November 13, 2014
Part 2: Light
— Calvin Luther Martin, PhD
In the dark before dawn the woods are quiet and still, as if waiting. My wife sleeps nearby; I hear her rhythmic breathing. We are camped in the Adirondacks.
Something has awakened me. I have no idea what it was. A moment later there is a roaring like wind in my right ear and the hearing in that ear vanishes. Just like that.
I shout for Nina to wake up. She’s groggy, trying to make sense of what I’m saying. As I squint at the sky and trees above me, everything begins spinning. Left to right, the universe scrolls past. I squeeze my eyes shut. The vertigo continues beneath the eyelids. “Nina, everything is spinning!” From inside her sleeping bag, her muffled voice gently urges me to go back to sleep.
By now I’m getting nauseous. Terrified, I peel off my sleeping bag and stand up. But I can’t keep my balance. I tell her I can’t stand up and I’m about to vomit.
Suddenly I feel her seize my arm, steadying me. No, I can’t walk to the car; I have no balance. She throws my arm over her shoulder and virtually carries me out.
The moon’s brightness hurts my eyes. While she goes back to collect our camping gear, I lean out the door and vomit. I black out.
This is how it began, my encounter with the mysterious force that would lead me by the hand, like a child, through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
In the weeks following, I would be unable to sleep. (I now understand why sleep deprivation is a universal method of torture.) Over the next months, I lost tens of pounds as my appetite disappeared. I wept easily. I was devoured by anxiety and a vague fear — of anything, including, as pitiful as it sounds, going down to the basement. I couldn’t tolerate being alone, and yet conversation was difficult and being in public was torture. (My hearing returned, I’m happy to report.)
Two or three months before this event, I had received an advance copy of a book I had just published — a book that would win an award. Now, flipping through it, I marveled that I had written this. “There isn’t a chance in hell I could write this, again,” I told myself.
Medical diagnosis: I’m suffering from acute depression triggered by what clinicians call a vestibular migraine — the cataclysmic experience that July night.
Yes, I sought help and was treated with anti-depressants and “talk” therapy by kind, good doctors. The meds and therapy were vital, essential. Even so, at first I didn’t want them. At first I didn’t feel I needed them. I thought I could push my way out of this with willpower. But I only got worse, and the darkness grew more ominous, more palpable. The psychic pain would become unbearable.
It was either meds or suicide.
Happily, meds and therapy worked — to a degree. A physician friend in Boston called every evening for 6 months, and we chatted for at least an hour. I’m embarrassed to think of the drivel I must have inflicted on the poor woman. She listened indulgently, gently coaxing me toward the “light.”
It’s the “light” I want to talk about, not clinical stuff. The anti-depressants afforded only the option of being healed; they couldn’t heal me of their own accord.
Tormented by darkness, only one power remained to me: the power to reject or embrace this. To “fight it,” I knew, would mean annihilation. To “embrace it,” though counter-intuitive, would lead me out of the darkness and back to being human once more.
“Embracing” is not what I would call faith, for you must understand that I had no faith in any particular outcome. This, after all, is the insidious logic of depression. All I knew was that I was captive to something of huge strength, and that whether I lived or died this mighty thing would continue to enfold me. This was surrender, not faith; the difference is consequential.
Very slowly I began to learn my first lesson: faith is not something I create. Faith is created within me, reinventing me even as it is given form.
From this there followed a second lesson. The Apostle Paul described an experience in one of his letters that can be roughly rendered, “To know as we are known.” It dawned on me that the Knower was demanding my attention. (Incidentally, I am not a Christian, nor am I “not a Christian.” I reject religious labels.)
It gradually occurred to me that the dramatic event in the woods and its aftermath — the horror I was now living — was but the latest in a series of messengers who, over a 50-year span, had struggled vainly to get my attention. I began to realize that what I imagined was a freak episode — a spectacular migraine bottoming out as clinical depression — was but the latest effort by the Knower to tear down my walls and reinvent me.
Pure Divine Love is no meek priest . . .
It will smash all your windows
And only then throw in the holy gifts.
It will allow you to befriend
Life and light and sanity —
And not even mind waking
To another day.
— Hafiz (14th-century Persian poet), trans. Ladinsky
Imagine it this way. When I was a child, something vaguely cosmic (for want of a better word) was quietly calling my name. I never paid much attention. In my mid-teens, seeing that calling my name was proving fruitless, it began gently pelting me with pebbles. I ignored them. Even so, in my teens I could feel the tendrils of depression creeping through my Garden of Eden, my life, though I paid little attention. The tendrils were actually a crucial signal, although, as I say, I refused to acknowledge it.
Into my twenties and thirties, the Knower resorted to using boards to whack me from behind. In my forties, I believe it knocked me down at least once with a 2×4. Still oblivious to what was going on, I got up, dusted myself off and pressed on.
Till the night in July when it atom-bombed me. Only then did I turn, look it in the eye and finally ask, “What do you want?”*
The answer was — silence. The silence as of the womb.
I began to sense I was in something dark and, yet, alive. That this dark, living space wished to re-shape me. That it knew me in a way I didn’t know myself, and it would take care of me. Let me emphasize: the experience was not warm and fuzzy, not cuddly. I was terrified much of the time.
Terrified, except for those periods when I simply surrendered. “Surrendered” doesn’t quite express what I’m getting at. In this cosmic womb, I felt I was being forced to change my shape, rather like the miracle of Nature wherein a caterpillar is reborn into a butterfly — from being earthbound to airborne. Now, bound hand and foot in a chrysalis, I was changing — I was being forced to change. I could go along with the change (embrace it) or dig in my heels and resist (fight it), though I knew that if I did the latter, I would remain stuck in this non-living (or barely alive) state of a chrysalis forever.
As I say, I surrendered. And as I did, there appeared to be a light in the darkness. A match was lit. A small, flickering flame. Sometimes it went out, but it was always relit by some unseen force — the Knower.
I let the Knower defeat me. Change me. A re-birthing, is the best way I can put it. A re-birthing into something I was not, before.
For one thing, I learned compassion in a way I’d never known it. I am still learning. I am still being reborn. I learned to pay attention to the small things, the little things I had overlooked before — what the scholar Frederick Turner has called “the joy of full presence.” What the poet Wallace Stevens called the “amassing harmony.” T.S. Eliot, the “still point.” I learned I was taken care of by something immense and benevolent and very very strong — strong enough to “nuke” me and then pick up the fragments and make me into something different.
I could go on, but you get the picture. I publish these essays on depression, understanding full well the shock of some readers by my revelation — but I have done it anyway.
I did it for the woman who contacted me, privately, after reading Part 1. “I, too, live this,” she confided. “I live it daily. I live in tears and darkness.” I did it to tell her, “You’re not alone.” And, “perhaps this is a re-birthing. Embrace it. Dance with it. And see where it wants to take you.”
I did it for the actor Robin Williams and the author David Foster Wallace. I did it for teenage girls who cut their arms, thighs, and bellies with razor blades. I did it for eight-year-old boys who tell their moms they want to kill themselves.
I am intrigued by Jesus of Nazareth. (Remember, I am not a Christian. I am merely a man with a soul.) He insisted that humans must be reborn — each of us, individually. St. Paul was reborn in a dramatic event on the road to Damascus — a cataclysmic encounter with the Knower. Deprived of his eyesight for a period. In the end, a new man. He embraced the experience; he let the Knower re-shape him.
Paleolithic societies (one of my academic specialties) had various means of “re-birthing” themselves throughout the course of life. You and I, don’t. If we do, we have devised these ourselves, privately, or as members of a select group, for modern society in general is bereft of such mechanisms. And yet thinkers like Carl Jung and other students of the human spirit have long argued that we, each of us, require continuous re-birthing. Without it we perish within.
Is cataclysmic depression a summons to re-birthing? Is low-level, simmering, decade-upon-decade depression a call to re-birthing? I believe it is. It was for me, anyhow. A re-birth I didn’t transact myself; I was merely clay in the hands of a potter. I remain clay in the hands of the Knower. This will never change. I hope and pray I will be constantly re-born.
Writing this has been intense. If you wish to talk about it, write to me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 518-651-2019. (If it means little to you and seems melodramatic, file it away for the day you get pelted by that pebble, or 2×4, or atom-bombed.) I’ll go out on a limb and say I think the experience is universal.
If it happens to you, don’t fight it. It may be a gift.
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes,
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the angel, who appeared
to the wrestler of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel,
(who often simply declined the fight),
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Man Watching,” trans. Robert Bly, in News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness, comp. Robert Bly (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980), pp. 121-122.