those moments of frenetic energy have become too strenuous and it’s greyness evermore. Everything is slowed down to the point of unbearable. I cannot think of more than one thing at a time and I’m forever forgetting what I was supposed to be searching for, where I left my papers, whether I’ve paid a bill or not. I leave everything for later because it is too difficult to do immediately or today or tomorrow or … soon. I get caught out without winter tyres when the snow begins to fall, so my car lurches and sloshes from kerb to ditch.

A sunny day makes me want to crawl under the duvet. You don’t even want to know or imagine what a rainy day makes me feel like. Above all, I want to dig my nails into my flesh, to escape this inner pain which seems to find no release, day after day after day.

When the self-pity has had its play with me, guilt and sneering take their turn. Middle-class ‘woman of leisure’ problems! The world is burning and this here woman can think of naught else but combing her hair! There are hundreds of people starving or dying or losing their homes all over the world at this very moment, while I’m boo-hooing about getting old, failing to live out my childish dreams of being a writer and an academic, being stuck to a faithless husband who doesn’t understand me – the oldest cliché in the book -, children grunting their way towards their teens, a family life which seems as alien to me as if I’d been parachuted somewhere in Papua New Guinea. Only the cargo cults don’t worship me – they despise and can’t wait for my ship to sail away.

My shepherd ancestors – tough cookies one and all – would despise my whingeing. They witnessed the rise and fall of empires, tyrants, wars, forced collectivisation, betrayals in the name of the fatherland or the Communist ideal or simply greed for one’s neighbour’s land or herd. ‘Life is hard, yes, but grit your teeth and carry on! Don’t expect anyone to help, love or understand you. Go up the mountains, all by yourself, find some peace and a mountain stream.’

But I’ve always been a weak urban sapling. The mountains I climbed, the streams that I found, I wanted to rejoice in them with others. I needed to believe that someone cared, that I could be my anxious, failing self and still be respected and loveable. Now I know that all love is conditional. And compassion is not an endlessly renewable source of water. Sharing is a weakness and each one of us is alone – that is the only thing we can count on in life.

‘My therapy is writing and reading,’ I used to say in my twenties with a faraway look in my eyes, hoping I resembled Emily Dickinson rather than Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen rather than Virginia Woolf. But, in truth, it has become more reading than writing now. How can I give voice to my grief and doubts without becoming annoyed with my privileged, spoilt self? How can I deal with the confetti of time left after anxieties, night sweats, endless To Do lists, yet another last-minute catch-up for work, yet another change of plan regarding parents’ evening? What words (other than swear words) will come when I tremble with fury after yet another point-scoring conversation drowning in logical circles? I cannot trust my own thoughts, my own words. I have to feed on the words (and pain and grapplings) of others. It gives me perspective, it makes me feel less alone.

Meanwhile, other than my compulsive reading, all I can do is flounder and flail. Now I understand my childhood nightmare of drowning. It was in fact not water but ash and sand in my mouth. The struggle to appear normal and smiley. The need to carry on.

 

Three Book Reviews: A Matter of Empathy

Perhaps it’s a sign of growing older, but I find it easier to relate to something or someone in most books nowadays. I can even empathise with characters described as ‘weak’, ‘silly’ or ‘unlikeable’. Perhaps because I am that myself! At least part of the time… Perhaps we are all much more fragmented, at conflict, darker, ineffectual than we like to think. Perhaps there are masks which we never take off, even in the privacy of our own rooms, for fear that we have to face a gawping void in the mirror. So here are three books I’ve finished recently, and I freely admit that all of them contain elements that I can relate to.

Photo credit: Lisa Cohen, www.salon.com
Photo credit: Lisa Cohen, http://www.salon.com

Claire Messud: The Woman Upstairs

Nora Eldridge is full of anger: from the spilling, thrilling outburst at the beginning to the more constructive anger at the end of the novel. She spouts invectives and hints at bleeding wounds, but then the style calms down a little. She becomes once more the ‘woman upstairs’, which in the author’s interpretation is not the ‘mad woman in the attic’ (the uncontrollable feminine power), although of course it slyly references that. In this case, it is the unobtrusive, undemanding, invisible neighbour that you barely speak to, who never complains, who lives in the service of others. So this book is a revolt of the meek. No more little nice girl! Anger becomes a productive force, as, in the wake of disappointments, failures and betrayal, Nora becomes convinced that the best revenge is to show others what she is capable of.  She will discard the paralysing sadness and fear or cautiousness which has limited her life thus far. She has spent too long in the Fun House, hoping to find the exit to an authentic life, and seeing nothing but doors closing one after another. Nora will become as ruthless and single-minded as is necessary to pursue her artistic ambitions:

I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough – finally, God willing, with my mother’s anger also on my shoulders, a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me – before I die to fucking well live. Just watch me.

While this life-affirming finale is uplifting, I can also see how the rest of the novel could be unappealing to an American audience. The weakness, ineffectual dithering and self-obsessed over-analysis of the main character with her rant of self-pity is a taboo in American society, with its emphasis on taking action, positivism, the ‘you are what you think’ outlook. Nora is not old, but she is starting to resign herself to an unproductive, unfulfilled life, especially in the stifling world of pretentious academia and modern art around Boston and Cambridge, Mass. The descriptions of her small shoe-box creations and the contrast to her friend Sirena’s grandiose, over-the-top installations are more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Are they really innovative, or just jumping on the fashion bandwagon? And the name Sirena itself: surely not a coincidence, reminding us of the dangerous, addictive song of the Sirens. To guard against it, Odysseas has to tie himself to the mast and plug his sailors’ ears with wax.

One other criticism of the book that I’ve come across is that, while it is beautifully nuanced and well written, nothing much happens, i.e. it is too literary. However, I found it exciting, beautifully paced in crescendo, with a dark sense of menace. Something bad is going to happen, but who and what will provoke it?

My-Criminal-WorldHenry Sutton: My Criminal World

This will have writers of all persuasions, but especially crime writers, squirming in recognition. Poor David Slavitt is a mid-list author, whose popularity is dipping, slaving over his latest over-due novel, intimidated by the successes of his academic wife and the disdain of her colleagues. Agent-pecked as well as hen-pecked, he goes about his everyday tasks, trying to sort out plot twists between bouts of laundry and childcare, balancing his anxieties about the required level of goriness in his novels with worries about his wife’s possible infidelity. At times his mild ineffectuality and ego are so exasperating that you are willing him to confront his wife openly about adultery. You find yourself hoping that he will act out on his murderous tendencies. The interviews at the police station, in which David is more concerned about his writing career than in proving his innocence, are absolutely hilarious.

‘We’re talking about Julie Everett, your literary agent?’

‘Yes. Though, frankly, I’m not sure for how much longer. As I think I implied earlier, my career’s not going brilliantly at the moment. I narrowly missed winning a big award. And Julie’s not very keen on what I’m currently working on. […] She doesn’t think I’ve been promoting myself properly. You see, the market’s changed a lot recently.[.. .] And I suppose, to be honest, I’ve made a few mistakes.’

Although the ending felt a little forced and rushed to me, I found this to be a nuanced and very funny novel, not taking itself too seriously, yet with a rather profound underlying message about insecurity, delusion and reality.

StelaBrinzeanuStela Brinzeanu: Bessarabian Nights

You may wonder what I recognise of myself in this sad story about sex-trafficking of women by a Moldovan writer now living in London. It is not the beautiful Ksenia (the girl that is forced into prostitution while on holiday in Italy) that I identify with, but with her ‘blood sister’, Larisa, who is studying in England. Together with their third childhood friend, Doina, she moves heaven and earth to find out what has happened to Ksenia when she goes missing. Larisa represents a cultural bridge between East and West, feeling equally out of place in both worlds, repelled by the backward superstitions in her home country (described as a place where men are either drunk or violent or frequently both), yet not quite fully accepted or integrated into the new culture.

The British TV drama ‘Sex Traffic’ (2004) did a fantastic job of showing both the individual stories of two Moldovan sisters and the global tentacles of the human-trafficking business. However, not all that much has changed since then.  Human trafficking continues to be a major problem in Moldova and, although the government has recently cooperated more with NGOs to tackle the issue, it does not comply with minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. So this is an important story which needs to be heard. Again.

The title is a play on the ‘Arabian Nights’ theme, and Brinzeanu does come across as a Scheherazade of our times, eager to share stories about her little-known country on the fringes of Europe. This is a debut novel and the author is so brimful of stories that the book feels crammed with facts. The reader may well feel at times lectured at, even if it is disguised as dialogue. The book is at its most successful in those dream-like flashbacks describing the girls’ childhood in a Moldovan village where time seems to have stood still. Perhaps, like Scheherazade, the author needs to learn to select the most relevant scenes and polish those to perfection. There are a lot of gems in there, but they sometimes get lost in the multiple anecdotes.

So over to you, dear reader! Are there any books that have particularly resonated with you lately, any characters you have related to, or does an unlikeable character make you want to stop reading? 

 

 

 

 

Unsupportive Families

A while ago I wrote about the wry amusement I felt when reading about ‘supportive spouses’. Perhaps writers feel the need to make such a fuss over them (and other supportive family members) when they are endowed with such a person because they know how often that is not the case. Treasure your rare speciman (usually a speciwoman).

michele_robertsI attended a workshop with the very poetic, sweetly unassuming yet still fiercely feminist writer Michèle Roberts at the Geneva Writers’ Group this Saturday. In a private conversation, she too confirmed that family and close friends are sometimes the least supportive of our writing. Could it be that they fear they lose us when we enter that door into fearful magic and fluid morals through which they cannot or will not follow? Or is it simply more practical, immediate needs which they feel are not being met: cooking, cleaning, admin? I can understand the fears at the uncertainty of outcome or the financial constraints. But to belittle the writing, to see it as a time-consuming hobby, which you should set aside when the ‘real issues of the day’ crop up… that is hard to swallow.

Yet that is precisely what Jane Austen did, hiding her manuscripts when visitors dropped in, as they did so often. You can barely hear the frustration in her perfectly controlled prose, but there are scenes of satire (of garrulous and silly neighbours) in every one of her books, or spirited defence of novels in ‘Northanger Abbey’.

A novel I recently read, Henry Sutton’s ‘My Criminal World’, portrays the dilemma of writerly anxieties and insecurities, especially when faced with the indifference of far more successful spouses, from the man’s point of view. This insecurity may drive a mild, rather ineffectual crime writer to contemplate a real crime. The hurt is clearly visible, under the thick layers of self-deprecating humour, and I’m not sure I quite believe the ending of the book, because I have grown to dislike the writer’s wife so much.

womanupstairsOne of the extracts that Michèle Roberts read to us was the beginning of Claire Messud’s book ‘The Woman Upstairs’ and I was so struck by it that I bought it as soon as I got home. That unforgettable opening: ‘How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.’ I have yet to finish the book and see if it lives up to that opening, and I’ve certainly heard many readers have been put off by it. ‘Show don’t tell’, they bleat like Easter lambs, but is that because it’s a woman expressing anger, and that is still a taboo? When a man expresses anger, he is seeking to change the world. When a woman expresses anger, it’s hysteria. Of course, in Nora’s case, she is unmarried, and her parents are only vaguely unsupportive (or simply vague). So perhaps she really only has her own fears and lack of ambition to blame for her failure to have ‘Great Artist’ written on her tombstone. 

Yet there is something there that I can relate to, however unlikable some readers have found the main character. It is so difficult to believe in your own talent, to allow yourself wings and the daily practice to make them become more than cumbersome appendages. The minute you venture beyond your enclosure, rejections come thick and fast. Words and muses refuse to visit. Gnawing doubts set in. How much easier to go back in the box, to think small, to believe the incessant and insistent whisper of your dear family… I so wish I could be satisfied with a job, with making money, with a decent place to live and a ‘normal’ family life.

‘Keep fighting!’ Michèle told me as we parted. Thank you, Michèle, I will, because a life without writing is too unbearable, meaningless.

The Birthing Pangs of a Poem

Image from www.mrwallpaper.com
Image from http://www.mrwallpaper.com

I’ve got an issue with privacy. I’ve never liked open plan offices, I don’t like people coming into my study at home, I don’t like showing my work in progress. Psychologists may see a link there with the fact that my mother read my diaries and opened my letters when I was a teenager. I just call it personal space: I’m happy for those around me to have theirs, and hope they will allow me mine. So it’s unusual for me to show you a first draft, but I thought it would be interesting (for a later version of me too, perhaps) to see how my poetic mind works. This is still too explicit, personal and verbose. It leaves nothing to the imagination. It was written after a rather frantic weekend alone with the children. I will come back with an edited, perhaps even a final version and would welcome any suggestions for improvement.

It’s been a day of shouting

Coffee-ad family picture frayed and curled,

burnt up in blood-hot temper.

Sullen moods, sulk and whine, heave and lift

of bone-breaker words:

careless second of uttering,

then a lifetime of regret.

It’s been another day of failing…

my children, my ideal, myself

and all the compensatory cakes I bake

turn to sand in our mouths.

I’m left chasing words on empty beaches,

finding other people’s discarded treasures

more plentiful than shells.

I pick up a conch and pour my anguish in its ear.

I pour all my inadequacy into a jar,

screw on the jam-stained lid so tight

then fling it back into a sea just lukewarm.

So my poems are merely turgid,

my thoughts piddling, my family average.

We muddle on and on,

imperfect and random

victims of illusions

drunk on lost words.

I’m linking this to dVerse Poets Pub, a friendly community of poets who support and help each other.

Prosaic Moods

www.swissinfo.ch
http://www.swissinfo.ch

[Precision]

Hark ye, hark ye, lads and lasses!

New Year celebration flash-passes

and we are left           with what?

Classical mood descended in hush on audience

mature, self-controlled, filigreed to perfection.

There is a time for grit and grime

but now we need to enunciate

obligate

gracefully modulate.Kite

[Joy]

There is a mood takes over mountains

roars over cataracts, thunders out joy

we parcel such moments in fine controlled gestures,

fearful to show, aware of the cloy.

Till white-foamed emotion whirls us to perdition.

[Weariness]

Exhaustion seeps in concave glow of lower back

like the low growl of giant feline basking in sun spots.

I let tiredness wash over, climb each limb and nerve,

stretch in magical indolence, tendons brushed with honey gloss,

tea-fragranced warmth settling on my chest.

[Envy]

I burn in sulphur          hang in haze

with slow-roast speed churn my emotions.

My smile fixed plastic in perfection

mind darts to places too slimy to mention.

Compare and contrast, compete and contain:

others’ pride, others’ achievements

bring nought but dismay.

Mountain

[Anger]

Now frozen, now burnt in feverish alternates,

how burnished his horizons in crimson warrior hues

dial turned to scream point, fists on the fly.

If his life were a crystal ball to fathom

he would crush it to oblivion in snarly crunch of baubled prey.

No hope, no exit, no gambit for mercy.

Future smashed smithers underfoot.

Underheard.

I am linking this to dVerse Poets Pub – where, once a week, we have Open Link Night, so come and drop by and enjoy!

Weapons of the Weak

A classic anthropology book which really spoke to me was James C. Scott’s ‘Weapons of the Weak’, about the everyday, often hidden resistance by people who are forced to be subordinate, meek, obedient.  They may – on the face of it – collude in their oppression, but they find ways to sabotage the powerful, to criticize and laugh at them.  Whether rage expressed as sullen temper and foot-shuffling can work long-term is another question…

It was never gonna be like this:

the buzzing round households,

the map of the buzzards with areas shaded off by gratitude:

a thanksgiving imposed, demanded, not felt.

How I rage in futility then shush to keep safe

that cart full of apple-cheeked treasures.

The bat in blindness aghast swerves clear of the blame-traps.

The toxic scurry of newt back to the slimy pond

of self-pity:

there was a time when

kindness

or droopy flowers across the hedge

would have smoothed the harsh ping of reality.

 

Now…

nothing else than full parity will do.