Saturday, November 22, 2014

Writing to stay alive

"I love my life. I regret my life. The lines eventually blur." ~ Patrick Stewart, in the film Match.

"I never want to get out of bed again." ~ Me, this morning.

Some thoughts are alarms, and that first thought catapulted me to vertical today. Three days ago, my waking thought was, "Best to die in my bed while I still have a bed."

Thoughts like these are what writer Therese Borchard, author of Beyond Blue, calls "death thoughts." Somehow, in major depression, our thoughts compel us to die.

I am considering thoughts, now, as symptoms. Symptoms of something gone desperately awry in the human brain. Thoughts as end results, sometimes as emergencies. Death thoughts are not natural. Every organism is driven to live, to exist. Depression drives us to die. We humans are animals who think, and it may be that this unique capacity -- to think as we do -- is what triggers the despair that compels us to believe we must die.

Other animals, I am sure, despair as well ... Think of a fox with its leg snapped in the jaws of a hunting trap. Think of Harry Harlow's infant rhesus monkeys who were forced to be alone in metal cages with only metal "mothers" to cling to.

Humans are the animals who can articulate despair.

After I threw off the blankets this morning and jumped to my feet -- I did jump in reaction to that first thought -- I began to wonder. I know that curiosity is a saving grace; it leads us to questions, to the larger world beyond our own thoughts, to engagement. I knew I could stay alive by wondering. I also knew that I had to feed my cats. I've vowed to them that I will stay alive. They are the ones I live with, the ones who depend on me for their own survival. They need me to stay.

Today is International Suicide Survivors Day -- we honour the memory of people who have lost their lives to despair. Perhaps we could also call today "Stay Day." For those of us who grapple with the despair that wants to take us ... Perhaps "Stay" could be our prayer, our chant, our mantra, our call to Life.

Speaking of Life ... I noticed, as I threw myself out of bed, an underlying rage to be. This imperative we share with every other creature on Earth. A rage that arises from the force that fires and fuels us. A rage not of anger, but of ... love. Cherishment.

Cherishment ... makes me think of mother-love. Perhaps we need a new mother tongue, a new language, one resurrected from the old. A new mother tongue to lap us (as a beloved dog or cat will lap our face) out of despair. A language of love, of bonding, of beloved relation. Andrew Solomon has said that "Depression is the flaw in love ... a disease of loneliness." I think of it also as a grave injury to our capacity to love, to our capacity to be in relation, to reach out, to attach. Our culture's treatment of major depression errs on the side of cognition -- on how we think. While our habitual thoughts express as a sure "barometric reading" of our emotional state, they are only outward evidence of how the deeper structures and strata of our brain are functioning. As Thomas Lewis and his coauthors write in the magnificent A General Theory of Love, "... the neural systems responsible for emotion and intellect are separate, creating the chasm between them in human minds and lives." Neuroscience has begun to map the mysteries of brain function and opened new avenues for understanding and healing brain disease and injury in exciting ways ... but often at the expense of our existence as a whole. In a sense, the mind is what the brain does ... and we need to consider and treat the whole person, not just the neurochemicals.

It may be that we need a more "mothering" approach in how we treat depression and other conditions that shatter our ability to bond -- PTSD being one. Somatic approaches to psychotherapy, like Peter Levine's Somatic Experiencing, employ strategies that first address a person's need for relative safety and a sense of presence in the world. In short: a return of embodiment ... and of feeling, of the sense of being alive.

Deeper than all thought runs the current of feeling ... the fuel that drives us to bond and to love. Feeling is what drove me up from and out of my bed this morning ... Feeling is what drives me to write, to communicate, to blend my voice with others.

Feeling extends our desire -- our intrinsic need -- to reach out to others and to receive them; feeling is what saves us. Feeling drove two of my cherished friends to reach out to me today after I reached out to them; they arrived at my home with the fixings for a big pot of chicken-veggie soup. Feeling drove me to ask one of those friends if I could lie on my couch with my head in her lap; feeling brought her hand to my head, which she stroked again and again. Feeling impelled me to sob with the relief of being touched, cradled, tended to. Feeling activated my appetite, and allowed me to eat ... and allows me to write with nascent courage, to extend my own experience to yours, dear reader.

How will you mother yourself today? How will you stay?


  1. Thank you so much for this post, Alexa. After our conversation yesterday, I returned to this to read it again, more thoroughly. There are some amazing changes happening in the world right now and you and I are both part of that process. Thank you so much for being here. Thank you for sharing, for feeling, for BEING.

  2. Ditto on all counts, Ellen ... the thanks, amazing conversation and changes, being here ... Being!