Monday, April 27, 2009

On Regression

Brooke writes (with Peggy taking dictation):

Regression. It comes from the Latin regressus, “to go back.” Regression is used in psychoanalytic parlance to mean a return to childhood, perhaps under conditions made possible through psychoanalytic work. Of course there are many other ways we use the word regression, but mostly people who speak psychoanalytic parlance use it in this way: “he is regressing to an early childhood state,” “she is regressing as a result of transference with her analyst to traumatic experiences she had as a child,” and so on.
It occurred to Brooke the other morning at about 5:00 a.m., when he was waking up, being turned on his side, and having a suppository inserted in his rectum, as it is for bowel care every morning (the good news, from the standpoint of spinal cord recovery, is that he can feel this)—he had the sense that what he is experiencing is in many ways a regression: almost everything about his condition and treatment involves what we would ordinarily call regression, although not a traumatic one. He is painfully learning how to breathe again. (Actually, babies don’t have to learn breathing, except perhaps when they’re spanked at birth.) He is fed by someone else, a nurse, an aide, a friend. His orifices function the way an infant’s do—what the nursing profession calls “bowel care” is much the same as what a parent does in cleaning up a baby’s poop. He sometimes wets the bed; his sheets are changed. He has to be picked up and moved from the bed to a conveyance—a shower chair, a wheelchair—in order to go anywhere. He has to be bathed by others, mostly women (there are fewer male nurses here than at the university rehab unit). He is put to bed in the same way, by someone else, and often with the same care that an infant is put to bed—his diaper checked, his covers arranged, and he is scrutinized for anything about his condition that might be amiss. And, no doubt like an infant. he sometimes has fears: of abandonment, of being treated roughly, of being shouted at when he cannot shout back, all stemming from physical helplessness.

This is what the word regression, to go back, signifies, if it signifies anything; anyone who has been seriously ill or spent a lengthy time in a hospital knows this. This is especially poignant for Brooke, since as an infant he had a nurse who took care of him. Her name was Nelly, and she came from Hungary, from the Austro-Hungarian empire; she must have come to the United States sometime after the first world war. Sometimes, when Brooke is in his regressed state, he remembers some of the gentleness and kindness of Nelly; sometimes when he is being treated roughly (like a sack of potatoes, he calls it), the nurses seems like witches, though this doesn’t happen very often. Mothering figures are often shattered into fragments during the regressive episodes: Good mothers, bad mothers, good nurses, bad nurses, everything in between. He has fears, although some of his worst fears about the vent-weaning trials are waning.

Vent weaning takes willpower and hard work, something infants don’t have, so Brooke is not fully regressing. He is something between an infant, a child, and a fully functioning adult. One thing about this regression is that Brooke will have to speed up his growth into a very short space of time, say, three years or so, by which time he will have learned to use a voice recognition computer, will have learned to write, will have written part or perhaps all of the book he has in mind, will have learned to send e-mails, to order things from the library; he will also have learned how to move himself, either by walking (hopefully) or by using a sophisticated machine which can open doors and turn on stereos and so on and so forth. Since he is now 67 (which doesn’t seem particularly old to him), his target date for full maturity at this point is 70, which also doesn’t seem particularly old to him. Age has taken on a whole new dimension as a result of this spinal cord injury; it is regressing into infancy and re-maturing over the distance of a whole lifetime in the space of just a few years.


George Constable said...

That's a wonderful perspective on human ages and aging. I love the idea of setting a date for "full maturity." May have to try it myself.

Lorraine Seal said...

Once again, Brooke, you remind us what a remarkable person you are. Thank you for sharing your unique sensibility so we can follow you as take each step toward your goals.

What’s especially helpful for me is that, by framing these challenges in terms of regression and maturation, you focus the lens of adult awareness on physical and emotional developmental issues we faced in our childhoods. Doing so gives us a way to meet your eye, so to speak, as we confront our own fears and hesitancy to meet you in your new –- or regressed –- state.

We, your readers and friends, must be aware that as our lives draw to a close, many of us – not all but many – will one day be in similar conditions, though perhaps not so suddenly or to such a dramatic extreme. Whether we become incapacitated through illness, accident or mental decline, we will require caregivers to meet our most basic needs, as we did in an earlier stage of life and as you do now. Who of us can now say whether the experience will offer us the same opportunity of re-maturation that you now have? Will we be able to bring others into our experience of regression as you are doing? It’s fascinating to engage with you as you bring your mature sensibility to child-like physical dependency. I can’t wait to read the book you have in mind.

Chicken Whisperer said...

Turnips, you say? I never liked them, either, until my aunt served them cut into length-wise strips, placed in the oven in a baking dish with a bit of water and then lightly braised/sauteed in a frying pan with butter, turning them during cooking until they've been browned on all sides. The natural sugars come out and they're VERY tasty indeed, quite unlike my mom's mashed version, for which I never developed a taste.

Jake B. said...

I love you Brooke. I don't mean it in a weird way, but take it at face value. Only my best wishes head your way. I will come visit you soon. After school is done!

Greg Donovan said...


Thank you for that beautifully written and thought-provoking essay.

My brother Dennis endured a spinal cord injury in his late 30's which left him paraplegic and, naturally, he experienced some of the same things up with which you are having to put... the imposed aspects of "regression," as you put it. But Dennis didn't have, or want, the support that you have. As soon as he could accomplish it, he isolated himself and convinced himself that his life was diminished and that was that--ultimately, with disastrous consequences.

What was it Berryman said so sarcastically and perhaps resentfully in his Dream Song that begins "Life, friends, is boring"? About "Inner Resources"? His mother told him "Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no
Inner Resources." Perhaps John, the wag, might well have listened to his mother.

You do have inner resources, Brooke (and outer resources, too, thank goodness). You passed some of those inner resources along to me with your teaching, and I pass them along to my own students. Please do keep fighting for that goal of full maturity--and beyond. Berryman might well have spent some time considering that "Death, friends, is really boring, and we must say so." Keep on keeping on, Brooke. There's a young jazz band here in Richmond whose name I like: Fight the Big Bull. Keep up that fight. Berryman tried to fight, actually--that's really what his poem suggests, in the end.

Dream Song 14

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no
Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

R. Alta said...

Dear Brooke and Peggy,

I only learned yesterday of your accident. Bonnie Steinbock told me, at a meeting we were at in Austin, a new center and a kind of coming out party for John Robertson, who seems to be regaining some of his familiar boyishness after the terrible time losing Carlota. I could hardly believe what Bonnie told me. I remember the many stories of the many vacations, all involving hiking and climbing and biking. But tonight I dug around on the net, found this blog, and read through from the beginning so that I might have a glimpse of your journey. Peggy knows that I spent many years commuting from Madison to Long Island in order to spend time with my childhood friend Sherry as she dealt with the ravages of ALS. The frustration of not being able to communicate efficiently and of not being able to be independent in even small things - these are things I saw her go through. So your post about regression rang very true. And yet I remember with exquisite clarity a day when Sherry's rather defiant then-11 year old daughter came flouncing down the stairs and announced she was going out. And Sherry, who by then communicated by spelling words through eye blinks, furiously blinked out that her daughter absolutely could not go out until she brushed her hair. Elana refused and Sherry blinked out more messages of insistence, along with some maternal manipulation. And in the end she won, and Elana went upstairs to tidy up. I laughed out loud and Sherry's eyes showed she was laughing too - her body had regressed but the adult within hadn't gone anywhere. I hear in your words that same astonishing capacity to be both whole within yourself and working toward recovery with your body. I so wish this had never happened to you, but am relieved at your signs of physical progress and awed by your emotional fortitude. And to you both, I wish I could have been among the many who helped with food and kind words, but I am sending every possible good thought to you now.


ed ranney said...

Hi Brooke,

Been out of touch, but the regression entry looms in mind, particularly your sense of projecting a period of reconstruction, which seems so right, and what we all do in small doses, nowhere near of course the challenges you have been dealing with. I'm miserable just now with a cold out of nowhere, that prohibits production in the darkroom, for an exhibit schedule I've agreed to that leaves little room for lost time, errors, etc. Regresses me back to a childhood of terrible colds, which was probably my body/psyche's way of insisting I stay home from school and make things like models, little books, etc, which seems not too different from what I do now...anyway, I'm so glad your internal wheels are turning, with messages for us, and hoping progress continues with the breathing work.

Thinking of you,
love from all in SFe,


SchoolGuy said...

Brooke and Peggy:
Paul Green here, one of Brooke's first students at the U of U, when he took Jack Adamson's Intellectual Traditions section I'd signed up for. From that moment, Brooke, you "had me at hello." I'm sending you my simple and heartfelt love. And to you, Peggy, I send my kind regards. I am so heartened that my friend Holly Mullen brought this blog to my attention.
Maturity, after such setbacks, is a lesson for us all. Not that you want to teach us of that, but still we learn.
I wish you peace, in whatever form you desire and need it.

Amanda said...

My 7-year-old is very interested in Brooke's story and wants to write him a letter. Please tell me where we can mail it. My email address is

Thank you!

Steve Adams said...

Deqr Brooke and Peggy,

I am writing this at 7:00pm EST, Friday, June 12. I am still absorbed with my mother's health crisis which peaked about three weeks ago. I talked to Nick, who had a wonderful visit with you. I wish I could have been there. Bueno, quiero visitarte quam celerime. Peutetre en deux ou trois semaines. And I look forward to learning from you.

Love, Steve