Perhaps 15 minutes ago I awoke from another dream featuring characters and scenes from my adolescence. I was wandering around in the upstairs rooms I enjoyed as a teenager in our house in Richardson, TX, and my longtime-schoolmate Joel Efrussy was there. I was explaining to him in an expert tone my theory of the causal link between certain types of coat-hangers and various disease-states--some types of coathangers could cause anemia, for instance. My tone was sardonical, and Joel understood it to be sardonical, but both of us winked at the joke and played along, he nodding and grunting appreciatively, and I gesturing and expounding dramatically. During the discourse I wandered back and forth between my sitting room and my bathroom, changing clothes, and I definitely remember that at one point I was talking to him with my pants around my ankles, wearing only boxers besides. I was at ease in this condition, but he was not. Before he left he regarded me with concern and asked if I were abusing cocaine, and I assured him that I had not taken cocaine in a very long time. After he left it seemed like a lie, and I had to reassure myself again that, no, I was not abusing cocaine.
Which is the last thing I remember before awaking, again myself at 30. In the foggy transition state that is more waking than sleeping but not very clearly either, I was assailed by a sense of nostalgia for friends and associates from high school--Joel, Lindsey Grayson, Melissa Henry. I could not, at the time, remember Melissa's name, but I did remember catching mononucleosis by kissing her, which led eventually to my two-years-long bout with tonsilitis and associated health problems, and which I mark as the beginning of the depression which characterized most of my 20s and the origin of my taste for prescription painkillers. I began then to think of my mother, and of the fact that, at thirty, I am still the focus of her irrational anxiety, when it materializes, and of the responsibility that devolves upon me in that position. I had again the thought, which assails me in times of despair, that I was living only to protect my mother from the pain of my death, and that--somewhat shamefully I write it--once she were gone I would at last be free to die. Then the mounting pressure of despair was upon me, and I felt panic swell as I lay there in the darkness in the bed with my beloved, and in that moment even she I questioned, and some effort was required not to begin crying.
And I was reminded of a scene from Roman Polanski's film "The Tenant," in which the protagonist, played by Polanski himself, witnesses a similar emotional breakdown in a woman in a cafe who is, to him, essentially a total stranger. She is so far gone that she does not care whether she weeps publicly or not. After looking uncomfortable for a moment, he rises to the occassion, grips her by the arm, and says with appropriate concern, "You must not give in to despair." The sense of the scene (the mise-en-scene, maybe?), however, is that it's a hopeless effort and he is rather naive to try to help her. Still, I was comforted by the memory of the line--"You must not give in to despair"--and I think that is because it both offers practical advice to the desparate and, in its succinctness, in its familiarity, in its ethos, it suggests a commonality of experience which is the best balm for profound suffering: The sense that one is not alone in one's unhappiness. We all know the experience of despair. It is utterly common to the human condition, and the sin is not in feeling it, but in giving up in the face of it. There *is*, of course, a certain reward that comes to those who do give in to despair, but it is a bitter peace, and it is characterized by the kind of eagerness for death that culminates in suicide. Acceptance of death, of course, is a fundamental spiritual milestone, but I do not believe at present that total abnegation of hope is the correct route thereunto.
Which leads me to consider the sensation of despair: What is it? The adjective that first comes to mind, when I free-associate the word "despair," is "overwhelming," and I think if we were to examine the average English sentence containing the word "despair," very often the word "overwhelming" would appear nearby. Despair overwhelms us, in the sense that we feel powerless or hopeless before it. That, indeed, is the essence of despair--the obliteration of hope beneath a crushing wave of guilt, sadness, and anxiety. These emotions are the triple threat of depression: The afflicted person is guilty about the past, sad about the present, and anxious about the future. All three temporal faculties--memory, perception, and imagination--are colored by darkness. This taxonomy is interesting to me, in that, like all taxonomies, it suggests a systematic approach to the problem: To manage despair, we need healthy ways of responding to the past we remember, to the present we perceive, and to the future we imagine.Now, as I write, both the act of writing and the physiochemical transition from sleeping to waking have relieved me--the despair I felt on awakening has evaporated almost completely and I can see the potential of the day. This is a transformation I have to undergo almost every day of my life. Usually on waking (in the morning, at least), I am more or less miserable, and the temptation to retreat back into sleep, rather than face the uphill climb into consciousness, is strong, which is why I frequently sleep so late. If I am somehow obliged to be awake, I will eventually overcome my inertia and find my happy place again, but very often it takes an hour or two to get there. I have a hard time with afternoons, as well. My best times are the dusk-hours from 6 to midnight; this is the time that the earth seems most beautiful to me. This type of daily mood-cycle, again, is characteristic of the clinically depressed, although, like most of the qualities of that disease, almost everyone experiences it to a lesser extent. Thus we have "morning people" and "night people." This observation itself suggests a strategy: I should try to schedule my activities so that I can sleep during the times of day which are most unpleasant to me.
And that's what all this is about, ultimately: strategies. I was terribly afraid when I began this journal that it would be nothing more than an exercise in adolescent "whine-tasting"--a chance for me to come out and pray openly on the streetcorner like the Pharisees. BUt that's not what it is: It's about examining my emotions so I can find intelligent ways of coping with them. Did I make any progress today? I think so. Recognizing that I'm a night person and planning my days accordingly--that is, chiefly to avoid obligations in the afternoon--is a good one. Another useful trick is recognizing the difficulty of mornings for me and trying to plan to ease them: going to bed early, taking measures to ensure comfortable sleep, and doing something I enjoy first thing are all useful strategies in this regard. Also, the breakdown of phenomena into memory/perception/imagination is also a useful starting point--I should begin collecting positive mediations for each mode. I already have one: the guided mindfulness regime promulgated by Jon Kabat-Zinn is exactly a meditative exercise for improving the present. That may be the best place to begin.