Thursday, October 29, 2009

Late October Blues


The changing of the seasons from fall to winter has come quite abruptly this year.  We’re having our first snowstorm today, October 27, while the leaves are still on the trees.  The days are rapidly darkening, and the time change looms, when one finally acknowledges the ultimate loss of those long summer evenings we’d enjoyed sitting on the balcony looking out at the sunset across the Great Salt Lake or following the nesting patterns of that swallows that inhabited the porch.

            I felt it especially yesterday, those late October blues.  It brought what seemed to me to be my first full-fledged depressive episode since my injury almost a year ago.  The episode lasted about twelve hours, finally broken by the actual arrival of the storm that had been threatening. I was afraid the depression was going to be the beginning of something much worse—and maybe it will be--but at the moment it has lifted, as Peggy and I sit together in my bed writing these notes.


The day preceding the storm seems to have affected much of the staff here at South Davis. Indeed, it seemed as if the whole community of patients and therapists was having the blues at the same time.   When I was being given my shower last night it was particularly grotesque, and the shower aides seemed to be feeling the same thing. I ordinarily perceive this as quite a caring community—I know all the nurses, all the aides, all the respiratory therapists--but last night it seemed quite the other way.  It was very late when the preparations for the shower started, well after 9pm, and went on until quarter to 10.  Nobody seemed to want to be there, not the aides, not the respiratory therapist, no one.  They put the sling for the hoyer under me, then hoisted me into the shower chair, disconnected the ventilator and began bagging me with the hand pump that looks like a blue football with a tube on one end that connects to my trach.  But they didn’t laugh, didn’t joke, weren’t their usual lighthearted selves at all.  One of them said that her head was in outer space.  The experience of taking the shower was so mechanical, just slumped there naked and able to see my useless body; no one said anything, and I’ve never felt more like just an object, a thing.


            Today, I asked several people around here in kind of an anecdotal way whether they’d felt the same way yesterday as the storm was approaching, bringing what I was calling the late October blues, and a number of staff members said yes, yesterday had been a particularly tough day.  It felt to me, the patient, like this, this is really getting old.  How can I continue to do this, month after month, with the same therapists, doing roughly the same thing? The therapists too must be feeling what I’m feeling, which is, how long can this go on? How much more of this can I take? What’s the point of working with this guy?  I was sitting in my wheelchair doing leg strengthening and joint compression with my PT and his aide, two people I’m normally comfortable with, but I found I was saying to myself,  how can I go on listening to these banal conversations (this one was about hamsters)  day after day, and how can I go on doing things that are so repetitive:  trach mask trials,  leg exercises, tilt table sessions, day after day.  Nothing distinguishes one day from another, at least with respect to the therapy sessions. 

  But then I reminded myself of the Buddhist notion that everything that I’m seeing or hearing is a product of my own mental constructs at the moment, and that gave me something to hold onto, the recognition that the depression  I was feeling was really my own projection, a projection of my own mental state, and that it would pass, that it would go away.  That gave me quite a bit of consolation.  And indeed the depression did go away.

It came back again when a friend was reading Bob Herbert’s column in the New York Times about the paralysis of the American public in the face of increasing unemployment and other threats of the moment, a metaphor which has needless to say increasingly sensitive resonance for me.  But my trach trial had begun, so I couldn’t speak and hence couldn’t discuss this enormously disturbing piece or the metaphor of paralysis that it employed.  It was yet another version of the powerlessness that is with me all the time. Then there was more:  the seasons are changing around here, and seemingly with greater rapidity than usual: November, December, January, February, March—these are the months ahead, dark months with short bleak days, when partly because temperature regulation is so difficult for quads—they get cold and stay cold, and sometimes dangerously so because they can’t actually feel the cold (it’s the same way with heat in the summer), I expect to be cooped up mostly inside, essentially confined to basically the two or three rooms downstairs in our two-story house.

As waves of sadness rolled over me I felt as if I couldn’t get beyond the first half-hour of the trach mask trial, but somehow I managed to push through the depression.  One way I did this was to think about the eleven-year-old boy I had once been, a boy who emerged from a serious depression while away at summer camp, without treatment, without psychologizing, just suffering through it on his own, but at the end as it melted away, he was strong, triumphant over something devastating and dangerous.  The notion that consoled me was that strength comes if you’ve been strong before, even if it in the moment it seems that you never can be strong again.  And somehow, despite the terrible clarity of this kind of depression, where it seems that things have gotten really old—the grinding insistence that this is all there is and that things will always be this way—I moved into an ecstatic state in the last couple of hours of the four-hour trach mask and saw the whole thing through a different glass, a sort of Buddhist-like calm and sense of wellbeing. It’s all such a psychic creation.  I will, and so will you, go through these ups and downs.

Somebody said they went outside at midnight last night and it was hauntingly, strangely warm, something we’ve learned often precedes a storm.  I saw the trees swirling this morning, and when the snow finally came, it was a relief.  Tonight we read the Coleridge poem Dejection—An Ode, about the depression leading up to a storm, but where the storm blows everything away.



George Constable said...

That is a truly beautiful, sensitive, fascinating post. You're still teaching, Brooke. People are still learning from you, and in important ways.

Kary said...

Brooke and Peggy,

We met last summer at Snowbird when you came up for a visit. I work with Wasatch Adaptive Sports. We went to the top of Hidden Peak on the tram and a short way down the barrier free trail. Peggy's sister was there too and was a lot of fun, even though I think she was a little nervous on the tram. I can't tell you enough how much I enjoyed meeting you both and how sorry I was that you had to leave so soon because the road was closing for a bike race. I wished then that we had more time to talk, but I've been following your blog since. There is a rare and affecting quality to your insights and I just want to tell you that your writing has profoundly changed my life and my work. Please stay strong, and when you are ready, I would love to wander down the trail with you both on another beautiful day in the mountains.

Lorraine Seal said...


I’m glad you have the emotional and mental resources to work your way through depression when it descends. I too have been facing the dun-coloured bleakness of this same thing, over and over and how much more hard stuff can I take? Like you, I’ve tried to view it through a different lens. It generally works, clearing the path so I can keep moving forward, even when it seems I don’t accomplish much.

I looked up the Bob Herbert column. Though he does write America’s ‘helplessness is beginning to border on paralysis,’ what strikes me is that he cites not the public’s paralysis but their passivity. This leads me to wonder about the distinction between passivity and emotional or mental paralysis. When we use paralysis as a metaphor for inaction, do we mean an inability to act or the refusal to act? (Though ‘refusal’ seems antithetical when speaking of passivity, this diffidence with regard to action, standing still rather than moving, is, ultimately, refusal.)

It’s a sensitive question for me because I struggle daily -- not to say hourly -- with my own passivity that borders on paralysis. I’ve often excused my own inaction as deep-seated emotional paralysis, but, when pushed, I can act. How much of this kind of crippling passivity -- the kind Herbert writes of and the kind that keeps us from following our dreams or pursuing goals that may not be easy -- is laziness? How much is it lack of belief in the efficacy of action? Or the refusal to see life through the different lens that would allow us to take on the hard stuff?

These are the questions I’ve been asking myself frequently of late.

What I’m grateful for, however, is that, even in your physical paralysis, you’re still willing to take on -- and write about -- the hard stuff.


cc said...

Thanks for sharing and baring your heart to us. In return, we can only offer our simple stories. I have just been to a mining town 'Joda' (in Orissa), you know. October there has not been able to change the greenery around. Even in the deepening autumn, the blue hills and the vast blue sky create a perfect backdrop for the red soil and the green paddy fields. All the heavy mining machinery look like merely scattered punctuation marks in the colorful narrative. This you have to see when you get well.

Krista said...

Hi. I am one of Stephen Trimbles students. He told us about your blogs. I can really relate to this one. I hate winter, especially when it comes so early!
The Buddhist idea of depression coming from our own mental projections reminded me of one of my mother's favorite books. It's called "Loving What Is" by Byron Katie. I've never read it, but my mother has told me a lot about it. It is about how our own thoughts control our situations. If you or haven't read it you might like to.

ed ranney said...

Hi Brooke,

It really is true that you are still teaching, especially through your last posting, with your thoughts always so immensely important to us. So bear with the difficult days, how intense it must be to sense all that in the people working with you, helping, when in fact, as I observed when with you, you are often the helper, opening them, and us, up to renewed insights, interaction, intensity of feeling.

We've had a welcome return here in santa fe to some warm autumn days, after a week also of snow and bitter cold that came as a shock, much too early, what a relief to have the winter season put off for a bit.

Melanie and I had a chance to catch Bright Star last week, and was touched enough to keep it in mind these last days, visually beautiful, and to marvel again at Keats's productivity in such a short time , and his depth of understanding. The film ends with the credits rolling to reading of the Ode to a Nightingale, very strong and fitting summation.

I hope your family visits went well - we also got to see our youngest, Ellie, with her husband, in Chicago last week, settled finally in a newly renovated house on the north side, starting out on their journey together, challenging, but life-affirming. Oddly, I feel I've already lived a hundred years, but know that my daily tasks of puzzling about things and working through the darkroom challenges, etc, and just paying attention, keep it all immediate and ongoing. Then of course there are absurdities such as the world series, which also have their place, drama, and curious interest...

We send much love, and encouragement


Kelly said...

Today I found a note I had written weeks ago and it only said Peggy Battin. I couldn't rmember ever writing it or having a conversaiton about it.

Google led me here. Serendipity.

I plan to blog stalk to learn your story and read more of your amazing writing. This first post that I've read makes me want to gt to know you. Creepy as that may seem to you.

I'm a T2 para for 13 years injured in an airplane accident and have used writing as a therapy tool as well. That doesn't necessarily make us similar, but I know I can gain some depth from you.

Thanks for writing.

Kelly Bussio

Sally said...

God forgive me, but I laughed at: "how can I go on listening to these banal conversations?". Truly your friends are the ones that find enjoyment in the repetitive aspects of your personality even when you are not in your best mood. Count me as one of them. Love the two of you. I'll try and visit and have something intriguing to say. -Sally-