Saturday, April 23, 2005

Off the Map

We just returned from seeing a very moving new film , "Off the Map". This is not a film review, so I won't try to summarize the plot, the characters, or even the tone of the film. What I am moved to say is that within the film lies a very rich and realistic portrayal of male depression---the pained silence, the unspoken torture, the disassociative mannerisms, the curtailed ability to verbalize feelings, and the almost unbearable suffering and helplessness of those standing by, unable to make a dent in the armor which keeps all suitors at bay.

While the character and his depression reminded me deeply of a close friend's current struggle, it also brought to mind my own torturous path, and the frustration I know that Mary has experienced during some of my more trying episodes. It is so easy to relate to that sense that there is no definitive answer to the question, "Why do you feel sad?" For many men, we have spent so much of our lives running from (or burying) our feelings, that actually verbalizing what's at the heart of our emotional state is a Herculean task. It is often difficult for the uninitiated to grasp that depression is a disease and not a character flaw, although it is easy to judge---even for me---others who seem unable or unwilling to help themselves.

That said, as someone who has struggled---"battled" might be a better word---with the ogre of depression for decades, I know that seeking treatment and doing the work at hand to overcome the overwhelming entropy which depression elicits is essentially a life's work. For some, a situational problem can resolve over time and the melancholia---or true depression---may pass and leave nary a trace. For others, myself included, it is a daily task to scan the self for signs, read the emotional landscape for hints, track one's moods, and continually self-monitor for those signals that things are not quite right. In my world, there are triggers, sure signs, and red flags which warn me that foul emotional weather is afoot. Perhaps I need to map these signals, track them and categorize them, in order to share them with other men (and women) who might find an ersatz roadmap helpful.

Tonight, the rain slaps against the side of the house. Tina the dog begins to snore in her endearing way. Sparkey is at the foot of the bed, apparently grateful that we have finally settled down, but will probably feel better when I've turned out the light and begun my own sleep-induced breathing pattern. Mary drifts off next to me, the rain persisting in its soaking dance. I suddenly remember a scene from M*A*S*H, where Alan Alda's character, Hawkeye Pierce, has gone temporarily blind and realizes for the first time that the sound of the rain against the roof can sound like bacon frying in the pan on a Sunday morning.

It is notions like these, and the appreciation of simple things like the warmth of the body next to you and the sound of rain, which can be blunted, perhaps even obliterated, by the grip of depression. For me, a fog---a fine film or haze---descends, and the world is seen through this filter which can powerfully block out the sun, subdue color, thwart the powers and pleasures of the senses, and dull the mind. Learning becomes painful, conversation is an enormous effort. Smiling becomes an affront to the muscles of your face which feel as if they are made from unmalleable materials incapable of expression. I honestly sometimes feel that it could take over if I allowed my vigilance to slack for more than a few days. I must be forever on guard.

Tom Waits once sang of "An Emotional Weather Report" some years ago. When I feel my barometric pressure rising and a storm on the horizon, I know the signs and the measures to take in order to guard the gates and ready the defenses. For those too caught up in the storm, rather than being a swipe of the serpent's tail, it can seem more like being in the belly of the beast when the gloaming descends.

Some people are blessed by unknown chemical or emotional underpinnings which preclude their ever having to know these struggles, and to them I say count your blessings each day. To those who share my curse, it's one which we must bear with compassion for ourselves and others, and the ability to speak even when the speaking is unbearably difficult. Our loved ones deserve to be included, and to them we owe our thanks for sticking by us as we delve into the darkness. "Off the Map" (bet you never thought I'd get back to the film, did you?) demonstrates clearly the systemic struggle wrought by depression, and the redemption that is born of fighting the battle with humility and compassionate strength, not to mention the loving and stalwart support of the family members who bear witness to the afflicted person's pain.

Mary has stood by me all these years, and for this I give thanks. To those who helplessly watch their loved ones flounder, I send strength as well as the realistic reminder that some people are not able to make that leap to recovery, and one must decide for oneself if you can continue to stick by the side of someone unable to grasp the hand which you continue to offer. If your loved one will not jump into the lifeboat, sometimes you must let go and allow them to find their own landing.

In the end, healing truly is an individual act, and we must remember to care for ourselves as well as others. This most post-modern of afflictions seems to affect more and more people as the world speeds up and its demands on the individual only grow. Depression is a monster, and so many wrestle each day. I count myself among those afflicted, but I also offer hope that it is controllable and can be overcome with concentrated effort and attention. There is so much to be grateful for, so much life to live. Each day is yet another opportunity to eschew the pain and embrace the challenge. Which map we use is up to us, or we can leave the maps behind and forge our own way. Whichever route we take, there we are.
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