Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Third Time's the Charm!

When it comes to antidepressants, all I know is my own experience. Drug therapy always seems to be a contentious issue, at least among LDS people. Maybe that's because we have great faith in God and in our relationship with our Savior; we believe we can be healed by the power of God and through the Atonement. Sometimes, though, I think we forget that many of the medical miracles we are blessed with in our modern age are brought about by God's will and through his power. I remember hearing someone say in testimony meeting that Lasik surgery was a miraculous healing for them. Maybe antidepressants are the same kind of thing. Anyway, I have been on antidepressants three separate times in the past five years. Yes, I have spent more time on the drugs than off but I think that my going off and on again has given me a pretty good idea of how they work for me.

The first time: Four months after Number 1 was born I realized I was nuts (i.e. paranoid, vaguely suicidal, angry, constantly tired, unable to enjoy anything--even reading!, and anxious). After talking to my doctor I started taking 5mg of Lexapro every day. After a couple weeks, I was quite pleasantly surprised when one day I was able to walk past the razors in the bathroom and not have fleeting images of slit wrists (whether those wrists were mine or not, I don't know). Also, my back, neck and shoulders didn't hurt as much because I wasn't try to keep my body from its usual anxious trembling. However, I still cried a lot and would get so angry I'd have to scream myself hoarse in a towel or break things to be able to stop seeing red.

Unfortunately, I was quite embarrassed by my status as a person who has to take pills and thought my body should be able to manage itself (why do we all think our bodies are perfect just the way they are? I know I'm hoping that my freckles, along with my chemical imbalance, will be gone in the Resurrection). So I took them for what was supposed to be the shortest time advisable: 3 months. Turns out that was misinformation and you need to stay on an SSRI for at least 6 months once you start taking it. People who do less than that usually end up having a relapse. After three months I quit and felt horrible. My anger got worse and some of the violent thoughts returned. My paranoia started to creep back in. But, I started exercising and writing and running a book club and getting more sleep and my life felt very managable--except for a few depressed days here and there and my body-shaking anxiety and cup-shattering anger.

The second time: Then, I was delighted to discover, I was pregnant with Number 2. The pregnancy was pretty good until about 20 weeks. Then I started to have trouble disciplining Number 1. I was always coming down hard on her and I actually swatted her bum out of anger once. I also pushed her over once. These things were unacceptable to me and I couldn't understand how itwas happening. I loved her so much--I didn't want to hurt her and so far I hadn't really. But I had come close, far closer than I ever thought I would. It was obvious the potential was there. I waded out the last few months of the pregnancy hoping someone would ask me about my previous PPD experience and hoping I could deny it, but that they would press the issue and take it out of my hands. No one did--except for maybe my sister who encouraged me to start my medicine again. After a smooth delivery and first few weeks, when I did my best to act how I knew other mothers acted with their newborns, I lost control of my life. When Number 2 was about three weeks old I found myself screaming at her and Number 1. I would call my sister or husband and cry and yell and cry. I knew I wasn't being the mother God intended me to be. The guilt was horrible and I wasn't sure if I could trust myself. I went in for my three week PPD screening, which was standard at my new OB's office, and she told me that I had one of the highest depression scores she had ever seen. She sent me home with a perscription and several referrals and business cards for therapists.

This time I was on twice the dose I had been on before--I was taking 10 mg of Lexapro--and the difference was amazing. Not only did the violent thoughts disappear, but so did my anger. It was like I had been sleep walking for the last couple years and finally woke up. I had more patience and energy--I felt way better than I had during my first course of antidepressants. Turns out, I hadn't been on a big enough dose or taken them long enough to really get better. (I tried working with an LDS therapist but, oddly enough, she and I just didn't seem to understand each other.)

That time I stayed on them for a year. Then it was time to have the next baby and I weaned off them. I didn't recognize this at the time, but I don't think I was ready to quit taking them when I did. Once they were out of my system I became convinced that my husband was going to leave me (paranoia, again!) and that I was an unfit mother (guilt, again!). My anger came back, this time as door slamming and, yes, I did break some door frames. My anxiety was back too. One morning, I arrived at a preschool field trip crying and shaking so badly all the other mommies thought somebody had died. I couldn't bring myself to tell them that I was just freaking out because I was late.

The third time: We got pregnant with Number 3 right after that and I couldn't start taking my medicine again. So I joined the YMCA to get some exercise, which always helps, and opted for therapy, which also always helps. In therapy my new therapist (who was not LDS but was very open to learning about it through me) and I focused on my anger issues and did a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy to stop my guilt cycle and to help me stay out of the red zone. I loved it! I finally felt like I was understanding my emotions and was able to control them. That sense of self-mastery was new to me and really boosted my confidence. Maybe I wasn't actually deperssed! Maybe I just had poor emotional skills! Ha, ha, ha. Depression is like a bad rash--once you think it's gone it just starts itching somewhere else. By my the third trimester I was on my way downhill and, even though I felt like a failure for it, I started taking my medicine two weeks before the baby was born.

That failure feeling didn't last long. Since we were able to head it off at the pass, my depression wasn't too bad. Being on the pills this time just made me feel groovy. I no longer had the pressing need to finish everything on my to do list before the baby was born. And even after Number 3 was born, instead of worring about how I'd repay them, I was happy to let other people bring me dinner. So what if the laundry was wrinkled and the dishes were never all the way done? I wasn't crazy and I liked that.

I'm still on the medicine right now. I don't know when I'll stop taking it. I feel good and pulled together and my family needs me to be that way. After all, you know the old saying, "When Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." Well, this mama doing all right.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I Don't Go to Therapy to Find out if I'm a Freak

Something I really appreciate are songs that are about something other than falling in love. Not that falling in love is bad. It's great. It's just that there are so many other things in this world to think about. So why not set some of those things to music?

One day, in a fit of teenage rebellion, I stumbled on one of those rare not-about-love songs when I went to Hastings and bought a Lilith Fair cd. I found it on the used rack for a massive discount and just holding it made my palms sweat. I kept thinking of all the subversive material it might possibly contain. After all, there were some songs by the Indigo Girls and they were, well, you know, lesbians. I kept thinking of the day my brother brought home an Alanis Morisette cd and the way my parents reacted.

But, for the moment, I was a being a rebellious teenager so I bought it and furtively listened to it late at night in my room. A lot of the songs were too arty or too angst-y for my delightfully sheltered Mormon brain. However, there were some songs that really resonated with my inner rhythms--an awesome arrangement of "Eternal Flame" was one of them. (I'm too young to know the '80s version of it, so that cd was my first exposure to that fabulous teenage love song.)

Another of my favorites was a song by Dar Williams called "What do You Hear in These Sounds". Perhaps my liking of the song was a premonition because when I heard Williams' throaty and vulnerable voice croon the first line, "I don't go to therapy to find out if I'm a freak," I knew I had found a personal anthem.

So, since I think putting the actual song on here would be some sort of copyright infringement and I'm afraid of going to jail, I'm posting the lyrics for you all to enjoy. Well, and to be honest, I have no idea how to put a song on my blog. I just barely figured out how to put my picture on here. And my husband had to help with that. So, go to Itunes and look up Dar Williams "What do You Hear in these Sounds" so you know what it's supposed to sound like--it's on there I checked :)


I don't go to therapy to find out if I'm a freak
I go and I find the one and only answer every week
And it's just me and all the memories to follow
Down any course that fits within a fifty minute hour
And we fathom all the mysteries, explicit and inherent
When I hit a rut, she says to try the other parent
And she's so kind, I think she wants to tell me something,
But she knows that its much better if I get it for myself...

And she says ooh, aah, what do you hear in these sounds?
And, ooh, aah what do you hear in these sounds?

I say, "I hear a doubt, with the voice of true believing
And the promises to stay, and the footsteps that are leaving."
And she says "Oh." I say "What?" She says "Exactly."
I say, "What, you think I'm angry
Does that mean you think I'm angry?"
She says, "Look, you come here every week
With jigsaw pieces of your past.
It's all on little sound bites and voices out of photographs.
And that's all yours, that's the guide, that's the map.
So tell me, where does the arrow point to?
Who invented roses?"

And, ooh, aah what do you hear in these sounds?
And, ooh, aah what do you hear in these sounds?

And when I talk about therapy, I know what people think
That it only makes you selfish and in love with your shrink
But, oh, how I loved everybody else
When I finally got to talk so much about myself.
And when I wake up and ask myself what state I'm in
I say, "Well I'm lucky, cause I am like East Berlin."
I had this wall and what I knew of the free world
Was that I could see their fireworks
And I could hear their radio.
And I thought that if we met, I would only start confessing,
And they'd know that I was scared,
They'd know that I was guessing.
But the wall came down and there they stood before me
With their stumbling and their mumbling
And their calling out just like me.

And, ooh, aah, The stories that nobody hears
And, ooh, aah, and I collect these sounds in my ears
And, ooh, aah, that's what I hear in these sounds
And, ooh, aah, that's what I hear in these
That's what I hear in these sounds.

Monday, February 18, 2008

One of those days

Today is one of those days. I'm feeling low. (I've wanted to write about feeling depressed while I was feeling depressed, so here's an effort. I usually give up on these posts cause they read so horribly, but since I've wanted to try it, I guess I will.)

I was feeling pretty good this morning, but for some reason today just got harder and harder as it went on. And it's not like anything really happened. I just got bogged down in the minutiae. You know, no matter how much housework I did this morning the house is destroyed before dinner. It doesn't matter that a magazine wanted to buy a poem, all I can think about is how I'm having writer's block on the next one. It doesn't matter that my girls played for almost thirty minutes this morning without arguing (a new record!), all I can think about is how grouchy they were during family scripture study. It doesn't matter that the baby had a good nap and is beginning to settle into a routine, all I can think about is how he cried and cried at the gym and I'll probably have to cancel my membership. Or wake up at the crack of dawn to exercise. And then it just feels like a flood or a box or something closing in on me and swallowing me.

On days like today I just feel like a failure at everything--as a mother, a wife, a writer, a friend, everything. That feeling of failure is like having quicksand inside. It just opens up and sucks everything inside it, getting bigger as it does. By the end of the day I just feel empty and achy.

Tonight I filled the ache with Thin Mints. Well, I stopped at seven because noshing out on cookies just felt like another failure. So I filled the ache with television. Which actually worked pretty well. Most people in TV shows (at least the ones I like) are depressed. Take Scrubs for example, the show is funny and depressing at the same time--although I do mute it everytime the Todd walks on; he's icky. I'm not sure how the writers do it, but the strange mix ameliorates the ache. Or at least distracts me from it. It's a good thing I'm Mormon or I'd probably have a substance abuse problem.

I guess the weird thing is that in my head, I keep hearing all those hymns and Sunday school lessons that say I should pray or read my scriptures or do something church-y to make myself feel better. But, honestly, I don't want to. It just seems too hard. A lot of the time those things actually make it hurt more. Odds are, praying about today would only make me cry and I'm not sure what good crying would do. It might just work me up more, especially because the feelings don't make a lot of intellectual sense. I don't know how to pray about it. Reaching out that way just opens it up more--like pulling the scab off a wound.

When I was in therapy the sessions all ended too quickly and I was always stirred up inside. I would sit in the car and feel shaky all over, trying to transition back into being the mom. I needed to take all the things that had been let out and put them away again, that way I could be the one who didn't have a lot of needs because my children had (have!) a lot of needs and failing them would be something I would never recover from. I would always picture my worked-up-self in a beautiful white room. The room was all full of light and had the most comfortable bed in it--like if the celestial room was a bedroom, that's what the room in my head looked like. I would picture myself laying down in that peaceful room and just going to sleep. Just imagining that setting helped calm me down. And somehow that feels spiritual to me. It's not scripture reading or anything traditional but it reminds me of God's love and that seems important. He's with me in this even if I don't know how to feel Him. And that's important.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Something everyone should know about depression

So I orginally started this blog because I wanted to start a conversation about what it's like to be LDS and have depression. I felt like there were a lot of stereotypes out there and that members had the wrong idea of what depression was. I really wondered why people didn't talk about it more, didn't try to explain it.

Well, now I know--or at least I have a better idea of why. Turns out it's hard! I do a lot of blogging about books and other literary subjects because it's lot easier than writing about being depressed. I have a few posts about my depression, but I never seem to be able to finish them. Sometimes writing about it alleviates the feelings, but sometimes it intensifies them. Or I find I am simply incoherent when talking about depression. It is a real challenge to put all those things into words.

However, I do feel that being depressed has had an effect on my life and on my testimony. So I guess I'll keep trying.

So here's something that I think everyone should know about depression: Depression isn't just being sad or laying in bed all day. That is how a lot people experience depression, but many depressed people also experience uncontrollable anxiety and anger. That's happens to be my issue.

I guess you could say that I technically have postpartum depression because that was when I was first diagnosed. But I think I had depressed periods as a teenager and I was definitely depressed while I was pregnant. The way I describe my condition to myself is that I have moderate depression with anxiety and some OCD tendencies. (I recently added the part about OCD after reading The Imp of the Mind and finding out that PPD is often characterized by OCD-like "bad thoughts" and coping mechanisms.) That's just what I call myself. Actually, there is no official diagnosis of "moderate depression", but I like the term so I use it. The actual diagnosis is dysthymia, but since nobody knows what that is I'll stick with my term.

So that is the depression fact for the day. You don't have to be laying in bed and avoiding people to be depressed. Sometimes it's the anger and anxiety that define depression.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Problems of the Present or Being Pushed Past Knowing

My absolute favorite Relief Society talk was given a few years ago during our stake's annual women's conference. I don't remember the theme and I can only vaguely recall some rendition of "O Divine Redeemer" being the special musical number, but I do remember the keynote speakers.

It was a mother and daughter. The mother lived in our stake and her daughter had grown up out here and then moved to Utah--Riverton, I think. As they shared their story they switched back and forth and supplemented with pictures projected onto a screen behind them. The daughter, who was a young married twenty-something and the mother of two children, had been born with a kidney problem. It had been only a minor issue until she was about to graduate high school. It was then that they discovered her kidneys were in such bad shape that she would have limited health and most likely never be able to support a pregnancy. It was horrible news, but they went on with their lives.

The daughter eventually met a wonderful young man who said he would marry her regardless of the state of her kidneys. After they were married, much to their surprise, they were strongly prompted to have a baby. Against the advice of doctors they followed the prompting and got pregnant. Things went much better than expected and in the end both the mother and child were healthy. However, the doctor warned the young woman that her kidneys had had all they could take and she'd better not try again.

So, they began to plan for adoption, when again the unmistakable prompting came to get pregnant. After praying and fasting, they again conceived. The pregnancy was difficult, but the baby was born healthy. Unfortunately, the young mother was not. Her weak kidneys were in a desperate state and she was immediately started on dialysis and put on the organ donation waiting list.

The older mother, the one who lived in our stake, traveled out to Utah during the week to help her daughter with the dialysis and then came home on the weekends to take care of things at home. She did this for months until it got too difficult and it was decided that perhaps other people could pitch in a little. Providentially, the young mother's visiting teacher got laid off and was suddenly free during the days to take her to dialysis. Then a neighbor's work schedule changed so that she could watch the two young babies. Meals were brought in, fasts were held, prayers were said, and finally, an answer loomed on the horizion.

Unbeknowst to the young mother, her mother had been going through the testing process to see if she could give her daughter a kidney. She passed the intial test and began the next round. As she waited for the results she called the young mother and they had a family fast--what they were fasting for, they weren't sure, but they knew they needed the Lord's guidance.

The older mother, thankfully, was a match. And she immediately flew out to Utah for the procedure. There was a lot that could have gone wrong, but the operation went off without a hitch and both women healed completely. And again, the Church network of home teachers, visiting teachers, and other compassionate servers came through by giving blessings, bringing meals, watching children, and cleaning houses. In fact, it had been a couple years and things were going so well they had begun looking into adopting another child.

As the women spoke it was all very inspirational. To hear how they struggled and kept the faith had many listeners in tears, but that is not why it was memorable to me. As I listened, I kept thinking, "Well, of course, you had faith. Everything worked out. But how would you have felt if the pregnancies hadn't been successful or if the kidney hadn't been a match? Or what if your visiting teachers weren't there for you? Then what?" Now, my thoughts may have been more cynical than they should have been, but I think those are important questions. To be in that situation must have been horrible; I can only imagine how emotionally and physically painful it was. But still, things worked out for them and for a lot of people they don't. Plenty of people don't get the organ they need or don't have the support system necessary to weather that kind of storm. Then what happens to their faith? We certainly don't hear from them in a testimony meeting or ask them to speak at our firesides.

So now comes the memorable part. After the young mother had borne her final testimony and sat down, it was her mother's turn. As she stood up at the podium she got very teary eyed and testified to the Lord's blessings and how they had seen His hand in their lives. But, she said, there was one more thing they needed to tell us. The day before the young mother had flown out for the conference she had gotten some bad news from her doctor. Her kidneys were fine, but the rest of her was not. She had cervical cancer and it had begun to spread. The day she returned to Utah she was supposed to start treatment. As both women began to cry, the older mother admitted that it didn't seem fair and she wasn't sure why this was happening. It raised a lot of questions for her, but she was going to do her best just like she had done before. Neither of them offered any platitudes or statements of false hope. In fact, they both looked haggard and a bit scared. But they also looked determined. And that was what was memorable to me.

Looking back on that now, I am struck by their courage. For most of us it is very easy to talk about our problems in the past tense. When things are over and done we can assign them meaning and purpose. When it all works out we can then see the Lord's hand in our lives. But how many of us can do that in the present moment? In the midst of extreme trials, how many of us can honestly face them with such a determined faith that we can admit to being unsure? How many of us can be so candid as to say that we don't know, but that we still hope? I think more often than not part of the test of life is come to know the truth, to know our Savior. But maybe sometimes the real test is to be pushed past our knowing and see if we are still willing to hope.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Truth is BETTER than Fiction!

My two most recent books have me convinced: real life stories are way better than made up ones. When I read fiction, especially tightly crafted fiction, I always ask myself, "So what?" As in, "So this or that thing happened; what does it mean? How does it change the characters/plot/ themes?" In bad fiction the answer seems to be, "Because the author felt like it," or "I don't know." In well done fiction the answer leads to more questions and more connections and, when I really like the book, makes me feel a little giddy. However, it's still a process--it's work--the story and I are interacting and changing each other and my mind is constantly trying to make meaning out of it all. (Other readers don't have this problem, from what I understand. This is what I get for having a literature degree!) In non-fiction, the process becomes more intuitive less intellectual--especially with memoir. With memoir I am able to explore someone else's experiences and feelings and my own reactions to them in an intimate and safe way. I don't have to question so much. My brain doesn't whir like a hamster on a wheel trying to keep track of things. The words and story just wash over me--and inside me--and change me. (I also feel this way about top notch fiction. All of my favorite books have this effect on me.) Perhaps the process of writing and memoir facilitates these kind of connections. It is, after all, quite therpeutic to spend so much time contemplating your navel.

Anyway, literary digressions aside, the two books I read were: Not In Vain: the inspiring story of Ellis Shipp, pioneer woman doctor by Susan Evans McCloud and I'm Eve: the compelling story of the internationally famous case of multiple personality by Chris Costner Sizemore and Elen Sain Pittillo.

Not In Vain is an out-of-print biography by the Susan Evans McCloud, the woman who penned the hymn "Lord, I Would Follow Thee." While the text is sometimes melodramatic and McCloud is a bit sentimental for my taste, she clearly writes with great admiration for Ellis Shipp and with great charity for the other people in the book. Ellis Reynolds Shipp crossed the plains as a child and was raised in near poverty until she is taken in by Brigham Young and given the opportunity to go to school. She begins school but can't seem to focus because she falls in love with a man ten years older than her. Against the counsel of Brigham Young she eventally marries her sweetheart and subsequently has children. Her husband, Milford Shipp, was a mercurial man who could never quite settle on a vocation. His heart seemed to gravitate towards charity and missionary work, which would have been fine had he been called to take on plural wives. The family, though blessed by the Lord for their faithfulness and diligence, struggled immensely in their early years and many of the children died. (Over the course of her life Ellis lost five of the ten she bore.) Most likely because of these deaths, Ellis felt strongly about becoming educated as a family practice and obstetric doctor. So, leaving two small children behind she left for Philadelphia and, even though she concieved a child during her schooling (Milford came to visit!), eventually graduated. Ellis returned to Utah as the second woman doctor to practice in that state. She was eventually able to support herself and children and the other wives and their children while Milford dabbled in different careers and served missions for the Church.

What struck me most about her story was how modern it was. If you factor out all the train rides and antiquated medical jargon, Ellis Shipp was a woman trying to do it all. She was having babies, raising a family, working, and trying to support her husband. She often had her older children work the reception area and tend the little ones while she worked in the exam room! I guess the habit of Mormon women trying to do it all at once started early in our history.

The second book, I'm Eve, was written by the woman who was the subject of The Three Faces of Eve. Written with her closest friend and cousin, this book gives the "insider view" of multiple personality disorder. It is a straightfoward and careful manner book, gripping in its detail. Without melodrama it takes the readers through all the ups and downs of Christine Costner's life--and the twenty-plus alters who accompany her on that journey. I found it harrowing to be inside her head and ended up feeling fairly overwhelmed by her sadness.

The book ends on a hopeful, though realistic, note. At the end of the book Christine says, "I loosed the tiger. . . I know who I am. But, as [my psychologist] says, we know not what the future holds." I really appreciated that sentiment. Fairly often I feel that I have my depression "figured out." Sometimes I even decide it's not as bad as it really is or that it's over or that it's not real and I won't be depressed anymore. I suppose this is more like wishing than actual rational thought, but either way I end up in denial about my problems. Of course, depression is real and I do end up feeling bad again--sometimes worse than others. I often get overwhelmed and act out by yelling at my kids or husband and/or breaking something (like a mug or my sunglasses). Then the guilt sets in and I realize that I do have a problem and I need to be responsible for it. I need to take my medicine, exercise, pray, read my scriptures, and get plenty of sleep. It's a lot of maitenance, but it's got to be done. So I guess that's why I appreciated Christine's sentiment. It seemed to me like she was being grateful for the peace she was currently experiencing but also being mindful of her past troubles and trying to prepare for the future. Being grateful and wary at the same time is a difficult balance to strike and it was meaningful to see someone who encountered nearly insurmountable obstacles figure that out--at least for a little while. She has another book that was published around ten years later so I guess there's more to her story. But I don't know if I'll read it. . . it just makes me sad for her.

Anyway, 8 books down, 44 to go. Page count: 2,699.

Monday, February 11, 2008

An Old Family Favorite

A recent post on Blog Segullah really got me thinking.

The deepest, and scariest, depression I ever experienced occurred right after my oldest was born. I had been mildly depressed while pregnant and I really went south after the difficult birth. My baby was a sensitive, colicky little one and the only thing I seemed to be able to do about her cry was to start crying myself.

One late night when she was about a month old I was sitting in her dreary apartment nursery in the dark crying, which was beginning to be a daily occurence, and hoping that the neighbors wouldn't start complaining about her wailing. I was exhausted and confused and all I wanted to do was to sleep--preferably until my baby was at least a year old. As her crying overwhelmed me and the room began to feel smaller and smaller, I knew I was coming unhinged inside and I was scared. Frantically, fervently, I prayed, "Dear God, give me something. Throw me a bone. What can I do?"

The answer seemed so nonsensical I doubted it was any answer at all. After all, only a single word had occured to me: Sing. Weren't promptings supposed to be more than that?

I searched my memory for what on earth I could squeak out of my tear-drenched mouth. The song my mind seemed to settle on had been a family favorite for generations. When I was eight years old my father had actually paid me $5 to learn to play it on the piano. Family members had sung it at funerals, mission farewells, and reunions. It seemed like a logical choice--really like the only choice. I took a deep breath.

"As I have loved you, love one another." I hicupped between the phrases. "This new commandement: Love one another." Imagining the flowing accompanient, I tried to smooth out my own voice. "By this shall men know ye are my disciples, if ye have love on to another."

Remembering something I had read in a parenting magazine I positioned my still crying baby on my chest and started again hoping the bodily vibrations of my singing would combine with the sound to calm her. I sang the song again. And again. And . . . my baby kept crying.

But what was amazing to me was that I felt calmer. Maybe it was the meaning of the song combined with all the memories of my family singing it that did it. Maybe it was a blessing from the Lord for following a prompting. Maybe it was both, but whatever it was for a moment that I wasn't alone. For the duration of that song I didn't feel quite as bereft of hope.

I was grateful for those feelings, but I wondered why the Lord didn't give me an answer that would calm my baby. Maybe nothing would have calmed her that night or maybe I needed to suffer through her sadness with her. I wasn't sure, but I kept singing it to her every time she needed to go to sleep. She still cried a lot, but after a couple weeks the song began to be familiar enough to her that she would stop and listen. And then at eight weeks, wonder of wonders, she tried to sing a long. As I bounced her and patted her back and sang, she tried to catch my eye. I slowed down a little and gazed, probably for the first time, into her chocolate eyes. (When I am in the midst of a depressive episode I hate to look at people's faces, especially their eyes.) As our eyes met her impossibly small lips made a perfect O and she ooed along with me. My heart swelled with awe as I listened to her voice and I thought to myself, "This must be what other mothers feel all the time."

We haven't sang that song together for a long time--she chooses other songs at bedtime now-- but I still love it and I think she does too. Hopefully, it is somewhere inside her so that when she needs some comfort it will be there for her like it was for me.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

How much is enough?

So I picked up a bunch of novels about a week ago at the library. I was a little nervous because I usually don't like novels. Well, to be more accurate, I like them but I could never actually admit to reading them because I wouldn't recommend them to anybody else.

Example: One Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. I LOVED this book. It was such a thought provoking and amazingly crafted novel. Having studied King Lear a couple times in college and attending some different performances, reading this modernization of Shakespeare's play was mind blowing. Every detail was perfect. It was obvious why it had won the Pulitzer. It was also heartbreakingly sad and put me in a funk for about a week after finishing it. And I had even skimmed the disturbing parts.

So, one of the novels I picked up last week was like A Thousand Acres. It's called Ahab's Wife and it is an amazing novel. Over six hundred pages long, it was inspired by a paragraph in Moby Dick. Since it's neither a sequel nor a prequel, I guess you could call it a companion novel. The book is beautifully crafted, rich in sensory details and the title character, Una, is not one I'm likely to ever forget. However, after reading about one abusive father, two suicides, three dead babies, the gory process of hunting, slaughtering, and rendering whales, and a stint with cannibalism, I had to put the book down.

Which brings me to my question: How much is enough? When reading, all the action happens in your head and is limited to what you know and percieve. The text can enhance what you know and percieve but it can't give you what you don't already have. Take color for example. Imagine if you had been born seeing only black and white. No amount of description could explain red. All you would understand is the shade of gray that represents red in your mind. Whale rendering and cannibalism pretty much work like that for most readers. But abusive parents, dead babies, and suicide don't. And, if the writer is worth the paper their novel is printed on, they will make the things you can't relate to (like cannibalism) relatable (which the author does by comparing it to an earlier portion of the book where Una eats a goat she has raised since it's birth). Cannibalism is still a shade a of gray for me, but that doesn't mean I want to read about it.

So again, how much is enough? How much description is enough? As the author, how do you know how much sadness is enough? As a reader how do you know how much horror you can take?

And really, is there any way to know how much is enough before you've had too much?