Friday, November 24, 2006

The Necessary Hollow Space vs. Depression

The D word has haunted me throughout my life. When I was younger I flung myself violently at experience--any experience, the more intense the better--in an effort to outrun it. As I got older I began to simply run out of gas, and depression caught up with me on a physical level. What had once been just mental torment became very physical, draining all energy, leaving me so weak that standing up from a chair made me feel as though I would black out.

Through it all, I kept working. I missed a day here and there, and I lost a few jobs due to lateness (inability to sleep = inability to get out of bed,) but mostly I gritted my teeth and kept showing up to teach regardless of how shitty I felt. In many ways having to work saved my ass. It at least gave me something to think about other than my own pain, and provided me with some self-esteem and positive energy. I would have hated myself that much more virulently if I had not been able to work.

Now that I'm recovering from the major crash of '04/05 which laid me out flat, I have tried to change my habits. I HAVE to exercise--a lot. I HAVE to eat a lot of protein and dark green vegetables and avoid sugar. It's not about looking cute, it's about having a life. I may need to take medication for a long time, maybe forever. I can deal with all that.

What's most difficult for me right now are the little soft addictions I've used over the years to numb out and cope--not drugs or alcohol, nothing that exciting--not even food, really--but numbing my brain with trivia. For instance, today I let myself get lost in a bookstore. I sat there reading for hours and hours--and when I'd finished the book it was 9 p.m. I'd been in the same chair for 5 hours. Not so bad, you might say, but not so good either, when I do it in order to disappear from my own life.

The Internet is addictive too, especially celebrity gossip sites and playing Sudoku online. I can waste the better part of whole days, drifting in a kind of miasmic haze, especially when there are urgent challenging new things I want to get to, like signing up to volunteer abroad, or plunging into a new project. Mostly it's stuff around the house that feels overwhelming; simply sending out the kids' Chanukah presents on time (gifts have been bought, but then the work of finding wrapping paper and boxes, and tape and scissors, and completing the whole project...not)

I procrastinate paying bills, even when I have the money. I don't know why. It's like a way of playing with hurting myself in a mild form; not really badly, just the petty little pricks and pinches of not taking care of business. Maybe I am playing with the depression, now that I've been in remission for a year and a half, testing to see who is stronger, me or it.

The recognized cure for depression is movement. Physical movement is essential, but also moving forward in life, engaging, singing, dancing, creating, cleaning, throwing out, giving away, giving, talking, moving.

The "problem" is that being a poet requires stillness. It requires a willingness to be empty, to feel empty anyway, which is uncomfortable and unpleasant. My ego HATES to feel empty. My ego feels important and desirable when my dance card is full; when the phone is ringing, when I am earning money or doing good or looking good, scoring points out in the world.

A day or two of emptiness, no work, no social dates, and I start thinking furiously about how to "fix" my life; vounteer, take a course and become a bartender, go to therapy, join a 12-step program, write this or that or the other grandiose ambitious project--anything to escape the deadly sense of time passing and nothing to show for it.

Doing nothing is the hardest and the most essential. Allowing for that emptiness and then not filling it with either "worthy" activities, or "unworthy" addictions--letting the stillness speak. I suck at it. It scares me. It bothers me. All my demons come out to play when I am alone in an empty house. Nevertheless.

I'm on a creative streak right now. Good for me. But it's like waterskiing on top of a tsunami--at any moment I can fall into the void, be submerged by the very element I'm trying to ride. I don't want to be rescued from this work, I love it and it's mine to do. But it's hard to keep my balance while I'm in it.

It's so easy to get lonely, easy to overwork or underwork, easy not to stretch and move when the weather is getting cold, easy to eat sugar when it's the holidays, easy to spend hours and hours looking at clothing catalogues (my particular favorite brand of "porn") or reading other life-diminishing media.

If I had a real job, and kids, maybe I wouldn't be so vulnerable to these time-wasters because I couldn't afford them; maybe just keeping abreast of my responsibilities would consume me and leave no idle time for the devil to creep in. But for better or worse I've set up my life so as to have not that many responsibilities, and even my minor, auntly duties I let myself slip on--sometimes the kids get their presents late.

My mother was a punctilious person, responsible to a fault. For her an unmet obligation was the end of the world and she exerted tremendous stress on herself and everyone else so that the trains would run on time. So much stress contributed to her chronic illness.

Trying to avoid her fate, I've gone 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Emptiness and idleness pose their own challenges. I have to summon the will to ride the twin horses of creative fire and psychic water from a deeper place than obligation, because I rejected those dictates at a very young age.

I know that filling every moment with activity is not the answer. I know that being uncomfortable doesn't mean there's necessarily something wrong. It might just be the material working in me, digesting. At the end of a "do-nothing" day I might get an insight, a line for a poem, an idea that turns out to be essential. It's hard to be patient with the time my nature requires in order to unfold.

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