Embracing Resistance

In Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays, Hayden Carruth states, “Everything I know as a writer and critic, everything I know about poetry and life, tells me that the effort to analyze a feeling makes that feeling stronger, not weaker” (60).

As a confessional writer, I analyze my feelings often, but compulsive self-analysis can turn into self-judgement when I label certain feelings “unacceptable.” Debilitating sadness is unacceptable. I need to toughen up and become a productive member of society. Chronic anxiety is unacceptable. I need to loosen up and take charge of my life.

I assume that Carruth, who battled depression and anxiety for decades, understood the power of shame to compound suffering. Living with mental illness is hard enough. Fighting the stigma of mental illness, the shame I’ve internalized, is equally daunting.

Shame stifles my creativity and restricts my being. I write best when I acknowledge, without judgment, how I really feel. When I’m depressed, my body feels heavier than a pile of anvils. When I’m anxious, my body feels like a desert trapped in a grain of sand. I worry that sharing details like these makes me look bad, but if my depression and anxiety won’t shut up, why should I stay silent? To write freely, Carruth might remind me, is to heal.

But where my body is concerned, I’ll never have the last word. In the throes of a depressive episode, my body won’t get out of bed. Nothing and no one, not even me, can force it to rise. There’s an anger immune to reason flowing through me, a defiant inner child reclaiming his power.

When it’s fed up with the world, my body says no. It accepts that it doesn’t work right. My body owns what it lacks. Rejecting the false memory of a unity it never had, my body challenges society’s bogus requirement to always be rational, driven, and self-sufficient. My body pushes back against the double trauma inflicted upon it: the trauma of having a mental illness and the trauma of feeling ashamed about having a mental illness.

I keep using the word shame, but defining it isn’t easy. On my worst days I feel like my soul is damaged. I blame myself for being depressed and hate myself for hating myself. Hearing people I care about tell me they love me doesn’t stop my internal critic from judging me. I feel unworthy of love and acceptance despite the fact that everyone, by virtue of being alive, deserves both.

Depression is hidden; it doesn’t look like a broken leg or third-degree burns. People fear what they can’t see and judge others for exhibiting odd behaviors they can’t explain. We’re aware of the stereotype of the madman or madwoman. I know how alone they feel.

No matter how society tries to define me, I live my depression in my own way. I’m free to write that I feel like my soul is damaged, but I can’t prove it. I can’t prove that I have a soul in the first place. But writing that my soul is damaged is my (hyperbolic) statement; it is unique to me. Everything I write is an expression of my singularity. My resistance, too, is an expression of my singularity. Everything and everyone I resist, I resist in my own way.

If I wake up one morning and my body feels like a pile of anvils, the first step I should take to get out of bed is to not get out of bed right away. Stay numb. Be one with my mourning. When I feel depressed, to feel better later, I must do depression well.

It’s important to challenge negative thoughts, to take my meds, and to go to therapy, but it also helps to recognize that parts of me haven’t healed, can’t be healed, or refuse to be healed. My body is stubborn. I need to embrace its resistance.

The Milk Of Human Kindness

When I say I’m allergic to milk, people ask if I’m lactose intolerant. It’s much worse. If I eat anything with milk in it, I can go into anaphylactic shock. You know how bee stings kill innocent children at amusement parks or Fourth of July barbeques? That could be me but with pizza, frozen yogurt, French silk pie, or bite size Milky Ways.

I can’t eat cake and ice cream at birthday parties unless my mom made the cake from a dairy-free mix and topped it with soy ice cream. Cross-contamination is my kryptonite. Every time I go out to eat, even at my favorite restaurant, where I always order a chopped steak and plain baked potato, I’m tempting fate.

In fifth grade I almost died while working on a science project at my friend Paul’s house. We were building a Styrofoam model of the solar system in his basement. Back then Pluto was still a planet.

I rarely ate at friends’ houses, but Paul’s mom made tomato soup for lunch and insisted I try some. My mom had made me tomato soup before, so this seemed like a safe bet.

After my first spoonful, I felt a slight tingle in the back of my throat. This happens when I start to eat sometimes, but then I’m fine, I thought. I wanted to be a good guest, so I took another spoonful. Then another. More tingling. I told Paul’s mom the soup was great, but I had a big breakfast and wasn’t that hungry. When I took my bowl to the sink, she asked why I hadn’t touched my glass of milk.

“Oh, I’m allergic to milk,” I said.

“But I put milk in the soup,” she said.

Apparently, cream of tomato soup is not the same as plain old tomato soup.

Stunned, I reached for my backpack, where I kept tissues, my inhaler, and a small bottle of Benadryl. For some reason, I thought two teaspoons of Benadryl would counteract the cup of poison Paul’s mom had unwittingly given me. Denying the gravity of the situation, I told Paul the medicine would kick in and I’d be fine. I didn’t want to alarm anyone, even though my body had already gone into attack mode.

First, there was the uncontrollable sneezing. Then, as if stuck in a vice, my chest began to tighten. My lips swelled. Hives formed around every part of my body that bends—under my arms, between my fingers, behind my knees.

Rather than calling my parents or asking Paul’s mom to drive me home, I decided to walk the two blocks from Paul’s house to mine. This decision wasn’t out of character for me. I didn’t want to bother people or feel like a burden. That day, not asking for help almost killed me.

Out the door I went. It was January and the sidewalks were covered in snow, so I stayed in the street, sneezing my head off. Half a block from home, I started running and almost collapsed. Somehow I made it to my front door, barely able to speak. My mom called 9-1-1. The paramedics brought me to the emergency room where a dedicated team of doctors and nurses saved my life.

Thirteen years after the tomato soup incident, I almost died again. Struggling to find a path in life after college, I fell into a deep depression. After months of feeling sad, anxious, and hopeless, I swallowed a bunch of pills and called my mom at work to tell her I was in trouble. She rushed home, as did my father, who drove us to the emergency room where another dedicated team of doctors and nurses saved my life.

In the psych ward the next morning, I was surprised to find a carton of milk on my breakfast tray. Convinced the universe was playing a cruel joke on me, I gave it to a nurse.

“This could kill me,” I said.

The staff probably thought I was paranoid, but I was thinking clearly. Kind words from an ER nurse who cared for me the day before had struck a chord.

“You’re so young,” she said. “You have so much to look forward to.”

I did have a lot to look forward to, and thanks to her, I still do.

I know I’m a sensitive person. I haven’t outgrown my milk allergy and I’m still in treatment for depression. Sometimes I think I’m weak or damaged. In truth, I’m a survivor of two potentially life-threatening medical conditions.

My mom taught me to be kind towards others. With the love and support of family, friends, doctors, nurses, and therapists, I’m learning how to show myself kindness. Dare I say, the milk of human kindness.

An Other-Fulfilling Prophecy

After just two months of going it alone, I’ve decided to return to therapy at my old clinic. I might have to wait six to eight weeks for a spot, so I’m glad I called and got my name on a list.

Not long after my last session with my former therapist, who left for a new job, I started feeling down and disconnected. Questions arose. Should I tough it out and manage my symptoms on my own? Should I go back to my old clinic or choose a different one closer to home? My mind went into hyper-obsessive mode. Knowing that I couldn’t make a “wrong” decision, I nevertheless struggled to make the “right” decision.

Perhaps I should’ve listened to Jean Baudrillard, who writes in Cool Memories V:

One cannot reasonably trust in the will, that rational strategy that works only one time in ten. One has, rather, to clear the decks around a decision, leave it hanging, then let oneself slide into it, as though being sucked in, with no thought for causes and effects. To be willed by the decision itself; in a sense, to give in to it. The decision then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (66)

Baudrillard would argue that my decision to return to therapy made itself for me ahead of time. It called me, seduced me. I simply had to give in to it.

The moment I told my former therapist I wanted to take time off from treatment, I knew in the back of my mind I’d be a client again somewhere soon. Two months later, here I am confirming what I suspected all along: I still need help for my depression and anxiety, and probably will for the rest of my life.

Therapy, of course, doesn’t benefit me alone. In treatment I can seek a happier, healthier me, or any me yet to be. I can challenge my impulse to isolate when I’m depressed, thus creating more opportunities to build new friendships and share my gift of writing with the world.

A socially conscious philosopher, Jacques Derrida writes in For What Tomorrow, “My decision is and ought to be the decision of the Other in me, a ‘passive’ decision, a decision of the Other that does not exonerate me from responsibility” (53).

Synthesizing Baudrillard’s and Derrida’s novel approaches, I see that my decision to return to therapy has already become an Other-fulfilling prophecy.

A Leap And A Precipice

When I became the lead opinion writer for my college newspaper, my father suggested I call my column “The Road Not Taken” after one of his favorite Robert Frost poems. I thought about it but went in a different direction, choosing a title of my own: “Free Association.”

Recently I came across an article by David Orr, author of The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. According to Orr, Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” with his friend Edward Thomas in mind. After an initial reading, Thomas thought that Frost, through the speaker in the poem, was lamenting the uncertain nature of making choices, suggesting his life would have played out differently if he had traveled a different road.

Frost, it turns out, was mocking Thomas, who frequently complained about the routes they took on walks through the woods. Unaware of this backstory, readers assume that Frost is arguing in favor of the road not taken, praising independent spirits for forging their own paths.

We can’t experience a life we didn’t lead—we only know the path we’ve taken, the one we’re on right now.

Wherever he went, my father didn’t travel lightly. A heavy smoker for over fifty years, he carried in his chest the weight of a thousand ghosts. He was depressed but never diagnosed because a doctor might have the audacity to suggest he quit smoking.

My father died at age seventy in the hospital where I was born. Doctors assumed he had lung cancer, but we never found out because he refused any tests.

Naturally, I inherited his nerves. Three years prior to his death, I was hurting so much I decided one day to disappear. Medicine works best in small doses, but it’s easy—when you think about it—to fit a bottle in your mouth.

There were signs we missed, being caught up in our moods. I shared a poem with him once about my life being an arduous climb up a mountain that extends higher and higher with each step, death a slip within reach.

Our only hope is to keep climbing, he said, without looking down.

“This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.”

He spoke from experience, having survived as a young man what doctors called a “break from reality.” In the days leading up to his hospitalization, he had visited different churches, determined to find his calling into ministry.

I don’t know if my father found God, but he did take solace in the poetry of Frost, Tennyson, Keats, Byron and Blake. A student of language, he conducted his ministry as a high school English teacher for thirty-two years.

He looks human to me now, but as a child I saw him as a larger-than-life figure of strength. I remember disagreeing with him many times about my choice of friends, but I also remember how hard he fought for me, like the time my bike was stolen. Acting on a tip from a neighbor, he confronted the kid’s parents and threatened to call the police. The kid confessed, apologized and never messed with me again.

These are the pictures I paint of him in poems and stories. There’s an art to reproducing one’s father—retracing his steps, repeating his sins.

Fate is genetic; it comes before and after us. One of my favorite philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, didn’t believe in fate. He argued that we must create our lives every day out of nothing. Without being consulted first, each of us was thrown into the world, and this thrownness throws us for a loop. Even suicide, Sartre reminds us, is an act of being in the world.

No stranger to mental illness, German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote, “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”

To create my life out of nothing, I must, at every turn, risk my life. Faith—in myself, in my father, in God—requires both a leap and a precipice.

This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.

Whether or not we recognize our path, it’s easy to get lost in the woods.

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

A previous version of this essay was published in The Intimacy of Communication.

Throwing Judo Moves

Originally published in French in 1976, Symbolic Exchange and Death finds Jean Baudrillard incorporating into his thought the work of Marcel Mauss, a French sociologist who studied gift exchange in primitive societies. Mauss wrote about rituals in which each member is obligated to give gifts, receive gifts and provide counter-gifts, all of which contain traces of the person’s soul. The “goal” of the ritual: a gift-receiver must overwhelm a gift-giver with a counter-gift so powerful no further counter-gift is possible. In the process of trying to one-up each other, tribal members deliberately waste excess resources to ensure no one accumulates too much wealth.

Baudrillard views these rituals as a radical form of symbolic exchange, a concept he uses to critique capitalism. Emphasizing community and submission to fate, primitive peoples put to shame American values like greed, self-importance and celebrity worship.

Civilized societies based on economic exchange retain elements of symbolic exchange that haunt modern life. Still, Baudrillard argues, if we wish to save what makes us human, we must challenge the homogeny of the capitalist system with a gift it can’t return. We must force the system to humble itself before the world.

Nothing is more spectacular or subversive than suicide.

Death as creative act. Suicide as counter-gift. This is Baudrillard’s private revolution against capitalism’s reign of terror. People in Western cultures don’t kill themselves, Baudrillard contends, because resources are scarce. They crack under the pressure of mandatory consumption, their bodies too weak to enjoy a lifetime supply of products and services they don’t need and never asked for.

Thankfully, we don’t have to die to issue a challenge. We can commit theoretical terror, like Baudrillard does in his writings, or we can sacrifice ourselves through super-obedience to the logic of the system, devolving into passive-aggressive citizen-robots. In both cases a duel commences in which the weaker party throws what Baudrillard calls “judo moves” at its much stronger opponent, turning the system’s power against itself.

Compassionate Anti-Violence

While I’m intrigued by Baudrillard’s provocative analysis, I’m here to issue him a challenge of my own. We live in a violent world rooted in socially constructed systems of power, oppression and abuse. We hurt, so we hurt each other. Rather than responding to violence with more violence, we must learn to forgive ourselves and each other for all our trespasses.

An understated but radical concept: forgiveness as the ultimate counter-gift.

There’s no reason to forgive someone who hurt me, just as there was no reason for him to hurt me in the first place. As a survivor who learns to forgive, I resist an impulse to give up. I can then devote myself to promoting an ethics of what I call “compassionate anti-violence,” which means fighting for empathy without punching people in the face.

This is not merely a personal healing. Survivors who acknowledge the truth of their ordeals are free to confront evil and protect others from harm, reducing suffering throughout the world. Poverty, slavery, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, terrorism, war: these are just a few examples of social and political traumas that threaten individual lives and the foundations of entire cultures.

Of course, anger and sadness are normal responses to injustice. I don’t deny anyone’s right to express outrage or disgust, but staying angry increases misery. To make matters worse, many survivors mistakenly blame themselves for events beyond their control. An inner-directed forgiveness has the power to heal self-inflicted wounds.

An Existential Burden

I live between extremes. One moment, I’m hypervigilant—scanning my environment for threats, startled by the sound of my heartbeat. A few minutes later, I’m numb, disconnected from reality, an imposter in my own body—a classic case of depersonalization.

When I’m hypervigilant, I’m keyed up from living in protect mode. When depersonalization sets in, I’m desperate to confirm I’m alive. I find danger lurking in all directions, each step a trudge through the middle of imaginary battlefields.

There’s a reason for my distress: as a child I endured years of physical and psychological abuse. As a teenager, in addition to clinical depression, I received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, an existential burden no amount of medication or therapy will ever erase.

Everyone suffers. My attacker was hurting when he hurt me. I assume he struggles to make sense of his actions years later. I don’t want to compound my suffering—or his—by hitting back.

Of course, I’m no saint. I’ve hurt family and friends, even lashed out at strangers. One spring day in 2003, I took more pills than my bottles directed. This got me a date with an ER nurse whose name escapes me. She poured me a pitcher of soot water to neutralize the poison.

“You’re so young,” she said. “You have so much to look forward to.”

There’s a chart somewhere with my personal history. I don’t know if I thanked her for filling in the blanks.

Core Beliefs

Core Beliefs

my therapist says overthinking
can be a defense mechanism

overthinking can be
a defense mechanism

overthinking can be
an unfenced metaphorical prison

it’s not my fault
my therapist says

confessional poems
can be used against me

my therapist runs a mom & pop
Oedipal arrangements shop

with thirty-one flavors
of oral fixation lollipops

overthinking can be
a dense intellectual prism

a defense mechanism
defense mechanism

anxiety is a preexisting
human condition

paid for by a
state institution

my therapist ties
Freudian slip knots

to agoraphobics flying
kites in parking lots

it’s not my fault
it’s not my fault

I don’t believe
it’s not my fault

my therapist is the reason
I’m in touch with my feelings

c b snoad
2-13-17