Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Anatomy of Gloom

I feel better just writing down the title of today's topic.

Depression has rarely been a problem for me. My cure has always been to pursue a distraction, and I've got a suitcase full of them. Feel gloomy? Watch a movie, take a walk, sip a cappuccino, surf the net (the forbidden sites are particularly distracting). I've never taken an anti-depressant, although in my salad days I was big on cocaine, tranquilizers and muscle relaxants. Downers were appropriate only when the uppers wore off. Grass always made me paranoid. But that was long ago.

My internet connection is suffering from selective amnesia this morning. I can google but I can't wikipedia. The email and the social networking sites I frequent are "taking too long to respond." The Thai government is probably searching for frequenters of taboo domains. Yesterday they closed down one site and arrested the proprietors for posting material that violates the draconian lèse majesté law. My internet provider, TOT, is a government monopoly. Patrolling the net takes alot of bandwidth.

So this is all off the top of my head, without benefit of research. I've been feeling gloomy lately, disinclined to go outside (the heat and humidity make walking a poor choice of distraction). I break glasses (three in the last month). Just now I dumped granola all over the kitchen counter. Yesterday I tried to explain to a young friend why I thought getting a tattoo was a fine way to celebrate my 70th birthday in five months. But it didn't sound convincing.

Several of my children have suffered from debilitating bouts of depression. One turned to yoga, the other to alcohol, for solace. My friend Ellen, a student leader in high school, tried to kill herself several times with pills. "Why would you do that?" I asked her. "Because I felt no hope, no hope whatsoever," she told me. It's been nearly forty years since I last saw her. I wonder if she eventually succeeded? I've never felt the total absence of hope, but I have suffered attacks of ennui so wickedly paralyzing that making any plans for the future seemed pointless and even Utopian. Lately, I've begun to wonder: What's the use?

Realizing our gloom is undoubtedly a consequence of Buddhist practice which calls on us to watch how our minds work. Most of us are lost in our thoughts, driven by the turbulent winds of desire and fear. Like the Tule fog that often blankets inland California and causes multiple car wrecks, we cannot see clearly. Our life is an accident waiting to happen. And the more I generalize, the more I can distance myself from the incapacitation of gloom. That doesn't mean it goes away. It just allows me to pull the fangs of gloom out of my neck.

I have a folder of notes for a blog post on happiness. I wanted to contest the notion, prevalent in much Buddhist teaching, that humans are motivated solely by the goal of happiness. Thanatos, the death drive, is as important as Freud's pleasure principle. Some people actively seek the dark side. I know, I have talked with them about it. They walk around under a black cloud that will not go away. The choice is not between pleasure and pain (depressed people have been known to hurt themselves so they will feel something, anything), but between life and death. "I put before you life and death. Choose life," urges an Old Testament verse attributed to God that has always impressed me. Celibacy is not a choice for life. Life, for me, includes pleasure in all of its physical and intellectual forms.

But it's not always so easy. I see the hold that old habits have. My weight inches up towards the 200 mark because of the snacks I gorge on at night. Ice cream in any form is an addiction. Something sweet, a soda or chocolate, holds out its promise of satisfaction. The new 24-hour convenience store on the ground floor of my apartment bulding is full of distractions. I've lived here for nearly six months and my routine is in a rut. I drink juice and coffee in the morning while watching the news on CNN and BBC at the same time as I surf the net (when it's working better than today). Mustering the energy for a shower and a shave is tiresome. Going out n the street for a paper takes effort. Crossing Bangkok to visit my friends on the other side of the city demands a Herculean resolve. Almost every afternoon I take an hour's nap, the old man's prerogative. This is life? And yet, compared to the average Thai, I live like a king on my Social Security income. I don't need to work. I can do anything I want.

So what is the anatomy of my gloom? I'm old and aging fast, sliding down a slippery slope towards death and oblivion. Just rising from a seat becomes increasingly difficult; I have a hard time taking off the tops of containers with my arthritic fingers. I cannot touch my toes. My weathered skin sprouts strange growths that must be removed with a laser. Viagra is manditory. Who knows what unpleasant surprises the future -- even tomorrow -- will bring? Death does not scare me, though, and I suspect that the cessation of my brain activity will define the end of me, that complicated self created by over seventy years of interaction with the environment. No soul of mine will enter any pearly gates.

Gloom is not just the consequence of our inability to get what we want. I'm not going to live forever, and this body and face I possess (or that possesses me) will never challenge Brad Pitt, or even my aging hero, Sean Connery. So be it. But there are other goals less easy to give up. My academic career ended not with a bang but a whimper. I've not produced a body of writing that will be appreciated by posterity. These blog posts, such as they are, will have to be enough. And I've not been successful at forming a lasting relationship. Two marriages ended before their time. Other liaisons have been even shorter, although sometimes sweet. Now that I live in Thailand, I imagine finding someone here to share and fulfill my life, but I'm constantly attracted to inappropriate choices with predictable results. I am torn between solitude and loneliness. Sometimes the distractions run out.

Writing about depression is an excellent technique for dispelling it. What you can name cannot destroy you. Watching your mind can frustrate its control over your actions and addictions. But what you observe does not make you happy. I have a lifetime of failures to recall. I was a poor father and an inattentive lover. My ambition was weak and my achievements transitory. I have tried to be a faithful friend and to harm no one intentionally, but I have frequently stumbled. Selfishness is a relentless taskmaster.

But God! What a wonderful life I've had!


Barb said...

Should I be concerned about your mental state? You are sounding like me. In fact, you must have been in my head the last week. How do we get through this 70 thing??

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you are too hard on yourself.
Age is a slowing down, but to what end? Maybe trying to be ok in the moment is enough.

The Dark Night need not be without its own rewards.

Find someone who is enough if not perfect, just as you are enough, not perfect. Then do your best to honor the other and yourself in her.

Doug Anderson said...

I'm living behind the Woraburi Hotel on Soi Ulit, just off Sukhumvit Soi 4. My room is quite small, and stuffed to overflowing with 4 computers, a fridge, microwave, bed, shelving, and cupboard. I spend 14-18 hours a day programming, developing new software and new web sites, and sometimes get depressed at the lack of progress. When that happens, I go out on Soi 4 and find an elephant. It's impossible to stare an elephant in the eye and feed it sugar cane and be depressed. Somehow elephants put the world into perspective for me.

Faw said...

May I suggest that you see a physician?
Depression can be genetic, situational or med interactions/ incorrect dosing can cause depression in older people.
I am 62, so am an older person.:-)

Being depressed is on of the worst things I can imagine. I use a low dose antidepressant daily, have for most of my life, but would rather that than sink into gloom. I bless that little pill.

Take good care.

Janet Brown said...

Bangkok manic-depression blues--write it down, look at it, watch it pass--what a wonderful life we all have, we aging babyboomers who have found a whole new chapter for our lives here in Thailand rather than submitting to the American way of growing old.