Wednesday, May 3, 2017

My 5 Years of Magical Thinking

Had just finished reading Joan Didion's book, "The Year of Magical Thinking". I guess I found it recommended in some top-so books to read on some magazine website. The Times maybe, or Life, or so. Can't recall and it doesn't really matter. What matter is the questions I had in mind the moment I first picked it up to read, till this very moment of writing this post. Those questions, I feel I need to keep a record of them.

The first question that poped-up the moment I read the book's brief was:
Will I be able to read it without feeling the pain? The agony? Would I feel it? Or had I really healed as I'm trying to make myself believe?
(*)In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control. Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare... 

Beyond or below such abstracted representations of the pains and furies of grieving, there was a body of subliterature, how-to guides for dealing with the condition, some “practical,” some “inspirational,” most of either useless. (Don’t drink too much, don’t spend the insurance money redecorating the living room, join a support group.) That left the professional literature, the studies done by the psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers who came after Freud and Melanie Klein, and quite soon it was to this literature that I found myself turning.

I learned for example that the most frequent immediate responses to death were shock, numbness, and a sense of disbelief: “Subjectively, survivors may feel like they are wrapped in a cocoon or blanket; to others, they may look as though they are holding up well. Because the reality of death has not yet penetrated awareness, survivors can appear to be quite accepting of the loss.”

There were, I also learned from this literature, two kinds of grief. The preferred kind, the one associated with “growth” and “development,” was “uncomplicated grief,” or “normal bereavement.” Such uncomplicated grief, according to The Merck Manual, 16th Edition, could still typically present with “anxiety symptoms such as initial insomnia, restlessness, and autonomic nervous system hyperactivity,” but did “not generally cause clinical depression, except in those persons inclined to mood disorder.” The second kind of grief was “complicated grief,” which was also known in the literature as “pathological bereavement” and was said to occur in a variety of situations. One situation in which pathological bereavement could occur, I read repeatedly, was that in which the survivor and the deceased had been unusually dependent on one another. “Was the bereaved actually very dependent upon the deceased person for pleasure, support, or esteem?” This was one of the diagnostic criteria suggested by David Peretz, M.D., of the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University. “Did the bereaved feel helpless without the lost person when enforced separations occurred?”

Would it make ANY difference if I know about that that day ?Would knowing that back then, make things a little easier? Less painful?
(*)Was it about faith or was it about grief?
     Were faith and grief the same thing?
(*)Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are all unbalanced physically. No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal. Their disturbed circulation makes them cold, their distress makes them unstrung, sleepless. Persons they normally like, they often turn from. No one should ever be forced upon those in grief, and all over-emotional people, no matter how near or dear, should be barred absolutely. Although the knowledge that their friends love them and sorrow for them is a great solace, the nearest afflicted must be protected from any one or anything which is likely to overstrain nerves already at the threatening point, and none have the right to feel hurt if they are told they can neither be of use or be received. At such a time, to some people companionship is a comfort, others shrink from their dearest friends.

Should I forgive myself now for my cold attitude back then?If those who were close to me aware of what's going on with me, would they picked it up, and helped me more effectively? At least tell me that there's something wrong with me, so I may figure it out somehow?
(*)The English social anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, in his 1965 Death, Grief, and Mourning, had described this rejection of public mourning as a result of the increasing pressure of a new “ethical duty to enjoy oneself,” a novel “imperative to do nothing which might diminish the enjoyment of others.” In both England and the United States, he observed, the contemporary trend was “to treat mourning as morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.”
Is this from where Aldous Huxley inspired the death scene in his "Brave New World"? God! That scene was so irritating for me when I read it first time when I was a teen! And didn't know why!! 
Do I know why now?
Why I hided it so fully that no one would guess anything had happened?
What exactly made me do so?
How come that I felt that I have to do so?
(*)You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
    In a heartbeat.
    Or the absence of one.
Does the "life as you know it" end once in a lifetime?
Why I can count almost SIX times "the life as I know it" ended? 
How fragile and fake that life was, to end (collapse would be the more accurate word) five times in a course of three years?!
Would it be different if it all collapsed once? Would it be easier? Less painful?
(*)People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved.
I had that look, didn't I? I know I did!
So, why no one noticed it?I noticed it later on, whenever I look at a picture of me before "the life as I know it ended", and after. 
(*)He believed he was dying. He told me so, repeatedly. I dismissed this. He was depressed.

    Why did I keep stressing what was and was not normal, when nothing about it was?
Why did I dismissed it?!!Why did I arrogantly ignore all the warning signs?Was I arrogant? Or was I too coward and frightened to face them?
(*)Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature.
    Information is control.
If only I knew that back then. If only I know that I need to read, to learn, to work it up. If only I knew that I need help, to learn where and from whom to ask for it. That would definitely shorten the 5 years into way less time.  
(*)What would I give to be able to discuss this with John?
    What would I give to be able to discuss anything at all with John? What would I give to be able to say one small thing that made him happy? What would that one small thing be? If I had said it in time would it have worked?
What would I give???
(*)Survivors look back and see omens, messages they missed.
They remember the tree that died, the gull that splattered onto the hood of the car.
They live by symbols. They read meaning into the barrage of spam on the unused computer, the delete key that stops working, the imagined abandonment in the decision to replace it.

(*)There came a time in the summer when I began feeling fragile, unstable. A sandal would catch on a sidewalk and I would need to run a few steps to avoid the fall. What if I didn’t? What if I fell? What would break, who would see the blood streaming down my leg, who would get the taxi, who would be with me in the emergency room? Who would be with me once I came home?

I thought about this later.

I realized that for the time being I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world.

I realized that since the last morning of 2003, the morning after he died, I had been trying to reverse time, run the film backward.
It was now eight months later, August 30, 2004, and I still was.

The difference was that all through those eight months I had been trying to substitute an alternate reel. Now I was trying only to reconstruct the collision, the collapse of the dead star.

(*)Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. 

In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.

(*)As a child I thought a great deal about meaninglessness, which seemed at the time the most prominent negative feature on the horizon. After a few years of failing to find meaning in the more commonly recommended venues I learned that I could find it in geology, so I did. This in turn enabled me to find meaning in the Episcopal litany, most acutely in the words as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, which I interpreted as a literal description of the constant changing of the earth, the unending erosion of the shores and mountains, the inexorable shifting of the geological structures that could throw up mountains and islands and could just as reliably take them away. I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying, abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action. That the scheme could destroy the works of man might be a personal regret but remained, in the larger picture I had come to recognize, a matter of abiding indifference. No eye was on the sparrow. No one was watching me. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. On the day it was announced that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima those were the words that came immediately to my ten-year-old mind. When I heard a few years later about mushroom clouds over the Nevada test site those were again the words that came to mind. I began waking before dawn, imagining that the fireballs from the Nevada test shots would light up the sky in Sacramento.

Later, after I married and had a child, I learned to find equal meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life. Setting the table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking. All those soufflés, all that crème caramel, all those daubes and albóndigas and gumbos. Clean sheets, stacks of clean towels, hurricane lamps for storms, enough water and food to see us through whatever geological event came our way. These fragments I have shored against my ruins, were the words that came to mind then. These fragments mattered to me. I believed in them. That I could find meaning in the intensely personal nature of my life as a wife and mother did not seem inconsistent with finding meaning in the vast indifference of geology and the test shots; the two systems existed for me on parallel tracks that occasionally converged, notably during earthquakes. In my unexamined mind there was always a point, John’s and my death, at which the tracks would converge for a final time.
Is that what it all was about? Finding meaning? Realizing that what I used to find meaning in, was not what really matter? That it was fake? Unreal? Unrealistic?  Was it the only way to realize the things that truly matter, and to appreciate them? Does it really have to be the only way? The extremely hard way of agony? For all that time?
(*)People in grief think a great deal about self-pity. We worry it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it. We fear that our actions will reveal the condition tellingly described as “dwelling on it.” We understand the aversion most of us have to “dwelling on it.” Visible mourning reminds us of death, which is construed as unnatural, a failure to manage the situation. “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty,” Philippe Ariès wrote to the point of this aversion in Western Attitudes toward Death. “But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.” We remind ourselves repeatedly that our own loss is nothing compared to the loss experienced (or, the even worse thought, not experienced) by he or she who died; this attempt at corrective thinking serves only to plunge us deeper into the self-regarding deep. (Why didn’t I see that, why am I so selfish.) The very language we use when we think about self-pity betrays the deep abhorrence in which we hold it: self-pity is feeling sorry for yourself, self-pity is thumb-sucking, self-pity is boo hoo poor me, self-pity is the condition in which those feeling sorry for themselves indulge, or even wallow. Self-pity remains both the most common and the most universally reviled of our character defects, its pestilential destructiveness accepted as given. “Our worst enemy,” Helen Keller called it. I never saw a wild thing / sorry for itself, D. H. Lawrence wrote, in a much-quoted four-line homily that turns out on examination to be free of any but tendentious meaning. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough / without ever having felt sorry for itself.

This may be what Lawrence (or we) would prefer to believe about wild things, but consider those dolphins who refuse to eat after the death of a mate. Consider those geese who search for the lost mate until they themselves become disoriented and die. In fact the grieving have urgent reasons, even an urgent need, to feel sorry for themselves. Husbands walk out, wives walk out, divorces happen, but these husbands and wives leave behind them webs of intact associations, however acrimonious. Only the survivors of a death are truly left alone. The connections that made up their life—both the deep connections and the apparently (until they are broken) insignificant connections—have all vanished.

I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response. I read something in the paper that I would normally have read to him. I notice some change in the neighborhood that would interest him. I recall coming in from Central Park one morning in mid-August with urgent news to report: the deep summer green has faded overnight from the trees, the season is already changing. We need to make a plan for the fall, I remember thinking. We need to decide where we want to be at Thanksgiving, Christmas, the end of the year.

I am dropping my keys on the table inside the door before I fully remember. There is no one to hear this news, nowhere to go with the unmade plan, the uncompleted thought. There is no one to agree, disagree, talk back. “I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense,” C. S. Lewis wrote after the death of his wife. “It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead thought to H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontierpost across it. So many roads once; now so many cul de sacs.”

We are repeatedly left, in other words, with no further focus than ourselves, a source from which self-pity naturally flows. Each time this happens (it happens still) I am struck again by the permanent impassibility of the divide. Some people who have lost a husband or wife report feeling that person’s presence, receiving that person’s advice. Some report actual sightings, what Freud described in “Mourning and Melancholia” as “a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis.” Others describe not a visible apparition but just a “very strongly felt presence.” I experienced neither. There have been a few occasions (the day they wanted to do the trach at UCLA, for example) on which I asked John point blank what to do. I said I needed his help. I said I could not do this alone. I said these things out loud, actually vocalized the words.
Is that what really hit me? Being repeatedly left? Was that really what caused me all the anger? all the frustration? all the panic attacks whenever I get to know anyone new? 
(*)I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.
Let them become the photograph on the table.
Let them become the name on the trust accounts.
Let go of them in the water.
Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.
Do I know now?
If so, how come I'm not there yet?
How to let go? Is there a way I need to learn? Or is there something in me that still need resolving? 
So, if almost 99% of what Joan experienced I'd experienced it as well, what difference would it make if I was aware of "Grief" as much as I am now?
Well, those were the easiest questions to list. There's more hard ones that I couldn't even form. I just know that they are there, waiting to be answered... Someday hopefully.

(*) Quoted from Joan Didion's book, "The Year of Magical Thinking".