Category Archives: Living in the U.S.

Comfortably Numb

I used to love Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I haven’t listened to it in years, but the title of the book I’m reading, Comfortably Numb, jumped out at me when I was in a bookstore last week because it was a reference to a song from the album and the movie. I still remember the images, although it’s been over 20 years since I’ve seen the movie. An unconscious man lies in a dingy hotel room, surrounded by people furious because he can’t perform on stage. They shoot him up with something, and after a period of semi-consciousness and hallucination, he finds himself in uniform, riding in a car. The video is interwoven with images from the man’s childhood. He finds a sick rat as a small boy and wishes to nurse it. His mother won’t let him, so he takes it to a shed by the river, puts it in a box of hay, and covers it with his vest. When he returns, the rat is dead. These images contrast with war images, images of himself as a child with a fever, and the scene as he returns to consciousness after being shot up with some kind of powerful stimulant and hallucinogen.

I must confess here: I didn’t remember all the images. YouTube is a remarkable resource. I remembered the unconscious man in the dark room (played by my countryman, Bob Geldof), the men trying to slap him into consciousness, the shot, him waking up. I remember the nightmarish quality of the lighting, and the words “Comfortably numb.” The rest returned only when I saw the video on YouTube. What surprised me is how accurate the images I did remember were. I caught snapshots of the video on my brain, and those snapshots retained the mood, the shadows-and-light, the despair, of the original video.

When I saw the book, with its aptly named title, I couldn’t help but buy it, and I’ve been reading it for the past week. (I’m on break! I have time to read!) It describes a nation of malcontents who have bought into the dream of perpetual, instant happiness as a right, and who have fallen under the drug industry’s spell. In their millions, they march into doctors’ offices around the nation to demand whatever drug they’ve seen advertised on TV that week. “Pharmacists say that in the days after a news story or a new DTC [Direct to Consumer] ad for a medication comes out they observe a massive increase in prescriptions for that medicine” (48), writes author Charles Barber.

He validates the horrible experience I had when on antidepressants after my mum died when he writes of the side effects of tardive dyskinesia and akathisia, which he calls, “the worst common side effect, in my observed experience” (88). While his references to these effects are for antipsychotic drugs rather than antidepressants, in some patients — and I was one of them — SSRI medication can cause both akathisia and tardive dyskinesia. In my case the tardive dyskinesia, which often is permanent, was temporary, lasting only two or three weeks.

In addition, he described a Welsh study in which healthy college students were given SSRI medication. No less than 10 percent developed “horribly disturbing suicidal and homicidal tendencies, completely alien to anything they had ever experienced. One person imagined slitting her throat and bleeding to death next to her partner” (58).

I am not alone. I read his words and felt another wave of relief wash over me. While I have no doubts about what happened to me almost four years ago, occasionally my little toad voice will creep in. It was you. No one else would have reacted that way. Look at all the people you know who take antidepressants and are just fine. You imagined it all.

No. I didn’t. And I didn’t imagine that the doctor released me after only two days, and that the insurance company didn’t charge me for the hospital stay, although it should have. Why not? Why did the doctor release me immediately after I told him what had happened? Sometimes, when I see those personal injury solicitation ads like the one I linked to above, I think I should pursue it. I know I have a case. But I’m not going to because it’s not my way. I’m just happy that slowly there’s a growing awareness of how dangerous SSRI’s can be. Maybe, eventually, the medical field or the FDA will restrict prescription rights to psychiatrists who are trained in adverse reactions, contra-indications and other potentially deadly dangers of the brain medication that today doctors hand out with very little prompting.

I’m not saying — and neither is Barber — that antidepressants don’t have their place. But he distinguishes between depression and Depression. We’re all depressed sometimes. Grief can bring on depression, as can divorce, life-threatening illness, and other life challenges, all of which I dealt with within a very short period of time that terrible year. But Depression is different. The only Depression I’ve ever had was caused by the drugs that were supposed to treat it, and I had to get off them to get over it.

My path has swerved, as it so often does, in writing. I thought I would write about a phrase from Barber’s book that I read and that pushed me back into my teen years, another stab at my constantly stalling retrospective. But I found myself considering the phenomenon of antidepressants and the American psyche instead, and remembering my own experience on those drugs. Barber has a solution, about which I’m reading as I probe further into the book, and it involves the Buddhism that saved my mother’s life.

From comfortably numb to aware. From depressed to awake.

Every day I pray that I shall wake a little more.

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Encouraged

Can’t say it. Don’t know how. Ghosts float about the room, not dead yet. I imagine them, my readers, what they might look like, how they might sit beside me and reach out to touch me. They might stand back, and purse their lips. They might turn away. I want to bat them off, chase them out. I want to open the windows and send them off to mingle with the clouds. Here it is again, that embroilment, that fear of being seen.

Push-pull. To expose. Not to expose. I could tell you that making l*v* hurts, that it always has, that there is a physiological reason for it, that if I can hold tight and let it happen, then let go, relax into the pain, let it fill me, there’s a place beyond it where bliss waits. Pain and ecstasy are inextricably entwined.

I can tell you that my life is mostly mundane, and it’s OK. I wake and eat breakfast and let out the dogs while I water my flowers and my lone yellow plum tomato plant, and then I go to work and teach for three and a half hours, and spent some time prepping for the next day’s class and reading papers (I say “reading,” not “grading,” for a reason). And I come home and eat lunch with Nada, and sometimes we play chess. And I drive Zeke here and there (or rather she drives me, because she’s in driver’s ed and has a permit, so I sit in luxury while she finds ways to go the long way to her friends’ houses, gas prices be damned). And when it cools down I go to Nada’s and we kick a soccer ball around for a while because he quite smoking eight weeks ago and he needs something to distract him when the cravings hit. I thought, at first, I was doing it for him, that I would hate kicking a soccer ball around because I’m ball-challenged, with no coordination, but actually it’s fun. I bought soccer shoes, and he’s showing me some tricks and drills, and I can’t do any of it well, but we laugh a lot, and sweat drips into my eyes and I run under the sprinklers to rescue the ball when I send it sideways into his brother’s yard, and the cool water challenges the heat, sends it away into the rich blue dome above, and I feel like a kid again, as if I’ve found something I knew once but forgot — or maybe I never really knew it.

When we’re tired we go inside and read. He reads cognitive psychology books, his current intellectual interest, and I read papers for work or scribble all over a manuscript for a future developmental writing book that I’m reviewing. Sometimes, if there’s time, we’ll read together for a few minutes, these days from Chuang Tzu’s Inner Chapters, and he’ll be happy. So will I. I don’t mean to exclude myself. I was going to write “we,” but I realized that he in particular loves being read to, and I love to read aloud — but it gets tiring, and there’s never enough time. So we read a little from the Inner Chapters, and then I have to rush out to pick up Zeke, and cook her and her friends something. There are always kids sleeping here: right now her friend J is in her room with her, and B is on the couch downstairs, so I’m writing in my bedroom, with Sadie and Bridji snuggled up against me.

And then, finally, it’s night. I open the windows and the wind blows through, carrying cool from the mountains. I water the plants on the patio again, beneath stars, and listen to the world hum. The ghosts gather again, and they don’t purse lips or turn away. They are friends. I can write to them.

Nobody’s smoking

“Nobody’s smoking,” N said. Then he added by way of explanation, “Adah’s allergic to smoke.”

“Something’s setting me off.” I stood up. My chest hurt, I was coughing, and even if I couldn’t smell smoke and nobody around appeared to be smoking, my body was telling me something was in the air. I hate it. I hate having asthma, of being sensitive to chemicals like smoke and perfume and solvent. I hate that my asthma is cough-variant, so it always begins with coughing, which is so obvious and which people don’t quite believe in. I hate that on a lovely warm evening in June I can be sitting outside a coffee shop, watching my friends play chess, and suddenly start coughing, and have to leave.

“Nobody’s smoking,” is one sentence I despise. I’ve heard it so often I’d be rich if I had the copyright on it. But when I stood up and walked away from our table and looked around, I saw a man smoking about 30 yards away, behind a sort of divider, and the wind was blowing in the direction of the chess table. Even if none of us could smell the smoke, my body knew it was there. That’s always the case. Once I walked into N’s house and started coughing. “Nobody’s smoking,” his mother hurried to reassure me. I still coughed and eventually went outside. Then his brother came out, shame-faced, from behind the office door, at the end of the hallway at the far end of the house. “Sorry,” he said. “I was smoking in there a few minutes ago. I didn’t know you were coming over.”

Another time I was sitting on the porch, chatting with N’s parents and aunt, and I started coughing. “Hey,” N’s brother said as he walked around the corner. “I’m not smoking. Don’t look at me!” Nobody was smoking, but I was coughing. A moment later, N’s nephew came from next door. “Sorry,” he said, when he saw me using my inhaler. “My friends are smoking back there.” Then he stopped, looking puzzled. “Wait,” he said. “You can’t smell it from all the way over there, can you?”

“What direction is the wind blowing?” I asked. “I don’t have to be able to smell it to react it. If the wind is blowing it over here, it’ll trigger an attack even if I can’t smell it.” Sure enough, the wind was blowing from the back of the neighbor’s house to the porch where we were sitting.

“That’s amazing,” N’s aunt said. “You mean you’ll start coughing even if the smoke is behind the house and no one can smell it?”

“If it’s in the air and I breathe it, my lungs seem to know,” I said. “It’s a bit absurd.”

What it is is bloody irritating. I was enjoying watching N and J slaughter each other in chess. Actually I love the intricacy of their games. J is rated 1900, so is quite good, and N’s been getting steadily better, so that he plays some quite close games against J, though he usually gets mated in the end game when they’re down to pawns, maybe a piece each, and their kings. This evening we were attended by a couple of young boys who were fascinated with the game. “Can I play one of you guys?” one of the boys asked. “I love chess.” He elbowed his friend. “Watch this,” he said, winking as he sat down opposite J.

J played as he always does, carefully, systematically, as though he were playing a seasoned opponent. Within about two moves it was obvious the boy had no idea how to play against someone with J’s experience. The kid was still gleefully throwing pieces away in anticipation of a grand mate somewhere down the line when J maneuvered him into a trap and mated him. “Oh,” the boy said, looking crestfallen. “You’re good.”

Half an hour later I started coughing as the boy and his friend were playing a game of speed chess under the tutelage of N and J. “Nobody’s smoking,” N said, after a cursory look around. I stood up and walked away from the table, then noticed the smoker some 30 yards away. My inhaler will stop the attacks from progressing into full scale asthma with wheezing and airway shutdown, but it doesn’t really stop the coughing if I’m still being exposed to the trigger, and I couldn’t exactly go up to the man who was smoking and ask him to stop. I did point him out to N, though, in a reflexive attempt to validate my coughing, as I said my goodbyes and left.

I have to admit I’m feeling a bit grumpy, and positively sick and tired of “Nobody’s smoking.” At this point, if I’m coughing, isn’t it obvious that someone, somewhere, must be?

Explaining my mother

I’m at my dad’s house. Leah is visiting from across the waters and we are preparing to go on a sightseeing tour.

And suddenly I’m stopped. Can’t write. There’s so much I want to say, and all of it clogs together in my head, a cacophony of words demanding their moment to be heard, to shape themselves into images, to present themselves in the form of recollections and reflections.

What I want to say is that my mother was extraordinary. (Why did I write “is” at first?) Because I’m unfolding the retrospective slowly, and trying to describe what happened without too much explanation or unpacking or projecting forward into the “now,” it might seem that she was a terrible mother in some ways, that she made unforgivable mistakes. But she was not. She was very sick at the time, with an illness nobody could figure out. She was living the dark burden of her own traumatic childhood, trying to overcome it alone, without the benefit of counselors to help her recast her past in a new and more illuminating light. As a child I knew none of this, or at least, I knew she was sometimes sick in bed, but I didn’t know how deeply her illness weakened her emotionally, and I knew nothing about her past.

What amazes me about her is that she overcame all of it, all the horror of her own upbringing, her father’s suicide when she was five, her mother’s raging alcoholism, the dysfunctional society in which her family stood as some kind of beacon of respectability. She changed, altogether. Those who knew her in the last 20 years of her life knew her as someone fully kind and loving, generous to all, always looking for the best in people. There was a lag in how she applied her love to her children, I realize. It started on the outer edges of the pond of her life and rippled back towards the center, where we were grouped. She could not, in the early years, be as unstintingly generous with her compassion towards us as she was towards others. But she did love us. She did everything out of what she believed was the best for us. And in truth, there were good days. There were days when she showed up at school, and the school secretary came to fetch us from class, and we would go to the beach with another family to take advantage of the rare sun. There were days when Dad was home late, and we would sit in the kitchen with her friend and her friend’s kids, and eat biscuits (cookies), and talk and laugh. We went to the pantomime and the opera. We got swimming lessons in Dublin, and stopped off at the campus bakery for fresh-baked meltingly soft rolls on the way home. We went to Bewley’s on the half day at the end of every term for raisin buns and fudge. We marched in Dublin to try to save Wood Quay, the site of a Viking excavation, and she helped us make a placard for our dog, and afterwards we ate in the newly opened McDonald’s, Ireland’s first, with the dog curled under our seat. I tasted my first milkshake then, and laughed when the boy who was mopping the floor pretended to mop up the dog.

We had fun. There was joy. I did laugh. I know I did. It’s just that the dark moments intervened at times, and they shaped me as much as the fun times.

So I have to say, before I continue my retrospective, that my mother was an extraordinary, beautiful, kind woman, who saved herself somehow from her own traumatic past, and in doing so gave us — her four girls — the tools to help us heal ourselves. Two of my sisters have had extensive counseling, one on the East coast and one in Ireland. One should probably consider it. I have visited a counselor now and again, not often, and done what I can through reading and walking meditation and prayer — my mother’s path. It has not always been easy. It will not ever be easy. But it is possible, and every time I breathe deep and feel joy, I think of my mother, who taught me how.

“Wasted no time”

The note was found at 8:35, according to the news reports. It threatened a shooting at 9:30, but didn’t specify a.m. or p.m. College officials, campus security and local police “wasted no time” in evacuating the campus. The local news channel was laudatory regarding the efficiency of the response. Maybe they should have checked their facts. Dozens of people, probably close to two hundred, were stuck in the parking lot logjam. I was there till 9:45. One of my students was there even longer. “I was stuck till 10:00,” she said. “I just couldn’t get out, even once the cars started moving. I didn’t bother to turn my engine on.”

So, if there had been a crazed gun-wielding student on campus, we would have been trapped and absolutely unsafe, probably more vulnerable than had we stayed in the locked classrooms.

Nobody in that jammed parking lot seemed to know what to do. The campus security guards stood around, looking dazed. One of them walked through the lot, yelling something incomprehensible to us. I couldn’t hear what he said, and when I called for clarification, he ignored me and just kept walking, yelling at everyone in the lot. It turns out he was telling people to get in their cars. It turns out he knew the threat was for 9:30. Surely he should have had a megaphone? Surely he should have made sure people understood?

I suppose, I told the students this morning, they’re making it up as they go along. We didn’t have to evacuate the campus the last time a note was found. The note made threats for the following day, and it was found late in the day, late enough that few students were on campus. What these ridiculous threats do is teach us what we need to do if we really do have to evacuate. I’m sure the college will come up with a new plan now. I’m sure campus security will call police before they do anything else, and by the time students are filing out to the parking lot the traffic controllers will be in place to get us moved out. It shouldn’t take more than an hour to evacuate a fairly small campus, and with a plan in place the next threat should bring a smoother response.

But it’s ridiculous. How many times will we have to evacuate or miss a day of classes because of threatening notes? What kind of world is this? I was used to bomb threats and evacuations when I visited my grandparents in Derry in the North of Ireland. I was used to us just leaving the shop on command, our groceries in the cart. I was used to untying the dogs outside, and walking down the road fast, waiting for a bomb blast that never came. (It came for some people, though, and knowing that it could be real brought copperfear to my throat.)

I am not used to having to evacuate my campus on regular occasions, not used to having to think of yesterday’s event as an opportunity to get more prepared for the next threat, the one that might be real. Are all colleges all over the nation dealing with copycat bomb and shooting threats?

Sigh.

Bomb threat again — one year later

Somebody scrabbles at the locked classroom door. It’s 9:00 o’clock, and I’m typing student questions on our latest reading into the computer for overhead viewing and discussion. “Someone’s trying to get in,” someone says. I turn towards the door as the scrabbling continues, and then the door opens. “I’m scared,” one of my students says mockingly, playing. “It could be a….”

It’s a security guard. “Campus is closed for the rest of the day and tonight,” he says. “You must evacuate the building immediately.”

“Are you kidding?” I say, even though I know it’s ridiculous to say it. Nobody would kid about a campus emergency that shuts the school down.

“No,” he says. “Get your stuff and leave quietly, now.”

The students are already packing. I grab my backpack, stuff my folders and books and a handful of student papers in it, and sling it over my shoulder. “Check the news,” I tell the students. “If I hear any more, I’ll let you know on WebCT.”

People are piling up on the stairs. Outside the window I see them below, on the lawn, milling about, not sure what to do. A security officer disperses them. If I go to my car now, I’ll be locked out. My keys and purse are in my office. I don’t know what to do. Finally, I head down the empty hallway, behind the guard, who is checking the offices. He doesn’t dissuade me as I unlock my office and grab my purse. In the hallway, everything is ominously quiet. I’m alone in here. I can’t believe how rapidly the building has emptied. I turn right and head for the back stairwell, go down in the echoing silence and out the back door. In the bright light outside, students pass up and down the pathway, heading for their cars, or looking for friends. I wave at the ones I know as I head for my Matrix. R.C. calls as I’m on the way, asking for a ride home, and we meet in the parking lot. By the time I’m in my car and have pulled out of my spot, the parking lot is at a standstill. Gridlock. For more than half an hour. I turn off the engine and get out of the car to join a group of faculty who are staring at the entrance of the lot. We’re sitting ducks for any real person with intent to hurt. It’s comfortably warm outside, and the sun is shining, and we wander around, waiting, lot, accusing each other of scheduling major exams for today, thus causing some student to plant a bomb threat to disrupt the day. Eventually campus security guards show up, and then someone calls the police. Finally someone starts directing traffic. Finally the line moves. I get back in the car, and R.C. and I leave. It’s 9:45.

The rumor is that a “credible and serious” threat in the form of a note mentioning a bomb blast and/or mayhem of some sort has been found in the women’s bathroom of the newest building. Last time this happened, a year ago, the note was found in the men’s bathroom of my building. Copycat, I think. I know the administration has to take such threats seriously, but I’m sickened at living in a world in which such precautions are necessary. And I can’t help wondering what would have happened if it had been a real emergency. Somebody better figure out a way to prevent parking lot gridlock, or we’re all doomed!

Perfect weekend

Such a perfect weekend just passed. Temperatures in the 70’s. Sunshine and stillness. I planted in my little garden, and filled my windowbox, and cleaned the house, and in between all that I read papers and prepped for my 101 class (It’s a new prep, and I’m on step ahead of my students. I wanted to get a little ahead. No such luck).

On Saturday afternoon I sat in my chair and looked at the neatly swept patio, at the little table and chair set and the flowerpot on the table with its blue and yellow pansies spilling over the edge. The trees along the fence line a few feet away are beginning to bud. Tulips on the verge of opening nodded in the barely perceptible breeze. Happy. Yes. And I reminded myself that I have felt this way before and will again, and in between will be different feelings, and everything is all OK.

Earlier that day, a friend had sent me one of those “Getting to know you” emails, with questions about work and life and TV shows and so on. “What are four places you’ve worked?” “Four places you’ve visited?” “What are four movies you’ll watch over and over again?”

The absence of a question about favorite books struck me. A question about TV shows, and one about movies, yes. But nothing about books. Fewer people read these days. The questionnaire supported the image of a society in which the written word is losing favor. It was sent by an older friend of mine, who didn’t note the absence of a question about reading. When I forwarded it, I said I didn’t watch TV, and added favorite books instead. It felt like a loss, having to configure the questionnaire for me, so much out of the mainstream (for most people except, I suspect, for the readers of this blog, perhaps!)

The last question I also couldn’t answer, but my silence in the face of it struck me as a positive one. “What four things are you looking forward to this year?” Last year I would have said, “Visiting the Azores,” but would have been stuck after that single answer. This year, without a highly unusual trip on my agenda, I had nothing to say. But lest you all worry that my life is without joy, rest assured. My silence settled in me with a sigh of gladness. I don’t need to look forward. This moment is enough. I could say I’m looking forward to the break of the summer (I teach, yes, but fewer classes, and there is no committee work involved). I could say I’m looking forward to everything associated with longer days and more light. But really I see no point in looking forward. I’ve given up on living outside the moment, and when I succeed, I like it. Which is to say that sometimes I slip back into the habit of imagining myself elsewhere, which fuels discontent. In the winter, the dead of winter, when walking the dogs is a frozen chore that even they dread, I find myself imagining a time I might have a fenced yard where they can relieve themselves and chase the birds. But then I remember that in winter I like sitting in my chair and watching the birds eat; I love the pale filtered light and the starkness of the bare branches. I love the the sense of living protected in a small space, while outside the hills stretch away to the sky, and all is austere and silent. And so I remember there is no need to look forward, because right now is enough.