Thursday, April 14, 2016

That thing with feathers

"Where will you go with your scarves and your miracles?
Who's gonna know who you are?
Drugs and wine and flattering light
You must try it again till you get it right."

Neil and I watched some TEDx talks on telly recently. I've watched quite a few but Neil had never seen one before.

As you probably know (but I had to look up) TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. Courtesy of Wikipedia, TED is a series of annual conferences run by a non-profit under the slogan "Ideas Worth Spreading". TED has broadened its early emphasis on technology and design to include talks on many scientific, cultural and academic topics.

TEDx talks are independent spinoffs organized under a license from TED that follow certain principles, i.e, they are non-profit, speakers are not paid, any copyrights are relinquished. The TEDx talk library contains well over 30,000 films and presentations from more than 130 countries.

Despite the part of me that has anxiety about public speaking, I love the idea of giving a TED talk. But I think what I really mean by that is that I love the idea of having something so noteworthy and original and compelling to share that I'd be invited to give a TED talk, or to be accepted to give one if I applied.

What would that be, I wonder? What has been significant in my life, what has been singular and important enough, what could I bring a new perspective to?

I've done much in my life, but I also consider myself to be a quintessential underachiever. I would have liked to have done something with a global impact, even if I was just a little cog in that machine. I'd have like to have done something to help humankind, to help the earth's ecosystems, to save lives, to improve the quality of life for others on a meaningful scale. I missed that boat though.

I can point to a plethora of valid reasons, things that held me back. Lack of confidence, self-doubt, a dearth of encouragement, a lack of vision, a failure to connect with a mentor, fucked neurotransmitters, my mom's Holocaust survivor baggage, my dad's emotional impotence, a whole stew of blame for my feelings of inadequacy. Hell, I did well to hang on at all, to grow up at all, to get through life in a comparatively reasonable way.

Truthfully, the way I'm wired, I think I could have been a neurosurgeon or rocket scientist or the leader of Greenpeace or the editor of the Wall Street Journal or Mother Teresa herself, and still felt as though I could have, should have done more. Maybe no matter what I did would not have been enough to convince me that I'd achieved my potential. I'm just a little too smart to be fat, dumb and happy, but not quite smart enough to figure out my true vocation in the universal scheme.

I tell myself that it's OK, not everyone has to be a superhero, that living a decent life and being a good human being is enough. Thomas Carlyle wrote, "Make yourself an honest man, and then you may be sure that there is one less scoundrel in the world." Maybe by simplay not adding to the ills of the world, I've added something to the greater good.

OK, it's really not that grim. I've accomplished some things. I raised two responsible, empathic, humane-minded children. I stayed employed with one company for almost 30 years, doing nothing important for many of those years, but managing to save enough money for a reasonable retirement while single parenting for 10 years, paying for activities, trips and oh, yes, college educations. I have no consumer debt. I paid off a 15-year mortgage on my last home.

Not least of all, I mustered the strength to excape from a failed marriage. I endured the excrutiating aftermath of a true love gone south. I wake up today and find myself in the amazing state of being happily married to a good man, the love of my life, the one who gets me and makes me laugh every day.

Yet, thinking over the story of my life, the hypothetical topic of my TED talk, the overarching theme of my story is my life-long engagement with melancholia, and by that I mean everything from separation anxiety to the grassroots blues, to at least one season of mania, to a couple of year-long rounds with self-diagnosed clinical depression, or what I like to call NTDD for Neuro-Transmitter Deficiency Disorder.

Because I do believe that the basis of depression, at least my personal experience with it, is biochemical. The worst of times for me were situationally triggered, but once I was in it, I was as powerless over it as I would have been over the flu. Or allergies. Or cancer.

If I had not taken my turn dancing with the black dog, I would not have been able to comprehend what other people who battle with serious depression might have experienced. I would have thought they were weak. I would have seen pharmaceutical interventions as crutches. I would have thought, it's all in their heads.

And it is in their heads, and in mine, in the dysfunctional synapses that fail to allow chemical messengers of good fortune to transmit their feel-good signals. I resisted prescription drug therapy, felt guilty about it, was secretive about it and eventually put my faith in it. I had to feel my life was at stake first. And it was no magical placebo, no silver bullet, no feel-better happy pill. No, it was five years of trial and error, pernicious side effects, questionable benefits, and apalling discontiuation syndromes. And then, relief. Finally we lit on a combination that worked for me.

They'll have to pry my meds from my cold dead fingers.

That's an exageration of course. I've been able to cut out one Rx and halve the dose on another. But I stockpile the third drug because I never want to run out of it. I used to say, if my life ever was stable and free of significant stress, I'd ditch the meds, but I don't feel that way any more. My life is stable and relatively stress-free but I can tell within a half day if I miss a dose. And I never want to feel that way again. Better living through biochemistry is my motto.

I'm well and I've been well for years, but it's remission, not a cure. I know there are things that could happen that would put me back in that black hole, back on the bottom of the ocean. Any one of those things could happen and will, more likely than not, because this is life and no one gets a free pass. Sure, I could die first, and that might even be my first choice, but I'm not in any hurry.

So there it is, the biggest thing that's ever happened to me, and I can't even claim victory. Yes I fought it. Yes I never stopped believing I'd get well. Yes I did everything I knew to do to fight it, from diet and rest and spiritual faith and talk therapy and online support groups and exercise when I could muster the troops, to the med merry-go-round and never giving up on hope, that thing with feathers that never stops at all.

But could I preach it? Could I stride out on that TED stage and tell my story and talk about my recovery and offer hope to those who hurt? I don't know. Maybe I was just lucky. Maybe one of these days I'll be back on that sofa, wondering what the point is.

Maybe it doesn't matter.

Everyone's story changes, everyone is a work in progress, the race is never over, and what we know today we know tomorrow was only what we thought we knew yesterday.

And maybe that's all we need to know to go tell it on the mountain.

How're you going to make your way in the world
When you weren't cut out for working?
When your fingers are slender and frail
How're you going to get around in this sleazy bedroom town
If you don't put yourself up for sale?

Where will you go with your scarves and your miracles?
Who's gonna know who you are?
Drugs and wine and flattering light
You must try it again till you get it right
Maybe you'll end up with someone different every night

All these people with no home to go home to
They'd all like to spend the night with you
Maybe I would too

But tell me how're you going to make your way in the world, woman
When you weren't cut out for working?
And you just can't concentrate and you always show up late

You said you were an actress
Yes, I believe you are, I thought you'd be a star
So I drank up all the money, yes I drank up all the money
With these phonies in this Hollywood bar
These friends of mine in this Hollywood bar

Loneliness and frustration
We both came down with an acute case
When the lights came up at two I caught a glimpse of you
And your face looked like something
Death brought with him in his suitcase

Your pretty face it looked so wasted
Another pretty face devastated
The French inhaler, he stamped and mailed her
So long, Norman
She said, so long, Norman.

(Warren Zevon)

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