I’m not sure who said it. Probably my acupuncture physician, but my memory is a bit vague; for all I know, my friends have been saying the same thing for months or years, and I’ve only now capable of hearing them. But this is what I heard: “I don’t think you’ve believed that things can actually change.”
Substitute “things can actually change” for “you can lose weight” or “you can regain your health” or “you can create a different sort of life for yourself” or “you can become unstuck,” and you’ll have a picture of the loop I’ve been in for a very long time. Actually, though, I have believed things can change: they can always change for the worse. And I’ve believed that things can change for the better, but not because I had anything to do with it—I am that which fouls up plans, or ruins a good thing, or starts off hopefully and resolutely only to fail once again.
I’ve written about my struggles with depression. I was a moody kid, certainly, but the deep, dark, despairing kind of depression didn’t hit until college. I think that’s the time most people who have schizophrenia start becoming ill; I’m guessing it has something to do with changing brain chemistry. Mine started in my freshman year, and seemed to cycle almost with the moon. Since then I’ve learned that many people suffer greater depression around the new moon, just as many people experience insomnia around the full moon.
In my junior year I had some kind of depressive break. I spent my days curled in a fetal position on my bed, chewing on the chenille balls of the bedspread, weeping uncontrollably. I would venture out only after dark, and walk the mile or so into town to find something to eat, because I certainly wasn’t going to go to the dining hall to reveal my condition to my friends.
This lasted two or three months. Reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and a couple of Gerard Manley Hopkins poems, notably “Carrion Comfort,” over and over, aloud, almost chanting them, making them into a mantra or a magic spell, were the tools that helped me regain a modicum of sanity. When I finally approached my best friend in college and summoned the courage to tell her what I had been through, she chastised me sternly for being self-indulgent, and told me she never wanted to see me in that sorry state ever again.
About ten years later I learned that she had just come through a year of depression, and that her husband was bipolar. I desperately wanted to be compassionate, to think that perhaps her extreme reaction was because the idea of my depression triggered a profound fear in her, but all I could think was: Ah. Now you know what it feels like. Now you understand.
The depression came and went over the years; after that major college episode, it was no longer on a tidy calendrical schedule. When it came, it was bleaker and more profound, and when it went, I was at least able to cope with daily life, though it was never true happiness. I never quite got up to that level again.
Toward the end of my two years in Vermont I slipped into a depression. When I realized I was actually planning my suicide, trying to decide who should take care of my dog and how to minimize the horror and clean-up when my body was found, I decided I needed to seek professional help. My doctor prescribed Wellbutrin. After four weeks it finally kicked in, and I woke one morning feeling balanced and happy and at peace. Three hours later I broke out in hives all over my body: I was allergic to the medication. Then we tried Prozac. It gave me seizures of the jaw that made me bite my tongue badly during my sleep. My doctor decided that SSRIs didn’t work with my brain chemistry, and hoped that herbs and diet would solve the problem. They helped, and moving back to Florida a couple of months later to take care of my mother (not to mention all that good sunlight) helped even more.
Then I started receiving acupuncture—not expressly for the depression, though that was certainly one of the concerns. Within a month I felt much, much better; within three months I could no longer access that level of despair even when I tried. And no more depressive episodes of the kind that had so bedeviled me for three decades. It’s been a remarkable transformation.
But this year, after Mom’s death, I’ve come to see that I still have the behavior patterns of a depressed person, if not the feelings. And now I realize that I also have a depressive belief system: the bedrock certainty that no matter what I do or how hard I try, nothing will ever truly change for me. That I am Sisyphus.
I’m reporting all this because I think that old belief system may be changing. Slowly, by increments perhaps. But I’m starting to believe that change is possible, that bodies and mindsets and circumstances are maleable, that I have more power over my life than I think I do. It is not, alas, a straight-line improvement. There are days when I think everything is possible and others when I still think nothing is. But the overall direction, I believe, is one of opening up, of seeing light, of thinking Yes, maybe. Maybe there’s hope.