After Life

“It’s almost as if you have to spend your whole life disengaging from your life, disengaging from the supposed reality of your living. I think that’s what Spinoza and Socrates meant about life is the study of dying, that you leave these convictions of certitude about the whole business. I certainly feel lots of that now, whereas my friend Higuchi says he’s living in the afterlife. Beautiful idea. Meaning his life is over, he’s living after life, but it’s also the afterlife.” James Hillman

In a conversation with my mother today, I hear her saying the most remarkable things. Yes, she twists age-old adages so the saying, “the grass is always greener on the other side,” is now, “the grass is always greener outside.” Ironically, there’s a truth in her rephrasing. Although some would say it’s dementia speaking, I say, let it speak. Why see it as only a loss?

“Now, our finding our own dead in the United States involves so much history, close history, one hundred and fifty years of history, slavery, civil war, brutalities of all sorts, Chinese oppression, it’s just so huge, all the deaths of the Indians, and animals, that we’re blocked in a strange way by personal guilt. We enter the realm of the dead overloaded to begin with, with Protestantism and guilt, so I don’t know if we get to what you call ancestors. I don’t know if we have a sensitivity to whatever that means.”

My Mom (kneeling on the floor) with her sisters, mother and step-dad.
My Mom (kneeling on the floor) with her sisters, mother and step-dad. Ca. 1945

I asked her what she’s been up to, and after a bit of silence she informed me that she’s been talking to her mother. Her mother, my grandmother, born somewhere around 1906, who has been dead for many years. My mother has never mentioned talking to the dead, ever. Her southern Baptist beliefs would prohibit that. When I asked her what Grammy had to say, she told me that they were going to Holland to see the ancestors. To clarify what she meant, I asked her if she was traveling by boat. She laughed and said no, she wouldn’t need one. Aha!

Great,Great Grandmother Wilhemina Lindenberg who left Holland and her husband behind to come to America with her four daughters.
My great, great grandmother Wilhemina Lindenberg, who left her native Holland and her husband behind to come to America with her five daughters.

Whether one believes that the ancestors are calling her to them or if she is seeking them out, either way, in finding an opening to the dead, she paves a path that someday I will follow. My mother has no clue about my devotion to the ancestors. She hasn’t read the writings of C.G. Jung or James Hillman, and if asked, would tell you she is a devout born again Christian. So where does her sudden reach towards the ancestors come from?

Like many of us, her wounds are deep, sometimes voiced as regret and guilt over events far in the past that continue to haunt her. As her child, I suckled on her wounds. As I grew, and my wounds manifested as a withdrawal from life, she saw my behavior as outward proof of her own wrong doing. When I began to understand my part in her story, and began to remove myself from a role she needed me to play to prove her guilt, my life began to become my own.

Beyond physically inherited traits, lies the unfinished ancestral business. We’re in a much bigger story than our personal experience allows us to easily see, especially when we’re young. Haunted we are, with the ancestors calling us to attend to these wounds, first on a personal level and eventually one that will lead us back to ponder their circumstances which often become ours.

Moms BookIn her retirement, my mom wrote an autobiography recalling in great detail family stories of struggle and hardship that show her amazing resiliency throughout much of her childhood. There were hard times in which my grandmother struggled to support six daughters and two bad marriages. The suicide of my mother’s step-dad, who probably had no idea what he was marrying into, are all told with insight, compassion, feeling and love. I needed this book.

In hindsight, reading the stories of my ancestors gave me a way to see myself within the context of a bigger story, offering me deeper insights into the choices, limitations and opportunities in my life.

My mother’s stories also offer insights into my familial and cultural past, loaded with images of struggle, loss and love in 20th century America. As all of us do, I entered the world in a story already taking place. A world felt to be not of my making; messy, in which the more I look, the more pain and suffering I see. Given our limitations as to where we enter, and the story we find ourselves in, I think the need for forgiveness and compassion cannot be overstated.

My mom’s dementia is not only a physical disintegration. I see her engagement with her mother and the ancestors over in Holland as somehow necessary for something essential to her eventual death and mine. In the last few years she seems softer, much more light-hearted, with an honest portion of sadness and regret. Her dementia has me seeking new ways to reach her, and myself, not to bring her back to who she once was, but to invite her to share with me the world she’s slipping into.

Cora'sGirls
My mom, 2nd from the left, with her mother and sisters.

It will not be easy to lose her when the time comes, and I suppose the fear of that loss finds me very willing to meet her where she’s at and to stay connected somehow.

She may not know it, but she gave me an unexpected gift that I will cherish forever. To share with her this movement toward our ancestors makes life a little less lonely for me and affirms my need to remember the dead. When Higuchi says he is living in the after life, I recognize that feeling a little more each day. It’s not morbidity, but the recognition that living my life in the stream of the ancestors, brings insight to the complexity of human experience.

All quotes: Hillman, James; Shamdasani, Sonu (2013-08-26). Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

First Grade

Because we live on opposite coasts, the time I spend with my family is precious.

Perhaps as we get older and realize how quickly time is moving and how mistakes we’ve made stole some of that time away, it’s even more desirable to be around those who share our past, helping to bring into focus the people, places and events that tell the story of our lives.

When I was young, there was no part I could play that seemed to fit, so I tried to stay on the sidelines, but that didn’t fit either. When I first read WIlliam Stafford’s poem, First Grade, I laughed knowing that I had been Amy for a long time, and yet, my family never gave up on me. I owe them a lot for that.

They never remind me now of how difficult I could be and even now would probably say I was just being “Deb.” But the changes which slowly came, allowing me to embrace life, bring with it an increased desire for closeness and a feeling of gratitude for their love and their presence. I look forward to spending the next week or so with my sister and my niece and am very thankful that my husband enjoys these family visits too.

Here’s to my family and the play, the one that I now gratefully take part in.

I’ll be offline for the next week or so…

FIRST GRADE

William Stafford

In the play Amy didn’t want to be
anybody; so she managed the curtain.
Sharon wanted to be Amy. But Sam
wouldn’t let anybody be anybody else
he said it was wrong. “All right,” Steve said,
“I’ll be me but I don’t like it.”
So Amy was Amy, and we didn’t have the play.
And Sharon cried.

Love and Mercy

There may not be a word used as frequently in our day that’s so lacking in a precise definition as the word Depression. Literally, to depress is to press down, which we still recognize when a doctor uses a tongue depresser to see the back of our throat. But since the latter part of the 19th century the word has been used to describe a state of our psyche, and more recently, the word itself has perhaps become victim to its own original sense by having its meaning “pressed down.” Rather than clarifying – repeated use of the word depression has given the idea a quality of vagueness. Perhaps it is the vagueness that allows the psychiatric community to take liberties in the diagnostics and treatment of what we now call depression.

But it seems to me that when we are depressed we cannot quite say what it is we are. Are we sad, tired, weary, hopeless, lonely, or have we lost our sense of meaning and purpose, becoming disillusioned? Maybe we don’t feel much of anything at all and so, we’re just not ourselves. But is every uncomfortable psychic state experienced an illness in need of a cure? In America it seems so.

So, you may ask, what’s wrong with that, isn’t there science aplenty to prove that our moods are just a by-product of brain functioning? And in taking drugs to regulate that functioning – if we do in fact feel better we must have had a chemical imbalance right? …and therefore an illness? Well not if double blind tests show that every method used to treat depression, including a placebo, show at best a 50% rate of alleviating symptoms in the short term (4-6 weeks).  But there’s lots of commercial interest in manufacturing depression as an illness when your business is selling cures.

The DSM-IV clinical definition does not attempt to explain how or why one would come to be depressed and doesn’t care. Their definitions of pathology attempt to convince us that we have a disease, something gone wrong in the physical state of our brain and body. Like most organizations with a vested commercial interest, there is a reason for the APA’s framing of conditions. They have a deep, long standing relationship with organizations that are benefitting from marketing depression. It’s not so much that depression or its symptoms do not exist, but that we don’t have definitive answers as to how our mental states relate to things like diet, habit, or other environmental influences.

There has never been a time when we humans did not seek to alter our moods through some form of substance or chemicals. But until recently there has never been an organized attempt to define a symptom as a disease. We do so now because the pharmaceutical companies have spent the last 60 years investing time and resources to develop their chemical cures that they can sell. Our ability to trust and believe in medication should be questioned, especially when the cure is occasionally much worse than the so-called disease. With revolving door relationships between the FDA and the drug manufacturers, the definition of illness and the drugs marketed to cure them have gained legitimacy and acceptance in the culture and that should be suspect.

According to the experts, for one to be diagnosed with a Major Depression:

“Five (or more) of the following symptoms have been present during the same 2-week period and represent a change from previous functioning. Some of the symptoms: (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest or pleasure. (3) Feelings of worthlessness (4) Poor concentration (5) Thoughts of death.” These might as well be symptoms of stress or chronic pain or illness, but in this case they are symptoms of a so-called illness. With criteria as unscientific and commonplace as this, diagnosing a depression and prescribing drugs for a cure have led to an epidemic in mental illness in the United States. Again, 2 weeks constitutes chronic?

How about Major Happiness? If it’s true that lowered serotonin levels cause depressed states wouldn’t it also be true that heightened levels cause too much happiness? Of course you’ve never heard of this because the idea that serotonin levels are responsible for depression are speculative. And besides, who would want to cure themselves of happiness – even if it were a disease?

In many cases the psychotropic drugs prescribed for mood disorders do help people, by their own assessment. Who can argue with that and who would want to deny anyone their right to be medicated? But who decides what is best for us in a culture that relies on expertise with commercial interests judging the value and safety of both the definition of illness and the drugs used to treat them?

This is where we fail the most in a culture that is increasingly experiencing the breakdown in the quality of our relationships. No wonder we’re depressed. We should be, if not for the current state of the culture and the world at large, then at least for the mysterious, vulnerable predicament that humans have found themselves in since the dawn of existence that we moderns seem sometimes to have forgotten.

Depression, as a descriptive, is only useful for those interested in defining a marketable illness, and those willing to embrace an identity of themselves as pathologically in need of a label to understand themselves. If you take the word away, what other language would you use to define what is going on?  What do we mean when we say we are depressed?

I, for one, have always struggled with words and concepts used to define me because not only is it not helpful, but definitions attempt to keep us from the natural motion of living and because all attempts at embracing an identity tempt us into believing we are static beings, when we are clearly not. Life is hard, we often live in conflict shifting between competing ideas, we struggle daily to meet our basic needs, to give and receive love, and to make peace with ourselves and others. And in our modern world, where the level of comfort has reached unprecedented standards, we have heightened our expectations for perpetual happiness against a background of an often unacknowledged increased vulnerability. We have so much more to lose as much has been given.

For myself, having lived with a life long struggle with life itself, I had to examine my need for an over reaching sense of satisfaction and remember daily to forgive, both myself and others for failing to be all I envision us to be. Being human means being separate, limited, vulnerable, and making our way in a finite existence that includes sickness, pain and death. That is life’s premise, and although challenging, the greatest task may be to simply make our peace with that and do the best we can to be who we are and listen for what is calling us.

The one great thing about being an individual is the freedom we each have to define for ourselves a purpose and meaning that touches us (and hopefully others) enough to sustain us in the day to day. Never sell yourself short on what calls to you. Instead of pursuing happiness, perhaps we should embrace what, where and who we are now.

Some thoughts from James Hillman on depression: http://www.newtherapist.com/hillman8.html

“Today this depression has lost the confines it had in earlier psychiatry. It’s in youth, children, and the term is used very broadly. But it is so important to get back to what experience that person (depression sufferer) is in.”
“In practice, for people to say I am depressed is insufficient, it won’t do. I want to know what, where, how, what are the physical correlates, what do you eat, what happens when you are in that chair and when you get up out of the chair. I want to know an enormous amount about your body.”

Thanks Brian, Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight.