Contemplating the Abyss...

"I'll see you on the dark side of the moon...."

My older son Jeffrey just defended his thesis and was awarded his PhD in Neuroscience. This occasion led us to a brief discussion of one aspect of his research. After about fifteen minutes of Jeff's attempts to "dumb down" the science so that a lay person could understand it, we both realized that our conversation had reached its natural end. To go where he was going, I would need to be able to understand what he already knew. This could not happen in fifteen minutes. Realizing we had reached this point, Jeff switched off the science, and became the philosopher again. He said something like, "Everything we learn raises questions that we had not even known we needed to ask prior to that discovery. Sometimes I feel like we are in the same place in our understanding of brain chemistry as the mapmakers who wrote 'And beyond here there be dragons' at the edges of their maps. We don't know what we don't know". Recently I had a personal experience that reminded me of that conversation.

Every now and then life offers us the opportunity to walk in the shoes of another who we previously considered to be somehow very different from us. I have long believed - purely academically - that the line between those of us who are "normal folks" and those who are seriously "other" is thinner than most of us would care to believe. One of the areas that illustrates this point is the line between those of us who have "clean" criminal records and those of us who do not. How many of we "clean" folks have driven home a time or two (hopefully long ago in our wayward youth) in a condition that would have landed us under arrest except for plain stupid luck? Maybe you never have. But a lot of my generation nod knowingly when I mention this.

None of us can see how a serious "pothole in the road of life" like a DUI could alter the course of that life. But it would take a naive individual to think that it would not have a significant impact; loss of a good job, a tremendous financial hardship, even just becoming the victim of gossip. These things are real and probable consequences. Of course, there are even more horrific consequential possibilities including causing injury or death to a stranger or a loved one. Seriously considered, it's enough to prevent one from ever making the same foolish mistake again. But for one who didn't stop to seriously consider, life could be forever changed. There are lots of these "fine lines" lying about, waiting to be tripped over. It never occurred to me until just recently that "normal" mental health could be sitting quite close to one of them.

When my children's mother died they suffered as anyone who has lost a parent. Being a tight-knit group, they clung to and supported each other. But one of them slipped into a deep and seemingly intractable depression. She became increasingly fearful and withdrawn and basically lost an entire year of her life. Except for the loving support of her siblings and friends who demonstrated a remarkable and patient encouragement, we could have lost her completely. She has since recovered and is enjoying her work and her relationships again - wiser and certainly more mindful of her hold on reality. I have to make the horrible admission that I was not there for her. I was geographically and emotionally removed and never truly understood the depths of her despair. Her siblings kept me posted and I just figured it was something she "had to go through". What a foolish and flippant position for a loving parent to take! I have come to realize lately that it wasn't because I didn't care, of course, but because I just couldn't understand or relate to how it felt to be on the other side of that particular line. Surely one would have a period of grief and sorrow, and then they would slowly come out and begin putting the pieces back together again. Life goes on, even after the most cruel of blows, right?

For a few days last month I stood with my toes on the edge of a similar line. There was no precipitating event: no arrest, no death, no illness of which I am aware. Yet over those days I began to lose control over the thoughts dominating the stage of my own mind. Little things grew all out of proportion. Big things shrunk to details. The weight of the daily "to-do list" had somehow suddenly reached crushing proportions, and stolen center stage away from the more important things in life that, by all accounts, were going almost embarrassingly well. I have a wonderful family. My wife is the kindest, most supportive partner imaginable. We have reasonable job security and an adequate income. We have some health issues, but no one is critically ill at the moment. By all normal measures I have everything to be grateful for and very few problems. So how had this mental somersault happened? What had occurred in my brain chemistry to turn everything topsy-turvy? How could I have spent several days immobilized in a bed or on the couch with a crushing sense of helplessness - being overwhelmed by the usual stuff that everyone else is out there dealing with day to day? The only answer I can give is that I have no idea. I had never had an experience like it before, and I fervently hope to never feel that way again. But since I have no idea how or why it occurred, I cannot say with certainty - as I might have before - that "it couldn't happen to me". It had and it did.

Like many people I couldn't afford the treatment or the time off to investigate this situation in a "responsible" way. I know I should probably have had blood tests and talked to a counselor and tried to figure out if the cause was organic or emotional. Part of my brain still felt that I had not stepped over some "line" but that I was just being weak or indulgent or emotionally lazy. The old me, the one I had been just a few days before, would have tried a walk on the beach or a hike to see if I could reset my sense of reality. The new, hopefully temporary me, was afraid of running into someone and having to act like everything was "normal". As a result, writing this article has been the extent of my therapy to this point. I have also had lots of love and support from my family and the few friends I felt I could share my "temporary insanity" with. One of the most important among these confidants, because we both knew that the other would understand, was my daughter. Her recognition and encouragement was second only to the assurances of my wonderful partner that it was OK to be down for a while and to allow myself time to recover in my own way.

So I guess I'm "keeping you posted". My work responsibilities would not wait, and they forced me to go back to putting one foot in front of the other. I thought often of the "one day at a time" mantra of my friends who have struggled with addiction, and realized the simple truth and effectiveness of that approach. I chose to try to tick just one item at a time off my list instead of feeling like I had to somehow do it all at once - a "plan" that had resulted in a feeling so overwhelming that I had curled into a ball on my couch and felt unable to move. It sounds absurdly simple, but from the place I temporarily inhabited, it was overwhelmingly difficult. I felt like Sisyphus contemplating the boulder at the base of the hill. It was not a place I had ever considered real or possible in my previous experience, and yet there I was. On this occasion I was at least smart enough not to try to numb the crushing feeling with drugs or alcohol, though I did watch a really stupid movie to escape my neurotic stream of fearful inner dialogue for a while.

As the fog began to lift just a bit, I realized that I didn't feel irretrievably lost; I had not passed some point of no return which was still receding. But I had gained a new respect for the fragility of mental health. For someone whose core had previously been impermeable to most assaults, I had experienced a shifting of my internal reality that I did not believe possible. While I still have faith in myself and a renewed appreciation for my support systems, I am no longer quite certain that the ground beneath me is reliably and unremittingly solid. I will definitely be seeing the next mumbling "street person" through a different lens.


Last modified onThursday, 18 August 2011 10:30

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