Colebrook Journal: Looking Myself in the I

30 09 2014

The Buddha Approves

There’s a point in any practice, whether it be artistic, athletic, or intellectual, where the beginner, after many sessions of going through the motions, suddenly “gets it”. Something clicks in the brain, some gear shifts, and there is a sudden revelation. “I’m doing it! I get it! This is what the instructor has been trying to teach me!” It all makes sense, the mind or body slides into a mode of doing or being that comes from inside, no longer imposed from outside.

I was waiting for my host, who had business in town that morning. We were to meet at noon and then drive to Evans Notch to camp overnight at the Wild River Campground. Well, noon came and went, and Mary hadn’t come. So I decided to make use of the time by sitting in the sun and practicing.

I’d listened over and over to the guided practice on the audio, the gentle voices of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mark Williams teaching me how to understand depression, depressive rumination, and how mindfulness can break the cycle. I understood the theory and how it was supposed to work, and even felt distinct moments of success in dealing with my own Ruination Chorus, tearing back the curtain to reveal the self-destructive habits of mind, furiously whining for my attention: not the bleak truths of my wretched life, but mere events in the mind, thoughts and emotions as insubstantial and fleeting as soap bubbles, with only as much reality as I grant them. As analogy, consider the scene in Labyrinth when Sarah confronts Jareth and says, “You have no power over me.” I imagine the look on the face of the Depression Demon to be much like that of Jareth, knowing he has lost.

But I still suffered the less substantial, insidious effects of negative emotions, the tar pits that I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of. No specific thought patterns to identify and call out. Just a creeping mist of grey melancholy that blocks out the sun. So while I waited for Mary, I sat on the picnic table, struck a proper meditation pose, and talked myself through the steps.

What is in this moment? I asked myself, and began methodically inventorying the sensations in my body, what was going on in my mind, the emotions and thoughts in the mind stream, always gently returning to focus on my breath each time I found my mind starting to leave the station on some train of thought. Not pushing the thought away, or blocking it out, just making note of what it is and letting it evaporate in its own time as I attend to other things. What sounds are coming to my ears? What can be seen from where I am sitting? I can feel the breeze and the sun on my skin. What else is there?  I am reminded of something, I begin to follow that thought, emotions associated with that thought rising up. Then I realize I have begun to be carried away by the mind stream, and I return to the breath. Now. What is in this moment?

And there it was. With sudden clarity I recognized the “I” that is the subject for which everything else is the predicate. Distinct. Aware.

I saw the image of my little Buddha talisman, sitting on the windowsill back at the cabin, smiling, laughing with delighted approval.

Mary was quite late, apologizing profusely as she got out of the car. I told her, very sincerely, that it was all right, I didn’t mind. In fact, I had become quite oblivious to clock time. I had spent over an hour, fascinated by this new perspective, this awareness, this Being distinct from all the Doing, Thinking, and Feeling. This new sense of “I” calmly, curiously, contemplating the content of each moment, the workings of my mind, the busy-ness all around me that I could be aware of, but not a part of. It was astonishing.

But of course, in returning to clock time and the habits of living, I lost that sense of awareness, although I could remember having it. We followed our plans, going to Evans Notch, setting up camp, cooking dinner, enjoying the experience of being outdoors.  We spent the night in our tents.  The next morning Mary told me she had heard a owl hooting in the tree right above us.  Alas, I’d missed it.  The group at the tent site near to us had been partying rather loudly and late, and I’d resorted to earplugs to get to sleep.

We had our breakfast and made our plans for the day.  Mary, who can’t do strenuous hikes right now because of problems with her knees, was going to enjoy the brooks, ponds and autumn woods at ground level.  I would hike up over Basin Ridge and down the other side, where she would meet me with the car at an appointed time that afternoon.

I set out on the trail, pausing now and then, standing still, seeing if I could recover that sense of awareness as I listened to the forest, to the falling leaves, to the woodpecker drumming in the distance, small creatures furtively rustling in the leaves, birds calling and squirrels scolding. I observed the light, the colors of the foliage, noted the scent of decay from ferns killed by frost, the richness of dried leaves crushed underfoot. And my own interior landscape. As inevitably happens, sad memories, regrets and unpleasant thoughts emerged in the mind stream. There you are, I thought, I know you. Say what you have to say, and then disappear downstream. I will not follow you.

But somehow melancholy caught up with me as I toiled up the rough path to the top of the ridge. This is a wilderness area, so the paths are not maintained. One hikes them at one’s own risk. There are signs at intersections to keep the hiker from getting lost, but one cannot count on blazes, or bridges, or walkways, or any of the other niceties. I am an experienced hiker, and this is a fairly well-trodden trail, so I had no difficulty finding my way, exercising the special care essential when hiking alone. I made it to the top of the ridge. But I felt sad, not exultant. It was a beautiful day, a splendid view, I had achieve my goal. Why wasn’t I happy? What was wrong with me?

And so I sat down. Don’t start with that business. There is nothing wrong with me. Nothing at all.

Breathe. What is in this moment? The beauty around me. The amazing view of the pond below and the distant mountains, ablaze with autumn color. The breeze on my skin, evaporating sweat, cooling. The small creatures around me, doing their thing. And sadness. Vague, amorphous sadness. It could pull me down, engulf me, rule me, if I let it. But I see it for what it is: a state of the mind, created in a conspiracy of mind and body. It is as impermanent as the weather. I am aware of it, but it is not me.

And it has no power over me.

I am not sure how long I was up there; I guess about an hour. It would be my turn to apologize to Mary for being late. But when I packed up my things and took up my hiking stick for the tricky, steep and treacherous descent, the melancholy was gone. With good humor I negotiated the loose dirt and fallen leaves, erosion, logs and dislodged rocks, and got to the bottom. I bathed in the pond, splashing the salt and dirt from my face and arms, relishing the delicious, cool sensation of water.

Grinning like my little Buddha.

Colbrook Journal: Coyote Waits

28 09 2014

Chimera Smyth

And then there are the dark times, the weak times.  During the light of day, walking in an old orchard, exploring the winding paths made by deer and bear, sitting quietly in the sunlight, I was fine.  That evening, listening to a story my host was telling me about a young child at her school from a troubled home and how difficult it was for him, I began to feel it.  That deep sadness for suffering I could do nothing about.  Suffering I could relate to. 

Then the conversation wound around to her own past, a story of family interactions, and the melancholy deepened.  Tears formed, with the sense of loss and longing, regret and resentment.  That great toxic stew of vague memories and unanswered questions, the void that can never be filled.  A miasma that thickens like an internal fog.  No specific thoughts I can identify, hold gently and then let go.  Emotion, welling up like oil, blinding, choking, impossible to control or suppress. My mind can’t get a grip on it; my hands come up black and oozing. 

All evening it bubbled just beneath the surface: a poisonous petroleum that I can barely keep my nose above.  And when I left to go back to my cabin, I could hear coyotes in the distance yipping.  We’d seen their tracks in the mud behind the cabin, mingled with the tracks of moose and deer.  Coyote the Trickster, grinning, waiting to trip up the over-confident, the unsuspecting.  The night sky spread vast and cold above me.  Black, brilliant, infinite, filled with things my mind will never comprehend.  I am so small, so unimportant, and will die, fading into oblivion.  All I have ever done, my actions, my words, my works, will slide away with me into the indifference of eternity.  Desolation thick as mud overwhelmed me and by the time I reached the cabin I was weeping uncontrollably. Great, gasping, choking sobs like a hysterical child.  Reduced to groping among the items half-seen in the waving illumination of the flashlight, looking for my anxiety medication.  I guess I’m not there yet.  The sickness still has a grip on me.

I miss home so much.  I find myself thinking about it more and more.  In absence, I appreciate just how much it means to me.  How much I love my boys.  How much I love my husband.  I needed this separation to test how I would feel.  Now I know.  I still have a week before I return home.  In that time I have a great deal of work left to do.

Colebrook Journal: Great Expectations

26 09 2014

Chimera Smyth

Baldpate is in Grafton Notch, right on the Maine Border, the first leg of the Grafton Loop hike I’d planned. The west peak is 3,680 and the east is 3,812. No big thing after taking the 5K Presidentials. Well, numbers don’t mean anything. I toiled up the ten thousand steps to the top of West Baldpate. An exercise in endurance, sure, but much better than scrambling over roots and boulders like on some trails. No, the challenge came when we crossed the saddle between the peaks and started up the ledges of East Baldpate.

At first it was grand. We were totally blanketed with clouds as we came over the top of West Peak and down into the saddle in between. And then came one of those glorious moments when the wind blows the curtains aside and the magnificence of the mountains is revealed. A grand panorama looking across Grafton Notch towards the Whites, their slopes turning brilliant with autumn color. Looking north, Dixville Notch with its line of wind turbines (which I have decidedly mixed feelings about). And dominating the scene before us, the rough, bare dome of East Baldpate. The ascent looked simple, all ledge, terraced and marked clearly with cairns. Ah, but to the right, the valley boiled with clouds which churned up to cover all the peaks and landscape to the southeast with dark, scowling, opaque turbulence.

We started the ascent, an easy climb over open ledges. The wind was furious, but it wasn’t all that cold and it wasn’t raining. Should have been a piece of cake. So why, partway up, did anxiety take over and freeze me with indecision? Maybe the menacing, roiling clouds close by and the scramble up stone triggered a memory of (shudder) Mt. Jefferson. I don’t know. Point is, I backed down. Couldn’t do it.

Nick was cool about it, readily calling it off and following me down to a ledge out of the worst of the wind, where I shrugged off my pack, sat and ate a Cliff bar. A chorus of familiar voices began chittering like monkeys in my head.

“You failed. You couldn’t cut it. Chickened out. You’re not going to be able to do the Loop hike, either. You aren’t strong enough and you haven’t got the grit. And you’re getting old. Face it. Old bag. Muscles going, stamina giving out. Rotting from the inside out. You aren’t good enough.”

Oh, the rush of emotion. Depression leaping in, eager to help with its arsenal of weapons, hastening to point out that I always let everyone down. My parents, my sister, my uncle and cousins, my friends, my husband, my kids, and especially myself. Lousy at everything. Third-rate writer, nobody takes seriously. Disappointment to my family, mediocre at everything if not outright incompetent. A joke. A disaster. And here we go again. Can’t even do this simple climb. Give up, go home and get drunk.

Either Nick doesn’t notice the tears, or attributes it to the wind, or is just polite enough not to say anything. Inside, I’m scrambling to remember what I’ve been practicing, the mental defenses against this poisonous litany.

Right, I know you. The whole “not good enough” thing. You aren’t me, and you aren’t reality. You’re just a melodramatic recitation composed of solidly linked synapses in my brain. Well, okay, you’re here now, go ahead and say your piece, seeing as you’re going to anyway. I’m not going to stop you. I’m not going to waste my energy arguing with you or trying to reason with you, or trying to placate you. Not going to engage with you at all. Just say what you have to say, and I’ll sit here, breathing, separate, a bored, disinterested audience. And when you’re done, you can get up and go. The next moment will come. I’ll keep breathing, keep moving on into the next moment. A moment that won’t include you.

“Hey Nick, how about if I ditch my pack here and try it again?”

By now those clouds had boiled over. The wind was driving them across the peak. The view was gone. The Demonic Repertory Theater seized its opportunity for another performance. Because of my dithering around, wasting time, we’ve lost the opportunity. Won’t be able to see a thing, it’s starting to rain, and it’s all my fault. I’ve ruined the hike with my stupid weakness.

No, it’s just what it is, and I accept it, as it is. Keep moving, keep breathing, keep focusing, until the chorus gives up and goes away. Because it does. If I don’t engage it, if I don’t feed the troll, if I don’t let it grip me and tear into me, eventually its energy is spent. The mind is a busy place. New thoughts are always rushing in, like the next wave at the seashore. Like the weather in the mountains. Always changing. This moment is thick with biting winds and clouds. Next moment, the clouds could all blow away.

Well, they didn’t, and it was completely socked in at the summit. We followed the path through the mist to the signs at the top, where the AT diverges from the Loop trail, heading on up to Katahdin, the ultimate goal of the thru-hikers. Nick took my picture. I’m smiling, but inside, all I want to do is lay down and cry. This business of battling demons is more exhausting than climbing any mountain.

On the way home, we noticed the colors of the trees were much richer than when we’d left in the morning. We thought it was our imaginations, or a trick of the light. Turns out it was quite real. Somehow conditions had been just right with the recent frost and all, and the chlorophyll drained from the trees in an afternoon. A big change in a short time.

The crippling ache in my legs the next day was confirmation. I wasn’t in any shape to do a 40 mile hike. This was a huge disappointment. I’d thought I’d kept in shape, all the walking I’d done over the summer. But the steep ascent and descent of a long mountain trail uses very different muscles. And I hadn’t done a lot of serious mountains since Mary and I finished bagging our 48 last year. I was devastated. It had such significance to me, and I’d prepared so well for it, at least as far as equipment and provisions. But physically, I wasn’t up to it.

Oh, no. Here comes the “Not good enough!” troupe. Do I really have to listen to you again? Okay, get it over with.

Yesterday, I took a walkabout with Mary around the area where they live, through the woods and by the cabins of summer folk, empty at the moment. Since last year, Mary has suffered a terrible turn of events. Her knees have given out and she can’t hike anymore. Talk about a crushing blow. She can manage short walks with the aid of poles, taking it slowly. But no mountains. She swims and rides a bicycle to keep up her muscle tone, and is looking into an operation for knee replacement that could get her back on the trails. She’s not a woman who gives up easily. But she also knows how to accept what is and work with it.

“Hey Mary,” I said as we sat in the sun on the porch of one of the little empty summer houses, admiring the view. “What do you think of this? How about if I just do the western half of the Loop?  18 miles instead of the full 40?”

Mary loves to talk about hikes, and we began discussing it. My legs were still a bit sore, but recovering nicely after Baldpate. I could try doing a couple small climbs in the meantime, to keep building up my strength. I still had over a week. It could work. I could take it slow, go at a gentle pace. The campsites are spread out along the trail at good intervals, plenty of reliable water sources, no need to worry about hustling. I’d get my solitude, my time in the woods, my sense of strength, self-reliance and independence.

Not what I had planned, not in line with my expectations. And if the weather turns foul, my plans could well fall through again.

Just have to accept it.

Colebrook Journal: of ponds and people and what goes on beneath

24 09 2014

Chimera SmythI am siting with a hot cup of tea up at the house of the folks who own the cabin where I am staying. My hosts are gone at the moment: Mary is in Santa Fe for a class reunion and to visit family, due home in a day or two. Nick is in town flipping burgers for a Kiwanis fundraiser which somehow involves ATVs. In this part of the state, starved for income, ATVs and trails equal a lucrative attraction not unlike snowmobiles or skiing. Railroad tracks have been ripped up and paths through the woods refined so people can roar along for miles, appreciating Nature as it whizzes by them.

They may have it. I’ll refrain from launching into my accustomed rant, and yes, I am sure that, like gun owners, ATV riders can be very nice people with good reasons for their choices. But I have a gut dislike of guns and ATVs that cannot be argued away. It is possible, however, to separate that gut dislike of the thing from a dislike of the people associated with them. That is how peace among neighbors of differing persuasions is possible. I wish it were possible to cultivate that distinction on a national level.

[By the way, I am a few days behind with these posts. In real time, Nick is off again this morning, again on a Kiwanis mission, this time delivering a hospital bed. Seems they have a program where they scavenge discarded hospital equipment and store it, then donate or loan it to people in need. As I mentioned, money isn't too thick around here, and many folks can't afford and have no insurance to cover their dire medical needs. So Kiwanis steps in to help. Yes, same folks with the fondness for ATVs and guns.]

I can see a small farm pond from where I am sitting in their living room, looking through the sliding glass doors over the deck to the marvelous view beyond. Apple trees and fields, rolling hills and forests, the maples anticipating the season with colors ahead of their fellows. The way the wind disturbs the surface of the pond is fascinating. On a still day, the surface is like glass, punctuated from beneath by tadpoles and small fish. Water beetles carve erratic Vs in the surface, urgently racing to get wherever it is they are going, which to the uninformed eye, seems to be pretty much nowhere.

Today, the wind whips the trees and sends the leaves spinning up towards the grey sky. No rain, in fact, the sun periodically comes through enough to lend a richness to the color of the trees. There has been a hard frost, but the leaves are only just starting to turn from green to autumn and the wind isn’t able rip them from their stems as easily as it will in another few weeks. The smaller pips and trails of aquatic life are erased by the invisible force of the wind which, like the theists’ God, can be seen only in its actions. The shades of green and yellow of reflected trees and shrubs around the pond are blurred and chipped. Gusts roughen the surface with rapid, irregular, racing streaks of pale grey. It’s a violent scene.

Yet beneath the surface, the residents of the pond go about their fishy business in their customary ways. The violence above doesn’t penetrate to where they are. Surely they can feel the chill beginning to creep in, the sun warming the waters less as the season changes. Time to think about transitioning to winter. But all this present sturm und drang, the whipping of the trees and the scuffing of the surface, the wild wind rattling every loose board and thrashing leaves into a frantic dance, all irrelevant to the fish and frogs.

I want to be down there with them. I want to be a crayfish poking along through the mud on the bottom, stalk-eyes occasionally glancing upwards towards the surface, vaguely aware that something is going on up there. But down in the still waters, there is peace.

Colebrook Journal

22 09 2014

Chimera Smyth

Driving north on Vermont 102, an alternative to Rt. 3, which has become routine with familiarity. On my way to Colebrook, to friends who have offered me the refuge of their cabin while I sort things out.

I was looking for a spot to pull off and rest, and have a bite to eat. So many “No Trespassing!” signs. And irate “No Turning In Driveway!” signs. I can understand the need to prevent casual entry onto private property. Some people can be carelessly destructive, doing damage and leaving trash and graffiti behind. But the prohibitions against turning in one’s driveway baffle me. Why the hostility towards such a simple, inoffensive act? What is the property damage caused by the brief pressure of tires on a surface designed to be driven on? Property owners stake out their territory and guard it jealously as if it were some coveted treasure. In some cases it arguably could be. But a driveway? They are like dogs erupting into barking rage at any intrusion, no matter how innocuous.

Then I saw a track that sloped down from the main road and into the trees which had neither gates nor bars nor stern prohibitions. So I turned onto it. With its rocks and ruts it was obviously not designed for ordinary vehicles. This is why I have a RAV. I slid through the ruts, negotiated the rocks, managed the steep gravel, and then there I was in an open hay field, not a house or barn in sight.

It’s autumn in the north country, so there was a chill in the air, but the sun blazed down warm out of a blue sky rippled with thin white clouds. I ate my snack sitting on an old towel on the cleared ground, kept company by grasshoppers and other insects going about their business. There was only the lightest breeze, rich with the scent of cut hay. The bales had been removed, taken to some local farm to keep the livestock in bedding and fodder over the winter.

When I had finished eating, I explored. One nearly always can find aging apple trees gone wild, a delight for deer and bear. With jays screaming “Thief!”, as if anyone would care, I picked a tiny, spotty little apple. Sour, yes, but with a reminiscent flavor of something once cultivated. Good for little more than cider even in the best of times. Beyond the line of trees on the far side of the field was the Connecticut River. I made my way over and looked down into its broad but shallow currents. Water leisurely flowing over a still, muddy bottom. I caught a glimpse of a fish — a good sized one. Leaves drifted along the surface or just beneath.

I recalled the saying, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Is that because it is never the same river, always moving, always changing, or because you are not the same, like the river, always moving, changing, evolving? We are sometimes compared to an onion, made up of layers built up over time, or like a set of Russian dolls, each stage of our lives nested within the next. Growing outward. As if we could cut into us and count the rings. I see us more as a river, with tributaries flowing in, mixing, detritus tumbling through, changing us as we flow. The elements of the small stream that was the river back in the past are indistinguishable. Mixed, diluted, barely remembered. There is no brook to be found in the river any more than there is a child to be found in the adult.

In counseling I was urged to look back and try to remember my past. It became a part of my toxic ruminations, struggled with, like the other unsolvable problems that gnawed at me. For many, this is useful therapy. For me, it was like trying to understand the tree by rummaging through the leaf mould. Memories shift and change over time, rewritten by the brain into unreliability. Even eyewitnesses immediately after an accident will tell a different story. Fifty years of sediment, contradictory information, most of the eyewitnesses dead or lost to me. Forensic futility.

My past is a shapeless room with indistinct boundaries and grey walls.  On the floor are scattered photographs and paragraphs on torn bits of paper, all in no order at all, with no explanation, no clear meaning or significance. Disembodied emotions, half-remembered summers, scraps of dialog, tiny things with sharp teeth and staring eyes lurking under the detritus waiting to bite the fingers that probe beneath. Trying to make sense of it only leaves me curled up on the floor sobbing “Why?”  The healthiest thing I can do is to get up, go to the door, leave the room and close the door tightly behind me.  If anyone asks me to go in there again, I shall tell them firmly and politely “no”.  Been there, done that. How many moments of the present have I already lost agonizing over the contents of a grave?

It’s time to go. I make certain I’ve left nothing behind to offend the landowner, and give silent thanks that he chose not to put up gates or bars or “No Trespassing” signs. My trusty RAV bumps and bounces back onto the road, and I continue my journey.

The Absurdity

20 09 2014

Chimera Smyth

The unexamined life is probably a lot more pleasant.

I am sitting up in bed with a cup of tea on my chest.  This is how my mother died, or so I was told.  Just about every detail of my family life has the hazy quality of myth, different versions told by different people, and now the truth (if such ever existed) went to their graves with them.  But I was told that on that last day in the hospital she was having her morning cup of tea, which was one of the few pleasures she had left to enjoy, and she just quietly passed away. Her heart stopped beating.  The nurse came in to check on her, and just took the cup away, making no attempt to revive her.  What would have been the point?  Her cancer was terminal.  She had already suffered enough.

Depression is not like cancer (although it does kill an awful lot of people).  Cancer strikes the innocent.  Depression strikes people with weak characters who lack the courage to pull themselves out of it.  That’s the subtle undercurrent society feeds us.  Depression isn’t really a disease, is it?  It’s a “mood disorder”.  Like that sullen, sulky teenager who just needs a good smack and some self-discipline.   “Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about!”  Depressed people are a drag to be around.  Fortunately, they pretty much do others the favor of removing themselves from social situations, staying home and feeling sorry for themselves.  Some of them commit suicide.  What a stupid, inconsiderate thing to do!  Didn’t they care at all about the survivors left behind?  The emotional trauma their actions caused?  Nothing but selfish, whining bastards.

Well, that fits in pretty neatly with what depressed people think of themselves.  Losers.  Unlovable.  Useless.  Flawed.  Failures.  Slackers.  Total waste of oxygen.  That’s what both society and the disease tell us.  Must be true.

Giving in to depression can feel like relief.  After fighting through drifts, lost in the winter woods, finally just fall into the snow, exhausted.  Let go and let cold sleep take away the struggle.  Is this why they commit suicide, those victims of depression?  To say “commit” makes it sound like an act of will, requiring choice, thought and effort.  But it’s more like sinking into deep, still water.  Stop struggling, just let yourself drift downwards into peace.  Despair is quiet.  After all the noise and drama, the beating of fists and the hacking sobs, quiet is a relief.

But here’s the absurdity: In defiance of what that demon Depression tells me about my utter insignificance and hopelessness, there would appear to be people who disagree.  They do care about me, like me, think I’m okay.  They worry about me and want me to get better.  Imagine that.  They send me hugs and sympathy; some even tell me they’ve been there themselves and know the demon well.  My extended family may have rejected me (I was a disappointment, a failure, I let everyone down) but my husband and kids, in spite of all the evidence Depression offers me to the contrary, love me and think I’m a good person.  And it seems I have all these friends who are willing to put themselves out and upend their schedules to provide me the opportunity to heal.  (Depression sneers, “You’re a burden!  A problem!  A hassle!  A pain in the ass!  You should be ashamed of yourself, imposing on them like that!”

Piss off, demon.

Love does not conquer all.  However, it can be the tipping point that makes the difference.

Observations on the Relationship Between Creativity and Depression

17 09 2014

I have been working on a new novel. It’s about a woman who is a failure at nearly everything she has ever put her hand to, and how her life unravels as she comes to realize it is all her own fault. Perhaps I’ll call it “Depressive Ruination.”

My writing friends can relate to the condition: Every waking moment when you aren’t focused on something else, your mind creeps back to the story. You work out dialogue in your head, wrestle with the plot, playing out different scenarios. “What if this happened, instead of that? What if the hero is actually the villain pretending to be a good guy? What if the woman doesn’t know who to trust?” Your entire life, even sometimes your dreams, become a source of possible material. Suddenly something dawns on you — why of course! It was actually his brother, but the family was so ashamed of their hidden secret that no one ever told! Back you go to rewrite some more. Your family and friends regard you with gentle amusement (and sometimes poorly concealed irritation) at your obsession with your story.

Then finally it’s reached first draft form, ready for the beta readers and editors. You groan and realize they’re right, this part is crap, that part has to go, and it couldn’t have been the brother anyway because of what Aunt Susan did. So you go back and work on it some more. It gets to be exhausting after awhile, you are so sick of reworking the same thing over and over again, but you’ve got a deadline, your publisher is waiting, so you focus on it again, playing and replaying the scenes until they are perfect, everything works out precisely right, and off the puppy goes. You’re ready to move on to the next exercise in literary OCD.

Now there’s this new novel. Except it’s based on real life. Well, aren’t they all? I mean, the more truth you can work into your fiction, the more it resonates with the experiences of real life, the more the reader will be able to relate to it. But this new novel isn’t fun. I’m not enjoying it at all. And my friends and family are not regarding me with gentle amusement or ever irritation. They are regarding me with genuine alarm.

It started when my marriage began to fall apart. Never mind the details. It’s the process that counts. When the problems started, a lifetime of training kicked into action. My creative and analytical faculties went into overdrive.

Every waking moment when I’m not focused on something else, my mind creeps back to the problem. I go over dialogue in my head, real and projected, possible conversations and possible answers. I wrestle with the plot, playing out different scenarios. “What if this happened, instead of that? What if the hero is actually the villain pretending to be a good guy? What if the woman doesn’t know who to trust?” My entire life has becomes a source of possible material. Suddenly something dawns on me — why of course! That is why my sister hated me. It was all my fault. And, that’s what I did wrong with my cousin, and why she won’t forgive me. I’ve been so clueless all along. So stupid. So much lost and wasted because I said or did the wrong thing.

Now it’s on to couples counseling, where I get feedback on the story I’ve woven around this problem. More reasons I’ve failed. More things I’ve done wrong. I try to pitch variations to the plot that cast me in a gentler light, or that direct at least some of the blame elsewhere. But talking about all the possibilities just confuses me. I’m not sure what’s real anymore, who said what, what they meant by it, whether I’m remembering right or just making up something plausible. There are clear, unresolvable conflicts between his version and my version. Am I wrong? I must be wrong. Look how I’ve screwed up the rest of my life.

I am so exhausted from reworking the same thing over and over again, but I’ve got a deadline, my husband and counselor are waiting, and my god, this is my life, my marriage on the line here! It is critically important that I figure this out and come up with a solution! So I focus on it more, playing and replaying the scenes but they never work out perfectly, nothing is precisely right, and there’s no end to it. The novel is a failure, I am a failure, but I can’t let go of it. I have to try harder; I must fix it somehow.

Depressive rumination is the dark side of what creative people do, especially when we are in the habit of applying obsessive compulsive analysis to our creative process. And you don’t need to be a writer to suffer from it. You just need to let the nasty, needling questions and problems of depressive thought get lodged in your head, as if they were issues you could resolve if you just tried hard enough. Your mind becomes like a computer devoting more and more of its memory and computing capacity to an unsolvable problem. Eventually the computer crashes. So does the mind.

Major Depressive Disorder — Clinical Depression — is essentially when you’ve bricked your brain. Can’t get it to reboot. Just keeps running this circular program designated by a faint, pulsing blue capital “L” followed by, “Why bother?” Data analysis repeats: Failure. Catastrophic error. Object unlovable, incompetent, fatal flaws in program too numerous to correct. Complete shut down recommended.

Curl up in bed and cry.

This is not headline news. The American Journal of Psychiatry, VOL. 144, No. 10 published a paper essentially stating that “…writers had a substantially higher rate of mental illness, predominantly affective disorder, with a tendency toward the bipolar subtype.” Simon Kyaga led a team of researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, using a registry of psychiatric patients, tracked nearly 1.2 million Swedes and their relatives. The patients demonstrated conditions ranging from schizophrenia and depression to ADHD and anxiety syndromes.They found that people working in creative fields, including dancers, photographers and authors, were 8% more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers were a staggering 121% more likely to suffer from the condition, and nearly 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

And here I am with my first-hand account of a classic co-evolutionary conundrum, like sickle cell hemoglobin conferring a survival advantage against malaria. The very characteristic that enables the subject to write imaginative, complex and internally consistent novels also makes the subject especially prone to crippling depression.

So, what am I going to do with this poisonous novel I’ve written? Fortunately, my beta reader and editor have both agreed that maybe I ought to stop working on it for a while. No more counseling sessions. That’s a start. Now some distance from the project, break the ruminative cycle, remind myself that it is, indeed fiction. Bad fiction. Fiction that ought to be taken, page by page, and ripped into tiny bits.

Sometimes you have to kill your little darlings before they kill you.


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