In November of ’89 I was driving back to Pittsburgh, where I was attending grad school, after spending Thanksgiving vacation with my family in southeastern PA. It wasn’t a happy time for me. For almost two months I’d been struggling with an illness that physicians at the university medical center couldn’t at first diagnose. Every day, and worse, every night, caustic heartburn plumed up from my gut like hot lye. I’d tried every kind of antacid. I’d cut out coffee and alcohol. My diet was as bland as a minimalist landscape. Still, nothing worked.
I was barely keeping up with my teaching and my own coursework, dragging myself through beet-eyed, sludge-headed days on 3-4 hours of sleep. Early that fall I’d started dating someone I really liked, but my gastric upheaval and the sleep disturbances it caused had strained this relationship along with every other part of my life.
A week before I left Iron City for Thanksgiving vacation, the docs had finally ordered an upper GI and diagnosed me with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease. They prescribed H-2-receptor blockers (this was years before the FDA approved OTC versions of drugs like cimetidine and famotidine). The regimen quenched my dyspeptic inferno within a few days.
But mood-wise it was a bit too late. The illness and sleep deprivation had put the skids under me big-time. Then, when I asked my girlfriend to come home with me for Thanksgiving, she not only declined, she broke up with me. This hadn’t been a transcendent romance or anything—how could it be under those conditions? But I was on the cusp of being in love with her. You can imagine how the timing didn’t exactly help.
That was probably the least thankful Thanksgiving I’ve ever celebrated. The irascible narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground defines man as “a being that goes on two legs and is ungrateful.” Those touchstones summed me up pretty well. Even the good things in my life seemed siphoned of their goodness. Still, I tried to keep up a front for my family and sheltered some hope I could pull myself out of this tailspin.
Post-Thanksgiving I’m driving back to school under grim fish-belly skies. On the turnpike halfway across the state that James Carville likened to redneck Alabama stuffed between the urban oases of Philly and Pittsburgh, I catch a whiff of burning metal and notice the Corolla’s RPM revving higher than normal. Within a minute or two, I’m losing speed despite lead-footing the gas. I coast to a stop next to a deserted cement mill. Its web-work of bins and conveyor belts and mixers and dryers looks like the bleached skeleton of some fallen industrial god.
No cell phones in those days, so I just got out of the car and waited for a state cop I could flag down. The wind howled down the pike and swept the mill’s dust into chalky cyclones. It was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. A couple of snow squalls blew through. After 45 minutes a state patrol car appeared from around the bend.
The cop was helpful enough, put in a call to the towing service, but he told me it might take longer than usual because there were so few trucks out that day. It was the first day of deer season, which in central PA is more momentous than New Year’s, Christmas and July 4th rolled into one.
The cop left, I got in the car and waited. At least the engine could pump out heat. I put my chilled hands in front of the vents like they were a fireplace.
Depression hosts a perseverating and extravagant pessimism, a tunneling craziness that squeezes out light and logic. My hands warmed but my dejected mind wasn’t focusing on gratitude for what the engine could still do—that is, fuel the heating system that kept me toasty during the 90 minutes I waited for the tow truck to show up. I was more about the stranded stasis my crapped-out clutch consigned me to that day.
A clutch engages the engine with the drive train. The engine is always going, so to change gears or stop, you use the clutch to disconnect the transmission from the engine, and then to engage them again. When, as happened with my car that day, the clutch goes out, the engine can rev all it wants, but there’s no way to translate that energy into the movement which is the engine’s whole raison d’etre in the first place.
In my catastrophizing frame of mind, the futility of an engine that hummed but couldn’t kick its husk into even a half-inch of progress seemed to represent my whole life. I was all loco, no motion.
My experience that day highlights a counterintuitive part of human nature that Charles Bukowski nailed in his poem The Shoelace:
it’s not the large things that
send a man to the
madhouse. death he’s ready for, or
murder, incest, robbery, fire, flood…
no, it’s the continuing series of small tragedies
that send a man to the
not the death of his love
but a shoelace that snaps
with no time left …
I did land in the madhouse—Western Psychiatric Institute—a few weeks later, socially hobbled, suicidally depressed, unable to get a rat’s quota of work done.
I don’t want to overstate things here. When it comes to depression, I’ve learned to look askance at facile etiologies. There were lots of ostensible reasons and at the same time no clear, certain causes—not a single verifiable sine qua non—for my accelerating descent in the weeks after this breakdown on the turnpike. Still, that clutch seemed to be my snapped shoestring.
Okay, objectively these snags of adversity—an illness, a romantic breakup and a vehicular snafu—are just mild garden-variety tastes of bad fortune. It’s not like I had metastatic cancer, it’s not like a marriage (or even a years-long relationship) was ending, it’s not like I’d jack-knifed an eighteen-wheeler, run a family off the road and paralyzed myself.
Having a non-life-threatening illness, getting dumped after a three-month relationship, being stranded on the highway for a couple hours, then getting my car towed and repaired? Wow, those are deep, heart-rending tragedies, Bob. I could even acknowledge this at the time, and one of the voices in my head was saying, “What the hell is wrong with you, dude? Seriously, you can’t handle this?”
But anyone who’s struggled with depression knows its magnifying power, its talent for hanging a high-order exponent on any event even mildly disagreeable, and turning it into a cataclysmic eruption of horror. Depression can make a hangnail seem like a crucifixion.
And the hectoring voices—inside or outside your skull—that slam you for not dealing sanely with predictable misfortune? They make you feel even less capable of a snappy recovery.
For the next few weeks my thoughts circled back to that busted clutch and that ghost-town mill. Psychically I kept hunkering down on that turnpike shoulder, revisiting my personal Highway 61. I was like a bullheaded wraith refusing to leave the place where he’d been yanked out of physical life.
One of the reasons all of this hot grease hit me so hard—at least this is the way things look to me now—is that I’d reached the age of 27 still harboring a callow naïveté. It wasn’t like my life had been a nonstop tour of the Elysian Fields. I’d suffered through depression on and off for years and I’d even been hospitalized for it when I was 15.
But I was still refusing to recognize some bedrock facts about the human condition. I hadn’t really accepted that I lived in a world where digestive disorders can tear up your peace and your sleep, where significant others hit you with significant rejection, where you’re just barely dealing with the fallout from those zingers and your clutch craps out on a desolate stretch of the interstate.
So I was taking this stuff personally. I saw it all as a kind of teleological torpedo with my name on it. Of course, drawing such conclusions only made me feel worse, sapped me of restorative energy, delayed my ascent back to the world of the living.
In the years that followed, I learned a lot about how to deal with all the Mad-Hatter fecal matter life tosses at you. If I could go back and counsel that broken-spirited dude sitting there on the turnpike, I’d zero in on a few important principles:
The first one is basic bumper-sticker wisdom: Shit happens. Large and small brands of adversity will punctuate your life and puncture some of your hopes and dreams. This may seem obvious, but so far you haven’t fully understood this fact or folded it into your routine attitude. All you’ve been through, and somehow you’re still shocked—shocked!—to learn that gambling goes on in Casablanca, and that you’re going to lose some bets. Get real, podnah. Prepare your mind.
The second point is that it’s not really the objective events that are hammering you into the ground. Now wait—shut up and listen to me, dude. Cool your heels and quell your objections for a minute.
The first time you encounter this truth, it seems like the most maddening horseshit a filly ever squeezed out. But I’m going to say it again: It’s not really the objective events that are getting you down. It’s what your thoughts are telling you about those events, what you’re willing to believe about them, even though those beliefs defeat you.
Like Hamlet said, there’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. We all prefer not to get sick, be robbed of sleep, get broken up with, or have our ride on the fritz. But our preferences don’t make those events intrinsically bad, any more than they prevent such “bad” stuff from happening.
You’ve been working with definitions like this:
adjective, bet•ter, best
1. Stuff I want to happen
2. Stuff I believe I can’t live without
adjective, worse, worst
1. Stuff I don’t want to happen
2. Stuff I believe I can’t deal with
You defined good and bad in these ways, then you strung the definitions across every quadrant of your life. You raised the stakes by setting your well-being up there to balance on these twangy, fraying lines.
You don’t have to do yourself that way. You don’t have to label stuff as bad and good and cling white-knuckled to preferences and aversions. You don’t even know what’s good or bad since you don’t know what these painful events will lead to, or how they’ll shape your future.
Instead, learn to step back and observe your thoughts. You can develop a gentle, amused skepticism about your mental chatter and the beliefs that inform it. Start a meditation practice and you’ll get good at this.
Painful things will happen, but you won’t need to see them as the universe pissing in your coffee. You won’t need to heap landfills of mental suffering onto your baseline experience. Jettison the deadweight of rigid beliefs about good and bad. Open up a spacious tolerance for ever-morphing reality.
So there’s unavoidable pain, and then there’s elective suffering. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to deal with the former once you climb down off the latter.
Hey, I know you’re skeptical. Your belief system and all its tangled blue emotional freight have been ruling out these possibilities. But you really can reduce this suffering. You can cast off the sourball superstitions that tug you south. You can fill your tank with high-test equanimity.
Right now your mind is clenched like a fist. You want to receive something, you got to open it up. I’m not asking for blind faith, just a little provisional trust and clear-eyed exploration. Try out these ideas, and see what happens.
In the meantime, check out the wisdom and sweet pickin’ of this song: